Overcoming Peru's Plague

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  11/10/2004

LIMA – At the southern edge of this enormous city, atop a cliff jutting over the Pacific, an old, dilapidated mansion holds evidence of the often indiscriminate violence that plagued Peru for 20 years and left some 70,000 people dead.

The evidence comes in the form of hundreds of harrowing photos documenting the assassinations, torture, and bombings, among other crimes, that rent Peru between 1980 and 2000 as state security forces battled Maoist rebel groups.

The large, mainly black-and-white photos, which cover the pockmarked walls of 27 rooms, range from discreet to gory. Together, reflected in the eyes of campesinos, soldiers, and rebels, they tell the story of how this Andean nation unraveled.

As moving as it is, what’s most impressive about the museum is that it exists. Unlike other Latin American nations torn by violence over much of the same period, Peru is the only with such an exhibit.

The year-old exhibition – commissioned by the government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and called “Yuyanapaq,” or “To Remember,” in the Quechua language of much of Peru’s indigenous population – starts in the back of the house, where curators left the old walls in disrepair.

“The house speaks to us – its walls and structure tell a story of destruction that allows us to make an analogy between it and Peruvian society,” the curators wrote of Casa Riva Aguero, the mansion now owned by the Catholic University in Lima.

The first rooms take visitors to the 1970s, where large photos show how leftist groups such as the Shining Path and, later, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement tramped across the nation’s rural highlands, torching ballot boxes and hanging dogs from lampposts.

After a timeline and video of the conflict, the exhibit unfolds chronologically, with photos of the distraught widows of murdered policemen; one woman in traditional garb wailing over the body of a dead relative; two chapped, soiled hands holding a tiny black-and-white picture of a lost farmer.

Some rooms focus on specific fronts of the conflict – the polarization of the universities, the bombs in the cities, the massacres in mountain villages. One room features the voices of survivors telling their stories. Another has a wall covered with a massive picture of a city building destroyed and a man rolling up the picture of the nation’s president after a Shining Path attack.

On a Web site accompanying the Truth Commission’s 5,000-page report about the conflict, Salomón Lerner Febres, the commission’s president, wrote that many of the photos could carry the following caption:“Let the horror be gone forever, the painful memories converted to hope. Let life in Peru go on with solidarity and justice.”

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.