Remembrance and forgetfulness on Lima’s “Rutas de la Memoria”

Posting has been light in this space, as I’ve been working on some larger projects, but interesting things are happening in Peru all the time, including when I fail to write about them. For one thing, we’re coming up on the tenth anniversary of the release of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. This has spawned thoughtful reflection in some quarters of the public discourse (by no means all), and events to commemorate the release.

Devin and I spent four hours yesterday morning driving along one of four Rutas de la Memoria – paths of memory. These are sort of like city tours, except that they visit sites in Lima that are important in commemorating Peru’s internal armed conflict of the 1980s and 1990s, many of  which are the sites of noteworthy human rights abuses. These tours are expertly run by the Equipo Peruano de Antropología Forense (Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team), in conjunction with the Municipality of Lima – if you are reading this and are in Lima, I strongly encourage you to go. If you’re reading this and not in Lima – well, EPAF is an excellent organization, and I urge you to keep up with (and support!) their work, as appropriate.

Some reflections on the ruta, and implications for projects of memory in Peru, follow below.

 I: Spaces of Memory

It was the first time that I had visited El ojo que llora (The Eye that Cries), a memorial to the victims of the conflict created by sculptor Lika Mutal. It was deeply affecting to see thousands of small stones laid out into a labyrinth, each one representing someone who died in the conflict, each one representing a universe of pain beyond the initial moment of loss. A young woman, wearing a patterned sweater and packing a serious camera, took pictures, fighting back tears. EPAF volunteers bustled around, preparing for a public event that took place later that day. On the hilltop above the memorial, a woman wearing the flat-brimmed black hat of the southern sierra sat on the grass with her husband and watched us swirling slowly and sadly through the paths laid out by the labyrinth of names.

After reflecting at that rendezvous, we clambered aboard a bus belonging to the municipality. This particular route focused on the center of Lima, and thus we navigated a remarkably varied landscape of terror and violent acts. Our bus visited the site of Frecuencia Latin, a radio station that was bombed, presumably by Sendero Luminoso, in 1992.[1] We circumnavigated the old and new Japanese ambassador’s residence; the former is where the MRTA took a slew of dignitaries hostage at a party. It is also where, in the commando raid which ended the standoff, two soldiers, one hostage, and all of the guerrillas died – some of these last executed after they had already surrendered or been otherwise apprehended.

We stretched our legs at the Plaza de la Democracia, which used to be the site of a Banco de la Nación before agents of Fujimori’s regime burned it down in a false flag attack intended to discredit the protest movement that subsequently dislodged the president. This was an episode with which I was mostly unfamiliar, though it exemplifies the duplicitous thuggishness of the regime, which ordered policemen to bar firefighters from the building. This preserved the desired spectacle, the theatrical presentation of a national symbol’s total destruction, if at the cost of six security guards who died of smoke inhalation in the building’s basement.

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Ghostly in Barrios Altos.

We passed slowly by the house in which the famous Barrios Altos murders – the massacre of a barbecue party, alleged-Senderistas who turned out to be entirely innocent, by the infamous death squad Grupo Colina – took place. As it turned out, there were two events going on in the same building, and the “right” meeting was one floor up. This didn’t stop one member from shooting an eight-year old boy to death, perhaps after the death squad had already realized that they’d gotten the wrong barbecue.

And finally we motored out to Huachipa on the outskirts of Lima. This bleak spot, on military land, is where the ten victims of the La Cantuta massacre were initially buried, in clandestine graves, after being kidnapped from their university, tortured, and murdered. We all got out of the bus and stood on the side of the highway in the blowing sand. It was sad and desolate, which was in a sense the point.

II: Spaces of Forgetting

And yet there was a hollow quality to our journey across the memoryscapes of Lima. The capital, indeed much of the country, is consumed by the effort of forgetting, not remembering the violence of twenty years ago. This feeling of hollowness started even before we started the Ruta. Our taxi driver into Centro de Lima, despite being familiar with the attractions of Campo del Marte, the park system which houses various monuments (and soccer fields, and playgrounds), had no idea where the Ojo que llora was situated, and indeed seemed not to even know what it was. Perhaps the vandals who attacked the memorial in 2007 might as well not even have bothered – inattention is erasing the monumental intervention better than hammers and orange paint.

But there’s no sense in blaming our taxi driver. Civic devotion to memory was in scant evidence, even in the sites where memory might reside. Everywhere we visited was shuttered. The Parque de Democracia was shut for cleaning (and, according to a provocative reflection by Mauricio (one of our guides), because its budget is insufficient to keep it open). It contains no mention of the acts of state terror which took place on its site. Barrios Altos remains unsafe to enter, situated in a somewhat marginal neighborhood. In this sense it is surely an apt symbol of the ways in which the marginalization that characterized many of the war’s victims has persisted for millions of Peruvians in the post-war period, not only in Lima but also in the provinces, which saw the most ferocious fighting and suffered the great majority of the conflict’s deaths and other human rights violations. And as Mauricio further pointed out, the capital retains the fortress architecture of a country at war, with official sites still swaddled roughly in concrete barriers to hold car bombs and “delincuencia” beyond the periphery of a blast zone.

At Huachipa, we could not enter; we could not even see onto the land. A twenty foot wall of poured concrete stood between us and the ex-gravesite. The artist-activists of the Lugar de Memorias project recently put up a poster to commemorate the significance of the site; in turn, someone tried to rip it down, with limited success. The tatters flapped in the wind like a macabre playbill. Twenty feet up, a statue of a soldier stared out at us, incongruous and disquieting. Of memory, nothing else remained.

Even our bus was only half full.

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Guarding the wall at Huachipa.

III: Spaces of possibility?

It is important to end on a note that looks forward, rather than lamenting at the sound of a door closing on memory, opening onto a prosperity that threatens to leave behind far too many victims of violence and affected persons. Individuals and organizations, like the dedicated staff members of EPAF, are fighting hard, both to keep memory alive, and to take concrete measures to build a better future,

These efforts run a wide gamut, from conflict resolution in areas still riven by wartime divisions, to education of affected persons on the benefits available to them,[2] to attempts to economically empower highland communities. This fight is certainly made more difficult by widespread public indifference and ignorance about the internal armed conflict and the challenges faced by affected populations. It takes real dedication to keep fighting; fortunately, I’ve met a good many activists in my time in Peru who are richly blessed with this dedication, determination, and a deep commitment to this cause.

It is not comforting, however, to ponder a society which may yet need to navigate, with humanity and respect for human rights, significant challenges to internal security and cohesion. A significant part of Peruvian public discourse seems incapable of absorbing the object lessons of a bloody and painful civil war, in which all sides committed significant atrocities, and using these painful experiences to nurture a culture committed to the protection of human rights. The implicit preference for forgetting, rather than commemorating, closes off the possibility of learning, even from past mistakes, how to build a better future.

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Artistic intervention at the base of the column in the Parque de la Democracia.

I hope that EPAF and likeminded activists can help to divert this path away from civic oblivion, in which memory becomes an almost subversive act; it is in this spirit, for example, that the activists of the Lugar de Memorias project place their public interventions at these closed off sites, confronting the viewer with antidote to the sanitized banality of a discourse that covers over the past. I hold out hope for the success of these memory-keepers because that hope represents hope for Peru, that as Paulo Drinot writes in an excellent essay on El ojo que llora, these projects of memory and remembrance might yet be the “kernel of a democratic and inclusive project that may still form the basis of a more solidary and just Peru.”

Our half-empty bus was populated largely – or more than half – by young people, some college-age, some a little older. And there was also one young child on our bus, a boy of perhaps eight. He listened raptly to awful stories of pain and loss, answered questions posed by guides, nominated himself as their unofficial assistant for the tour. Perhaps it is in the – admittedly modest – ranks of these people, young and unencumbered with the same deep need to forget, who will remember what they learned at these spaces of memory and forgetting, and open new, humane and visionary avenues for Peruvian politics. These are the spaces where memory and commemoration opens new possibilities: not in the civic life of a city devoted to forgetting and the pursuit of wealth, but in the heads and hearts of a generation more willing to remember.

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EPAF staff and volunteers set up on the hillside above El ojo que llora; labyrinth of stones with the names of victims in the foreground.
Photo credit: Devin Finn


[1] There is speculation that the attack may have been a false flag, carried out by one of the shadowy military intelligence-affiliated commands that proliferated in parallel structure during Garcia’s presidency, and especially under the Fujimori regime.

[2] The benefits aren’t always generous. Monetary recompense is set at a fixed sum for children of those killed or disappeared, leaving the same total pot to be granted to an only child as to five children. Scholarships available to children of victims are among the most impressive benefits offered by the state – full tuition to any state school represents a life-chaging opportunity if you’re, say, an 18-year girl living in a highland village six hours by (unpaved) road from the regional capital.

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