Truth, Reconciliation, and Representation of the Peruvian Armed Conflict
By Caroline Kuritzkes
Carved into the city’s bedrock, the Lugar de la Memoria, Tolerancia y Inclusión Social lies nested in the mouth of a cliff suspended over Lima’s western coast. This Place of Memory literally emerges from the earth, requesting, if not commanding, that its witnesses participate in a kind of excavation––historical, natural, civilizational. Though some Limeños opt to identify the space by a nickname––the LUM––over the official title selected by members of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a single, unmistakable injunction saturates every filament of a site at once exposed to and concealed from the elements: the injunction to remember.
It is no accident that the LUM’s design is almost tomb-like. Its project is one of unearthing, in which memory and architecture collide with full force. Inaugurated by the Ministry of Culture in December 2015, the LUM is dedicated to memorializing victims of the Peruvian armed conflict, an internal war that persisted for more than twenty years. In 1980, the Shining Path guerrilla organization launched a program of Communist Revolution through the militarized demolition of the Peruvian state. The Peruvian government responded to the group’s ballot burnings, targeted killings of local politicians, and indiscriminate terror with a counterinsurgency effort that was just as repressive as it was sloppy. A prolonged military crackdown swept indigenous communities ensnared in Shining Path territory and targeted students suspected of Leftist activism––often through detention, execution, and torture. According to the 2003 Truth Commission, the conflict left 70,000 dead or disappeared: 20,000 attributed to state security forces, 31,000 to the Shining Path, and the remainder to local militias or smaller guerilla groups. In 2009, Alberto Fujimori––the Peruvian president who presided over the second decade of the conflict––was sentenced to thirty years in prison for ordering two civilian massacres carried out by the Colina Group, a paramilitary death squad. The ruling marked the first time in recent history that a democratically-elected head of state was tried, convicted, and sentenced for human rights violations in his country’s own national court.
Despite this ounce of justice, the memory of brutality is still deeply felt. “The civil conflict was very painful for the indigenous people,” says Hilaria Supa Huamán, a Peruvian politician, former congresswoman, and activist for indigenous and women’s rights who advocated for the LUM’s construction. “When the army came…there was so much terror. The soldiers had no mercy for women or children––not even for women who were pregnant. They made people dig their own graves and then shot them.” The violence she denounces was carried out at the hands of state security forces. “Why was this happening? The state is supposed to be like a family: somos hermanos y hermanas. I believe it’s an issue of the state’s racial discrimination against indigenous people.”
Today, the stakes of portraying this history are especially high. Peru recently wrapped up a contentious election cycle, in which Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko Fujimori, lost a tight runoff race for the Peruvian presidency by only a fraction of a point. Her narrow loss has opened old wounds and new questions surrounding her father’s perpetuation of rights abuse, committed during the 1990’s. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 230,000 people out of half a million initially uprooted by Shining Path and government violence still remain displaced, as of December 2013. Huamán notes that thousands of migrants––predominantly of indigenous descent––who fled the Andean highlands seeking refuge in Lima’s outskirts have yet to find an adequate life within the capital’s orbit. Fears of the Shining Path’s resurgence are latent, while the material and psychological consequences of displacement have not been resolved.
In this political context, the LUM’s inauguration adopted a contentious face. Julio Cotler, an anthropology and political science researcher at the Institute of Peruvian Studies (IEP), ties the controversy surrounding the LUM to the disputed nature of the fighting itself. “The interpretation of the conflict has always been polemic, either in favor or against the government,” he says. “The idea of human rights was never an object of consensus.” Gustavo Gorriti, a journalist who was detained during the Fujimori regime as a consequence of his reporting, says that the ultra-right construed the LUM as an attack on the nation and armed forces. In the shadow of government-sanctioned rights violations, the Peruvian state now occupies a precarious position in a debate about collective memory, national security, and victimhood.
The question of how to represent the conflict not as a relic, but as an ongoing, living memory, has vexed the LUM’s architects and critics. “We’re not a museum, but an expository space,” says Diana Lavalle, a museography coordinator at the LUM responsible for curating exhibitions. “We think of ourselves more like a museum for reflection.” Her role with the LUM involves researching the conflict’s history, conceptualizing exhibits, and consolidating images, materials, and testimonies via requests to victims’ family members. One exhibit that she curated has taken on almost funerary proportions. Tucked toward the back of the second floor, victims’ possessions dot the façade of a twenty-foot high cubicle divided into a checkerboard pattern of glass boxes. Behind their clothes and blankets, photographs, watches, and identification cards lies a dark interior vacuum, empty apart for three stacks of small paper booklets containing stories and photographs of the disappeared. “People can leave candles and flowers there. The space is intended to be spiritual, but not necessarily religious. The idea was to make a space that could be reclaimed by the families of those who suffered.”
The LUM’s ostensible purpose of reclamation implicates not only Peruvian collective memory––namely in honor of the civilians who lost their lives to state-sanctioned violence–– but also who the LUM is meant to serve to begin with. According to the Truth Commission, 79% of the conflict’s victims lived in rural Peru, 75% were Quechua speaking, and 56% were subsistence farmers. The clash of Shining Path and government forces in predominantly rural, indigenous communities seems at odds with the LUM’s location in a metropolis that remained largely insulated from the conflict’s brutality. Indeed, Lima is a geographic barrier that poses a tradeoff between the site’s dual ritualistic and educational functions. “In my dreams, I would want a museum devoted to female testimonies that is located in the highlands, so that victims and their families can actually see it,” Huamán says. Lavalle notes that the LUM receives as many as 400 visitors per day on weekends, but most of them are students, tourists, and internationals. “How do we increase our visibility? Practically, there is no physical space that exists to remember the victims apart from Miraflores,” she observes, referring to the upscale commercial district in downtown Lima.
Decentering Lima from the story of the conflict bears political implications, especially when it comes to combating the relegation of Peru’s Andean and Amazonian communities to the peripheries of national concern. For years, public perception of the conflict was filtered through Lima as a prism––both because Lima has historically been the center of the country’s political and economic power, and because the charges that brought down Fujimori pertained to massacres that took place in the country’s capital. Still, the architects of the LUM have attempted to elevate rural and indigenous voices––by displaying narratives of violence and community resistance afflicting Amazonian and highland regions in exhibits closer to the entrance, while burying Lima’s involvement in more modest plaques on the second floor.
Other voices the LUM has sought to promote are those of women, in an effort to destabilize patriarchies surrounding female representation in warfare. “Above all, what’s important about the museum is the presence of gender,” Huamán says. “So many museums about conflict show the struggle and bravery of men, while the voices and fights of women are erased. This museum plays an important role in depicting [their] terrorization and persecution, but it also shows that these women––who had other modes of culture and thought––were fighters and organizers.” Huamán notes that the leadership of women is diffused throughout the entire museum, rather than sectioned off in a separate exhibit about female participation specifically––from testimonies reflecting gender parity to the blaring of mothers’ voices from speakers on the second floor, calling after disappeared husbands and sons.
Despite these attempts to recreate dynamic narratives of the conflict, Leftist critics like Gorriti question the LUM’s premise of memorialization to begin with. “What does memory have to do with reconciliation?” he asks, referring to the 2003 Truth and Reconciliation Commission that set the groundwork for the LUM’s construction. “Memory is about history and recovering the truth, but reconciliation is about compromise.” He points out that the marriage of memory and reconciliation has jeopardized efforts to ascertain the truth by depoliticizing debate in the wake of the conflict. “Memory is muscular. Remembering versus deconstructing memory––that is, noting what’s been forgotten––are two different things.” For the time being, it seems as though the LUM’s project is more concerned with the former.
Caroline Kuritzkes is a Junior History major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.