BY EMMA GOLDBERG
“Some think this is the big defeat. This is a bend in the road. Nothing more!” These were the ominous last words shouted by Peruvian rebel leader Abimael Guzman as he was put under arrest on September 12, 1992. With his arrest, the Maoist insurgency movement he had led—a terrorist group known as Shining Path, which advocated violent overthrow of the nation’s wealthy elites—fell into discord. But, as Guzman predicted, it did not die. The group’s terrorist activities live on today, even in postwar Peru.
The Peruvian civil war began in 1980, when Guzman, claiming to promote the interests of Peru’s impoverished rural underclass, called for a coup against the central government. The movement he led initiated a twenty-year guerilla campaign that brought widespread destruction—and the death of 77,552 civilians. These deaths were largely the result of Shining Path terrorist activities, though the government’s military action was also harmful to civilian populations.
The government claimed military victory over the rebels in 2000. And in the ten years since the civil war ended, much of Peru’s urban population has moved on. Aarti Daryanani ’15, who lives in Lima, said that most Peruvians, particularly those in major cities, do not encounter any of the damages wrought by the war in their day-to-day lives. She and her friends sometimes discuss the suffering that the peasant class endured throughout the war in the context of community service, but they rarely discuss the Shining Path, because the group no longer poses a danger to her community. Daryanani was born as the war was ending, and though her parents have told her stories of bombings near their home and violence on the streets of Lima, these memories seem distant to her—they’re history.
Today, though, much of the Peruvian rural population continues to live with deep fears of resurgent Shining Path violence. The rebels remain active in low-income communities in the mountainous Andean region, terrorizing peasants and capitalizing on the cocaine industry for profit. Though the Shining Path has many fewer active participants than at the height of its power, it is quickly recruiting members to its ranks, and the prospect of an eventual resurgence of violence seems real to those living in the countryside. “I’m convinced they want to resume the armed fight,” public prosecutor Julio Galindo told the New York Times in May 2012.
To peasants living in the Andean Mountains, the threat of the Shining Path feels salient, demanding an immediate response— but wealthier Peruvians in cities like Lima don’t feel the same urgency. Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein has been the leader of Peru’s largest Jewish congregation since 1985, and has been a major voice for progressive values among Peru’s wealthy elite. Bronstein says that because wealthy citizens, particularly business elites, no longer think about the brutality of the war, it is difficult to mobilize his congregation to discuss Peru’s problems with inequality and political instability.
“In Lima and major cities, people want to move on with their lives,” said Tyler Bridges, who served as the Miami Herald’s correspondent to Peru in the years following the civil war. “People in the mountains are the ones who remain really focused on peace and justice, because they were more directly affected by the war.”
The gap between the rural poor and the urban elite continues to widen, particularly in these populations’ attitudes toward the civil war. This divide appears to be in part the fault of Peru’s educational authorities. Said authorities have refused to take a proactive role in shaping the historical narrative of the war transmitted by educational institutions, and little effort has been made to memorialize the conflict in schools and public memorials or educate youth about the violence of the Shining Path. Angie Hanawa, a Yale student who lives in Lima, confirmed that her history classes in high school rarely addressed the country’s history of civil war and economic inequity.
But schools aren’t the only institutions capable of preserving the memory of war. The government has also avoided attempts at public commemoration through museums and monuments. Hanawa said she does not know of any museums in Lima that teach about the history of the war. In 2012, museum curator Fernando Carvallo announced plans to build a public center memorializing the conflict, which would be called Place of Memory and used as a means of educating youth about the events of the war. Authorities, however, refused to support his educational efforts—President Alan Garcia publicly announced his opposition to the memory museum, claiming in an Economist interview that the building would not “take all perspectives into account,” and Carvallo had to rely on foreign funding from the European Union.
“People don’t want to spend a lot of time reflecting on this violent part of our history,” Hanawa said.
The Peruvian government is not unique in its decision to avoid teaching about a history of conflict. According to Yale Political Science Professor David Simon, it is almost standard practice for war-torn nations.
“You would think that teaching a historical narrative would be an apolitical thing,” Simon said. “You would think political leaders would dedicate themselves to passing on an accurate account of history. But you really don’t see that happen anywhere at all.” Instead, according to Simon, countries tend to fight hotly-contested battles over the lessons of war. Often, governments choose not to teach about conflicts at all.
Government avoidance of war education is particularly prevalent in countries like Peru, where the state itself, in the name of counter-insurgency, played a large role in terrorizing civilian populations during the war. According to the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Peruvian government was responsible for approximately 45 percent of the civilian deaths that occurred during the war, because its aggressive military operations aimed to destroy the Shining Path’s presence in rural villages, even at the expense of innocent bystanders. For the government, commemorating the war might mean calling attention to its own abuse of the civilian population.
The Peruvian government’s refusal to focus funding on peace education and war commemoration is irresponsible, and a direct threat to the country’s unstable peace, according to Pamela Baxter, Peace Education Coordinator for the U.N. High Commission on Refugeees. While in the immediate term, education can be used to transmit life-saving messages to youth including information about trauma response and health, it also has important long-term functions. History has shown that a population more aware of its nation’s past will be better able to sustain post-war peace. In Rwanda, for example, school teachers are required to lead frequent class trips to educational centers commemorating the 1994 genocide, conveying to their students the truth of the country’s dark history.
“Society needs skills for a new beginning and behaviors that are constructive, positive, and based in Human Rights,” Baxter said. “Only a quality education system can provide that.”
Some activists have speculated that the government has avoided an emphasis on educational programs regarding the war because initiatives that commemorate peasants’ suffering often provoke demands for victim reparations—demands that the government has been dodging for years. But an ounce of prevention can sometimes be worth a pound of cure—especially when forgetting can bring about fatal sickness in a nation’s unsteady peace. In a 2012 interview with The New York Times Francisco Soberon, executive director of the Peruvian Pro-Human Rights Association, put his finger on the importance of post-conflict education in Peru.
“The fundamental thing about memory is that it has to help us prevent the rise of projects that can bring us back down that road of violence and terror,” Soberón said. “Memory acts like a vaccine.”
Daryanani said that she is not often forced to reflect on historical memories of the war. But she also knows that her everyday reality differs radically from that of peasants who remain exposed to the Shining Path’s violence.
“Everyone acknowledges the divide between those in cities and people in the mountains but I don’t see the government making much of an effort to close that gap,” Daryanani said. “Here in Lima, we’re not living in fear.”
But maybe they should be.
Emma Goldberg ‘16 is in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.