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After 30 Years, A Lone Peruvian Survivor Returns To The Site Of A Massacre

Remembering the victims of the Sendero Luminoso in Peru
Remembering the victims of the Sendero Luminoso in Peru
Filippo Fiorini

LIMA — When Dolores Guzman was contacted by investigators, it became clear to her that all of her efforts over the past 30 years to overcome the deaths of her family and fellow townspeople had been futile.

She agreed to leave the Lima street stand where she sells hard-boiled eggs and return to Paccha — now a ghost town in the Andes where, on July 14, 1984, she witnessed a massacre. Dolores was the only survivor among those captured — and the only hope of identifying the bodies of the 21 peasants killed by the Peruvian army, which had been hunting the Maoist guerrillas of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path).

They were all still there, piled underground, just like when she saw them die. "We traveled in the car all day, then we continued for another eight hours on foot," says Soledad Mostacero, an archeologist who just returned from a week at the high altitude, working with police, anthropologists and a psychologist.

In the 1980s, Peru's Communist Party — the Sendero Luminoso — morphed irreversibly into a terrorist organization that controlled 40% of the country. In the war that they fought against the state, in which 70,000 people died, the Ayacucho region was its stronghold. Hoping to avoid the violence, the indigenous community of Belen Chapi sought refuge in the mountains.

"It took them two days to come up here," says Doctor Calcina, another member of the expedition, "but then the army caught up with them. They had been here long enough to build cabins and clear a glade for growing vegetables."

Mostacero recalls that the survivor's memory was utterly clear. "She pointed out exactly where to begin digging." On that day in 1984, Dolores, now 50, was just 20 years old and four months pregnant. To the soldiers, anyone who didn't cooperate with the manhunt was a supporter of the insurgents.

A last meal

While around 30 villagers managed to escape, 21 others were escorted out of their village and made to dig their own graves. "It's a typical formality," explains Jesus Romero from EPAF, a forensic anthropology NGO that has found dozens of lost communities like this one. "Sometimes they were told they were creating ponds for fish."

In this case, four holes were dug and the first was filled that evening, and the rest the next day. In total, there were 11 adults, nine teenagers and a newborn baby.

Dolores was saved because one of her cousins was a police guide and implored officers to save her. She was forced to cook a last meal for the 21 condemned and fed each detainee herself as their hands were bound behind their backs, understanding that silence was the price she would pay to save her life.

"As we were extracting the remains, she felt worse and worse," says Calcina. "At one point she said, "The children were the ones who cried the loudest," and slumped down. Psychologists said that perhaps she needed this to overcome the trauma."

Although some of the diehard Sendero Luminoso still remain in hiding, the Peruvian civil war ended in 2000. Former President Alberto Fujimori and Shining Path Commander Abimael Guzman are both in prison.

The problem is for the relatives of other victims whose bodies have not been recovered. Without a burial, peace is impossible.

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