Thursday, 28 August, 2003|
Peruvians wait for answers
By Hannah Hennessy
BBC correspondent in Ayacucho, Peru
Arquimedes Mendoza was a 19-year-old student when he was dragged from his bed and away from his family by hooded soldiers carrying assault rifles 20 years ago.
Mama Angelica has waited 20 years to know the fate of her son
Since then, his mother has been trying to discover what happened to him.
Mama Angelica hopes Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission will answer her questions.
"I want to find my son. Is he dead? Is he alive? Did they bury him? What did they do to him? That's what I want them to tell me," the 73-year-old said in a mixture of Spanish and Quechua, the language of many of Peru's indigenous communities.
Dressed in the traditional shawl and white high crowned hat, the pain of memory etched on her face, Mama Angelica described how she would visit the mountains on the outskirts of Ayacucho.
There she searched in vain for Arquimedes, among piles of mutilated bodies, guarded by soldiers.
Many of the bodies belonged to students who, like Arquimedes, attended the local university, viewed by the military as a rebel stronghold.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is delivering its findings after a two year investigation into violence by government-backed troops and left-wing rebels.
It is expected to say that at least 40,000 people disappeared or died between 1980 and 2000, although the exact number of victims may never be known.
But one thing is certain. The colonial city of Ayacucho and its surrounding region of rugged mountains and jungle-cloaked valleys, experienced the worst of the atrocities.
Mama Angelica, who heads a group of relatives of those who died or disappeared, says she believes 20,000 people from this area were killed during Peru's own "dirty war" and more than 5,000 are still missing.
Many of them were poor indigenous people who spoke Quechua.
It was a time of terror for this Andean city, the birthplace of the brutal Shining Path insurgency and the focal point of the government's attempts to quash it.
People remain sceptical of the commission's outcome
Both sides resorted to savagery. The Maoist rebels terrorised the local people, massacring those who refused to join their fight. Government forces tortured, abducted and often killed those it suspected of sympathising with the rebels.
Many people in Ayacucho became victims of both sides.
Feliciana Quispe Huamani was one of them. She said her husband, three brothers and brother-in-law were killed or abducted by government troops. Her sister was murdered by the Shining Path.
"For my part, they took me to the military base at Huancapi. There they made me suffer greatly. They tortured me, raped me and imprisoned me and my two daughters," she said, her voice trembling with sorrow.
Like many of Peru's indigenous people, who have often been treated as second class citizens in this country, she is suspicious of the government-backed Commission.
Ayacucho suffered some of the worst atrocities
"We want justice. Who's going to give it to us? Who's going to let us know who killed them, where they took the prisoners? Why did they kill my husband? That's we want to know. The Truth Commission hasn't investigated well."
Almost a generation after Ayacucho's nightmare began, a relative peace seems to have returned to its streets. The sound of Quechua, the local language of the Incas, fills the air.
Here peasants sell homemade clothes and food on the dusty streets, while tiny children with toothless grins tug at the clothes of passers by, begging for money.
But the people are tormented by the past and say they cannot let go until they see truth and justice done. Mama Angelica and Feliciana Quispe Huamani know this may well be a long way off.
In Quechua, Ayacucho means "the corner of the dead". The people here will always know what it means to live in a place of that name.