Ayacucho, Peru – While we waited for the elevator at the Museum of the Nation in Lima last week, my companion – a middle-aged Peruvian photographer – requested confirmation from a museum employee that the terrorists were on the sixth floor. The employee nodded.
“The terrorists” turned out to be shorthand for an exhibit tracing the history of the Peruvian state’s war with Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), the Maoist guerrilla group that emerged in 1980 and that was largely subdued in the 1990s during the reign of President Alberto Fujimori. Persistent strains have however provided valuable opportunities for Israeli private security companies and other entities interested in profiting from a continued struggle.
The photographer inserted bits of his own personal history into the timeline of Peruvian terrorism, such as his compulsory military service in the impoverished region of Ayacucho, birthplace of Sendero as well as of the majority of persons killed in the ensuing armed conflict. Of the 69,000 estimated by Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to have perished, 75 per cent are said to have been Quechua-speaking civilian peasants.
The photographer’s parents hailed from Ayacucho themselves, but were residing in Lima at the time of Sendero’s descent upon their village. According to him, the guerillas’ first step was to slaughter in gratuitous fashion anyone who might qualify as an “authority of the state”, which apparently included the man whose job it was to apprehend and corral animals interfering with village crops and to then inform and collect a fine from the families to whom the animals belonged.
Though the photographer ultimately cast the Peruvian armed forces’ subjection of villages in Ayacucho to collective punishment as a logical reaction to the nature and manoeuvres of the enemy, he did acknowledge that the practice produced ethical unease.
As Peruvian filmmaker Amanda Gonzales pointed out to me a few days after my visit to the sixth-floor terrorists, “terrorism” was also a suitable description for the “meat-grinder” tactics employed by the military against civilian populations, the raping of women by soldiers, and the massacring of university professors and students by death squads linked to the state.
She added dryly that denouncing the state’s behaviour as terroristic additionally qualified as terrorism in certain circles.