“So… where are we going, exactly?” I asked, or at least I think that’s what I asked, in my halting Spanish. The bus we were on had been more crowded than any we’d experienced anywhere in the world, but now we were just about the only ones left on it. A large building surrounded by high barbed wire fences loomed ahead of us. The dirt road we had been following became more of a suggestion than a direction. Dust clouds seemed to move across the barren ground of their own accord. Karina answered, “Wait until we get there. It will be easier to explain.”
“There” was a broad field in a valley, pocked with holes the size of cars, and marked on one end by encroaching houses and on the other, an austere concrete tower. As we followed Karina down a path between rows of houses with walls crowned with broken glass, nails, or other painful deterrents, the mood was bleak. We wondered whether we should have perhaps asked a few more questions before leaving the house with this small young woman we had only met a few days earlier. She stopped next to a small chapel overlooking the valley and began to speak.
“Over there, on the other side of the valley, there was a military prison. In the days when the Sendero Luminoso (or Shining Path) terrorist group was based here in Ayacucho, the military would round up men whom they suspected of being involved with the group and put them in this prison. There, they were tortured and beaten to try to get them to give up information about the movement. But most of the men had nothing to do with Sendero. A great majority of the men who were imprisoned were Quechua speakers. Most were never heard from again after being imprisoned.
“The military came in with great force to the area, and they were under great pressure to stop the Sendero Luminoso movement. They arrested more and more men. The wives and mothers who were left behind started to ask questions. They banded together, as much to support each other as to demand answers, and created the Asociacion Nacional de Familiares de Secuestrados, Detenidos y Desaparecidos de Peru, or ANFASEP.
“What ANFASEP pieced together from stories told by some soldiers who served in the military prison, is that the military, realizing that they could not rationalize all the prisoner deaths that they had caused, built an incinerator to dispose of the bodies. When the first one proved ineffective, they built another. But even then they could not incinerate the bodies fast enough, and they simply dumped the bodies in a large hole in the valley.
“A few years ago, a construction crew found human remains while they were digging to build a home in the valley. They alerted the authorities, and ANFASEP, to see if this was what they feared. ANFASEP and others excavated the site, which is now marked by a pattern of depressions in the earth. THey dug and found a few bones, but not the numbers they expected. By chance one day a man who lived in the area said that when he was a boy he had seen the military dig a very large hole near the concrete tower that still stands today. When they dug there, they found the remains of nearly 500 people.
“Today the survivors are still trying to find out exactly what happened to those who were lost. Last year, survivors were invited to take a look at the remains that had been retrieved, to see if they could identify clothing or other identifying marks on the remains. But of course this was not a foolproof method, as clothing also deteriorates, or it might have been shared, or the survivors may not remember what their loved ones were wearing when they disappeared 20-plus years ago.”
I noticed tears forming in Karina’s eyes.
“My mother and my aunt and I were able to identify some clothing that belonged to my father and my uncle last year, and now we are waiting for the results of DNA tests, which should come next week.”
There were now tears in my eyes, too. I had known Karina was involved with ANFASEP, but I didn’t know that it was because her father was one of the disappeared. I looked at my daughters. I wasn’t sure they had understood all of what Karina was saying, but I was sure that Karina’s tears had alerted them to the gravity of the situation. John and I quickly recapped Karina’s story for them. As we walked back up toward the dusty field where we would catch the bus, we walked in silence.
This was raw. This was recent. This was hard to process. This was during my lifetime, and I had no idea that this had occurred, and most likely with the silent approval of the United States, which was still trying to stomp out communism wherever it appeared in the world. It was one of the most difficult days of our entire trip, but also one of the most moving.
To get to the site of the mass burial, known as the Ollado or Hoyado, take bus 13 to the prison complex, which is nearly the end of the bus route. Walk past the prison and head down the road that leads downhill. Take the first road on the left toward the valley, where you will find a small chapel on the left side, and the valley in front of you. Looking to your right, you will see a field marked with square dug-out areas, and a concrete tower.
For more information visit the Museum of Memory, run by ANFASEP, which is about 8 blocks from the central square in Ayacucho. Ask at the tourism information office on the square for directions and hours. Be advised that there are some very graphic depictions of violence in this museum and it may not be appropriate for younger children.