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Peru’s Truth Commission to Release Report

August 28, 2003

CHORRILLOS, Peru (AP) _ Mauricio Zuniga stared silently at the photos of bloated bodies pulled from mass graves and the smoking remains of Andean hamlets. He listened, transfixed, to recordings of children recounting how they watched their parents murdered.

``I was only 15, 17. We didn’t pay attention to what was happening in the countryside,″ Zuniga, a 30-year-old resident of Lima, said at a photo exhibit put on by Peru’s truth commission about the largely rural war that bloodied the country for years. ``It didn’t affect us. You didn’t realize that often it was innocent people who died.″

The exhibit is a prelude to a controversial two-year study on two decades of political violence being presented Thursday by a government-appointed Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The 12-member truth commission was formed to shed light on the atrocities that occurred from May 1980 to November 2000 in fighting, most of it in remote Andean areas, between government security forces, leftist rebels and civilians.

Commission members hope the report will force Peruvians to deal with a dark chapter in their history that many have tried to ignore. The armed forces, political parties in power during the violence and even conservative Catholic Church leaders have criticized the commission for digging into the past.

The commission has identified by name some 32,000 people who died during the violence. But sociologist and historian Nelson Manrique, who worked on the project, said Thursday’s report estimates that at least 69,000 people died or disappeared _ double previous estimates.

He said the study attributes 48 percent of the deaths to the Shining Path guerrilla group, 33 percent to the security forces, 17 percent to government-backed peasant militias and 2 percent to a small Cuban-inspired guerrilla group.

The commission gathered nearly 17,000 testimonies from 530 villages in remote areas and held public hearings in seven regions, where survivors poured out tales of horror.

The violence erupted in May 1980 when the Shining Path, a Maoist-inspired rebel movement that tolerated no opposition, launched its insurgency and began using terror to force peasants to support its drive to overthrow Peru’s elected governments.

The army was unfamiliar with the Shining Path’s strategy and suspicious that many highland villages supported the guerrillas. It responded with a savage campaign against Indian peasants, most of whom spoke only Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas.

Cipriano Gamboa, 70, remembers how soldiers entered his village of Accomarca in the Ayacucho region in August 1985, singled out the women and raped them. They then herded the women into one hut with 23 children and the men into another hut. He watched from hiding as they torched the huts. In all, 69 died.

``They killed my wife Maxima Pulido Romero, my son Nestor Gamboa Pulido and my daughter Francisca Gamboa Pulido. They left me with nothing,″ he said.

The Shining Path was just as brutal with villages that refused to submit to its rule. In March 1983, guerrillas retaliated against the community of Lucanamarca after villagers killed 10 rebels, burning one alive. The guerrillas shot or hacked to death 62 people, including 18 children.

Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman gloated over the massacre in a 1988 interview in the rebels’ clandestine newspaper El Diario.

``Faced with reactionary military action, we responded with action: Lucanamarca,″ he said.

Guzman was captured in 1992 along with other top guerrilla leaders and the group’s growing threat to the government began to fade. A rebel faction continues to operate in Peru’s coca-growing jungle region, where the guerrillas provide protection for cocaine traffickers.

In recent weeks, as the date for the release of the report on violence has approached, critics have mounted an assault on the study’s credibility.

``No one is saying there should not be an investigation, but we are asking for objectivity and for the armed forces not to be treated as genocidal,″ said retired army Gen. German Parra, head of an association of retired officers.

One of the army’s greatest problems in fighting the Shining Path was the lack of Quechua speakers in its ranks. Spanish-speaking soldiers from the coast often viewed highland Indians as virtual foreigners. That frequently led to fatal encounters.

Many army generals remain defiant.

``I don’t regret anything. If I had to use the same anti-subversive strategy again today, I would apply it without hesitation,″ said retired army Gen. Clemente Noel, who commanded forces in the hard-hit Ayacucho region in 1983, when some of the worst army massacres occurred.

Noel’s remarks would not surprise Maria Rubina.

The 61-year-old retired teacher from Puno, high in the Andes, as she viewed the photo display in the seaside community of Chorrillos outside Lima.

``Prejudice, racism, discrimination had much to do with what happened,″ she said, ``and I don’t think much has changed.″

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