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.
Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite. A growing number of tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town.
BELCHITE – Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the town of Belchite in northeastern Spain became a strategic objective for the forces of the Republican government, before their assault on the nearby city of Zaragoza. Belchite seemed a simple target, but its capture took longer than expected. More than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting, and the town was decimated, with almost half the town's 3,100 residents dying in the struggle.
The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one. The streets remained deserted. Stray dogs were the only ones to venture into the weed-covered, pockmarked ruins. A sign written on one wall reads, "Old town, historic ruins." Graffitis scrawled on the doors of the Church of San Martín recall better times: "Old town of Belchite, youngsters no longer stroll your streets. The sound of the jotas our parents sang is gone."
Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, must remain exposed.
For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.
Haunting the filming of Baron Munchausen
The journalist and researcher Carlos Bogdanich decided to find out whether such claims made any sense, and visited Belchite on a cold October evening in 1986. He went with a crew from the television program Cuarta Dimensión (Fourth Dimension). Toward dawn, he related, a force seemed to pull and control them for several hours. They moved as if someone were guiding them, unaware of what they were doing. He recalled later, "We went up the Clock Tower. We thought we'd go right to the top. The next day, when we saw what we had done, we couldn't believe it. We could have gotten ourselves killed, and still, something enticed us to do this."
The true sounds of war reappeared.
They didn't see anything strange. But listening back to the recordings, they discovered sounds that could be easily identified with the war: planes, bombs, tanks, shots or army songs. The mysterious recordings made a big noise at the time, in Spain and around the world.
The legend began to take off then and has yet to subside today. Another example of paranormal events took place in the town during the filming of Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). Some members of the film crew saw two women dressed in traditional clothes who vanished when approached.
Belchite's mysterious ambiance also inspired the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who shot parts of Pan's Labyrinth here; and Spain's Albert Boadella, who had his grotesque version of General Francisco Franco in Have a Good Trip, Your Excellency returns to Belchite.
Ruins of the village of Belchite, in Zaragoza, Spain
Tourists drawn to unexplainable phenomena
Ordinary visitors have also encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends.
Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.
There are four zones where the experiences have been more intense: the Plaza de la Cruz, the mass grave, and the town's two churches. In fact, there are mass graves in all four spots, both from the Civil War and the plague epidemic that hit the area in the Middle Ages.
Whatever the truth of the accounts, Belchite has become one of the most visited sites in the province of Zaragoza in recent years. And regardless of ghosts, its streets were the setting of horrible acts and a history that should not be repeated. The streets of Belchite are the open wounds of a town that had to reinvent itself to go on living.
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