Leaving a prayer shawl behind in Peru
It was chilly in the small, cinderblock room that clung to the edge of a ravine strewn with garbage on the outskirts of Huancayo, about a six hour bus ride up into the high Andes east of Lima. The building was one of several in the little complex of classrooms and offices shared by CEDEPAZ (The Ecumenical Center for Social Formation and Action), which is one of the members of the Joining Hands Against Poverty Network in Peru, and the little ecumenical seminary called St. Paul’s.
CEDEPAZ was hosting this particular visit in order to orient us about their important human rights work in a country where more than 70,000 people were victims in the violence of the Shining Path’s war against the government and the people of Peru. The statistics were reminiscent of my experiences in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980’s: in addition to the 70,000 known dead, there were an additional 40,000 disappeared and 18,000 orphaned. CEDEPAZ is one of those courageous little ngo’s (non-governmental organizations) that tries to pick up the pieces and help folks to rebuild in the wake of overwhelming personal tragedy, magnified in this case by the reality that 40 percent of the killings were carried out by the government itself in it’s attempt to do the messy work of a counter-insurgency military campaign. Why is it that the cure is so often as bad as or worse than the problem?
I confess to feeling a little sleepy and sick to my stomach as the meeting began – brought on by the high altitude (we were at 11,000 feet) and the curvy ride and maybe the grade B, violent, loud movie on the bus the evening before. I wondered whether I would be able to give my full attention to the conversation.
And then, a young named Ruth stood up and began to tell about her work. She was a small woman, neatly dressed in black slacks and a black blouse, a bright red jacket with a low, open collar and sparkly material in its design, and long, black hair pulled back into a pony tail. She had a quiet confidence about her, and though she was talking about things that were quite difficult, there was a natural, low-key smile that stayed on her face. (Should be obvious by now that if I weren’t unbelievably happily married, Ruth is another of the savvy, brave women in Latin America who could steal my heart.)
Ruth’s grandfather, a brother, and four other cousins were all killed during the political terrorism and violence that shook her country. She comes from a distinguished line of pastors and theologians, and she herself is a pastor and a psychologist in addition to her work with CEDEPAZ. In a low voice, she articulated the challenges. “How do we learn of reconciliation, forgiveness, and letting go of our anger and resentment and rancor,” she asked? “How do we help one another to heal in order to begin to be able to trust again?”
Ruth is part of a team that has worked (with help from a small grant from Presbyterians for Disaster Assistance – pretty remarkable idea to recognize emotional trauma from war as a disaster issue) to create a “training for trainers” program that prepares counselors and conflict reconciliation facilitators to offer one-on-one counseling and workshops in their own communities. “This is a great match,” said Ruth. “The saving word of God through Jesus Christ put together with training in psychological techniques in trauma recovery to help victims of the violence to begin again. People are desperate to feel heard, and paid attention to.”
Then, an older couple named Alejandro and Alicia, who had been sitting quietly to my right in the circle, stood and began to share their story. Alejandro explained in a halting, almost disembodied voice, that they lost their nineteen year-old son on July 3rd, 1989. Though they know that he was abducted by the police and held in a local jail for at least a period of time, they have never received any news of what eventually happened to him. This is standard operating procedure in a Latin American style counter-insurgency campaign. The theory is that the best way to quell popular support for a guerrilla movement against the government is to create widespread fear of what might happen if one would choose to participate. The goal is not just to incarcerate people, or even kill them, but to “disappear” them. In thousands of cases like Alejandro’s and Alicia’s, across Peru and in many other places in Latin America, families never hear from their loved ones, never know why their family was targeted, and may never even know which party in the conflict was responsible for the violence.
I have to admit that I was still feeling a little removed from this story. After all, I have categories for this kind of violence. I’ve spent many years working with victims of similar violence who have come north to the U.S. looking for safe haven. But then, as with so many times in the past, I was brought up short by a mother’s personal story of the loss of her son.
Where Alejandro talked with passion about all of the families who lost loved ones, and with anger about a government that still has not responded to their demands for information almost two decades later, Alicia simply told her story in short, halting sentences, almost as if it just had happened the week or the month before.
“It was late in the afternoon when ‘Chino’ (their son’s nickname) said he was going to a friends house.”
“I asked him not to go. It was so dangerous to be on the streets after dark”
“He said he needed to study with friends for a class assignment at the university.”
“He was my oldest son, the one I depended on.”
“It was six o’clock in the morning. I was warming a frying pan on the stove to make pancakes.”
“Someone knocked on the door.”
“It was a little boy.” “He told me that Chino was in jail.” “I thanked him for coming to tell me.”
Alicia’s tears were flowing down her face, and by now several in our group were weeping with her. Sixteen years later, there is little that they know about what happened to their son. It is indisputable that he was taken by government forces. It is likely that he was eventually killed and dumped into a common grave that has since been uncovered, but the government claims that there is no money to do the forensic work to discover the identities of the skeletal remains in the grave.
Alejandro explained that they are working with CEDEPAZ to try to breathe life into what is functionally a group lawsuit against the government. They are working with dozens of other parents who also want to know what happened to their children, and wives and husbands trying to find out what happened to their spouses.
“It’s almost impossible to go on,” Ruth explained later, “when there is no definitive answer about what happened to your loved one.” There is always that lingering doubt. Who accused my child? Who abducted him? Who can I trust? The grieving compounds with unanswered questions.
As we finished our time at CEDEPAZ that morning, I took one of the prayer shawls (four more were sent to me after I wrote about leaving them as gifts in Louisiana and Mississippi), and I offered it to Ruth. I asked that she take it with her to each of the workshops that she is facilitating for counselors and conciliators.
“Share it with the men and women doing this important work,” I said, “and remember that there are sisters and brothers in the United States who are holding you in prayer.”
May it be so.