Sunday 25 January 2009

26 Years: What Are We Remembering in Uchuraccay?

Today is the anniversary one of those days that stands out in the history of the Peruvian conflict. On 26th January 1983, eight journalists were murdered in the highland village of Uchuraccay, Ayacucho. These multiple deaths would have received media attention anyway, but in this case, the attention was sustained and, at times, hysterical because the media people were reporting on the deaths of their own. The story of what happened on that day, and before, to lead to the deaths of the reporters is one of the most controversial issues of the civil conflict in Peru.

Here's a brief history as I understand it, for those who may not be aware of the background. Throughout 1982 Shining Path guerrillas were increasing activity in rural Ayacucho, at first ingratiating themselves with local people and then provoking anger and fear through their indiscriminate violence and lack of respect for traditional ways. In Huaychao in early January 1983, peasants killed 5 Senderistas. They were publicly praised by local army commanders who recommended that villagers defend themselves against strangers arriving on foot (the military had helicopters).

In late January, a group of journalists gathered in Ayacucho city (also called Huamanga) and prepared to head into the mountains to report on the growing violence. They were Eduardo de la Piniella, Pedro Sánchez, and Félix Gavilán from El Diario de Marka in Ayacucho; Octavio Infante from Noticias, also an Ayacuchan publication; Jorge Luis Mendívil and Willy Retto from El Observador; Jorge Sedano from La República, and Amador García from the magazine Oiga; the last three publications based in Lima. They also had a local guide. They reached the village of Uchuraccay, where in uncertain circumstances they were all beaten to death and buried in shallow graves.

Amid a national outcry, the government appointed novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to head the inquiry into the massacre. It's unclear to me exactly what qualified Vargas Llosa - Peru's most prominent literary figure - for this role. His report has been criticised for its lack of understanding of Quechua culture (you can read Jean Franco's excellent critique as a PDF here, Enrique Mayer's report is even more detailed but not available online... however if anyone is really interested drop an email and I might be able to help). He concluded that the primitive peasants, mistaking cameras for weapons, killed the reporters in the belief that they were terrorists.

Several months later, a camera belonging to Willy Retto, one of the murdered journalists, was discovered near the village. The film had survived being buried in the damp earth and was developed to reveal a series of photos taken by Retto literally in the last moments of his life. The images, fascinating and tragic though they are, do not shed a great deal of light on the encounter between the villagers and the reporters, showing only a confused group of bodies. Nevertheless, some observers seized on them as 'proof' that the peasants were not authors of the massacre at all; but merely scapegoats for murders planned and orchestrated by the armed forces. In this reading, the military carried out the killings to prevent reports on their conflict with the guerrillas in the highlands (and indeed, as you would expect, journalists kept away from this area of highland Ayacucho for some time afterwards).

Eventually, three Uchuraccayans were sentenced for the murders. The victims have been memorialised as 'martyrs', the day of their death is celebrated as 'Journalism Day' in Peru, and some sectors continue to believe that the true killers were never brought to justice.

An article in today's El Comercio speaks of the 'perpetual mourning of the press'. Certainly, the incidents in Uchuraccay have assumed a particular significance in the minds of the Peruvian media. But what is going on here? Let me lay my cards on the table. I have read a great deal about Uchuraccay and I don't believe in the conspiracy theory that the killers were soldiers dressed up as Quechua-speaking villagers. I haven't seen any convincing evidence for that. The armed forces committed a great many atrocities in the 1980s but, I believe, not this one. The village was terrified by the deaths caused by Sendero and had been encouraged by the military to practise self-defence. They were well aware of the difference between guns and cameras, but they were living in a world where every outsider was a potentially deadly threat. It seems likely the killings were carried out by far more than the three men eventually convicted for the crimes. The peasants exhumed the bodies when the authorities arrived and openly admitted to killing them, a story which they stuck to.

However, in the months after the journalists' death, the Uchuraccayans became trapped between the Senderistas and the military and in the following year, over one hundred of them were killed. The village was completely abandoned and only recently reinhabited. Rather than clinging to conspiracies, imagining army fatigues beneath the ponchos, perhaps we should remember all the victims of Uchuraccay.

Spanish speakers can read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report on Uchuraccay here.

Also, I'm not sure who wrote this blog post, but good resolution images of the images taken from Retto's camera can be found here.


mattheil said...

First and foremost: great blog you have!! Congrats!!

Now, there seems to be one documentary coming soon (or already there) about Uchuraccay.

more context (in Spanish):

Lillie Langtry said...

Thanks matt. Yes, I saw that. There's certainly enough material for an interesting documentary in the story. I hope that this one isn't too much of a 'conspiracy theory' proponent though - that's just my personal opinion and I wonder if, as the father of one of the murdered journalists is involved in the project and he is a believer in military involvement, there will be a lot of that angle.