Thursday 26 March 2015

German president in Peru

German president Joachim Gauck was visiting Peru, although his visit was cut short by news of the plane crash in France. With that in mind, I've been reading some of the German media coverage. Below is my translation of an article from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on memory of the Peruvian conflict.

An empty place of memory

Peru has set up a place of memory for the victims of terrorism with German help – but powerful people are still struggling with the past. 

There is a memorial at the gate of the presidential palace on the Plaza Mayor in the heart of the Peruvian capital, Lima. It is a marble obelisk about four meters high on a black base. Then-president Alan García inaugurated it in May 2009. It is dedicated to the “4,357 defenders of the fatherland and democracy” who became “victims of terrorist crimes” – members of the armed forces and the police, politicians and officials. Every day around lunchtime, the colourful changing of the guards takes place in the space in front of the neo-baroque state building. 

The obelisk for the victims of terrorism is to a certain extent part of a ceremony which the Republic of Peru uses each day to reiterate its history –from independence won in 1821 from its Spanish colonial masters through to the stable and flourishing democracy of the present. The memorial in front of the presidential palace does, admittedly, not do justice to the painful era of terrorism from 1980 to 2000. In the years of the terror caused by the Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path and the MRTA, it was not just the 4,357 military and state officials who lost their lives. Most of the about 70,000 victims of the bloody conflict between the leftist terror groups and the Peruvian armed forces were civilians, and the mother tongue of three quarters of these civilian victims was the indigenous language Quechua. 

Unlike the 4,357 victims of terror from the security forces and authorities, the much larger number of murdered and disappeared people from the mostly indigenous civilian population do not have a national monument, unless you count the various documentation and memory centres that have been set up in the particularly affected Andean region of the South by victims’ associations. Yet this gap in the national healing process of the now-secure Peruvian democracy could have been closed long ago. 

The impressive building of the “Lugar de la Memoria” (place of memory) has been ready for use in the district of Miraflores for nine months now and is waiting to be filled with content and life. Germany contributed EUR 4.5 million to the construction of the memorial, with Sweden also helping. But the design of the planned permanent exhibition is still politically highly controversial. Concepts developed by independent experts which are supposed to explain the crimes committed and experienced by both sides equally, have become bogged down in the bureaucracy of the ministries. 

There are a lot of indications that president Ollanta Humala, in office since July 2011, wants to have his say in how Peru will present its recent, bloody history in the national place of memory. After all, Humala is a former army office and in 1992 he was stationed at the Madre Mía base near Pacayacu in the Andes, from where soldiers are said to have committed human rights violations during actions against the civilian population, which was supposedly linked to the Shining Path. Former president Alan García, whose first term in office from 1985 to 1990 saw notorious massacres of the indigenous population by the armed forces, is also said to be doing his best to torpedo the exhibition plans. 

The visit of German president Joachim Gauck comes during this sustained phase of sometimes heated national debate. It is the first time a German president has visited Peru since 1964. On Saturday, Gauck opened a temporary exhibition on the history of the conflict from 1980 to 2000 in the presence of Nobel prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa, who has provided considerable support to the Lugar de la Memoria project in his role as intellectual mentor. “Germany has been a role model for overcoming the rule of violence by being open about it instead of hiding it,” said Vargas Llosa with a view to the situation since the reunification of Germany in 1990.

Certainly, the display boards put up for Gauck's visit and the museum opening were not able to fill the exhibition rooms - in terms of space or content. In the museum auditorium, Gauck made an almost imploring speech on the subject of "No future without the past" to the overwhelmingly young audience. As he did during his visit to Colombia in 2013, Gauck offered Peru Germany's help in working through the trauma of a period of history characterized by violence and injustice. The desire to repress the past and "look forward" is understandable, said Gauck, but what is buried will resurface, at the latest in the next generation. "A nation does not lose itself when it admits its guilt," said the German president. 

The leftist terror, as well as the retaliatory terror of the army and police, were primarily directed at the Andean region of Ayacucho in the south of the country. In the capital, Lima, on the Pacific coast, terrorism made itself felt with occasional bomb and other attacks, but it did not come to the “war of liberation” in the cities which the student sympathisers of the guerrillas hoped and worked for. In June and September 1992, the Peruvian security forces achieved two decisive strikes against the terrorists when they captured Abimael Guzmán, leader of the Shining Path, and Víctor Polay Campos, leader of the MRTA. It would take another eight years for the era of terror to come to an end in 2000. Guzmán and Polay Campos are now 80 and 63 years old, respectively. They have been sentenced to long prison terms and are both held in the high-security jail at Callao, in the port region of Lima – incidentally, the same prison where the notorious former secret service chief Vladimiro Montesinos is also held. He was responsible for many massacres committed by the State and ultimately toppled due to his connections to drug cartels and widespread bribing of politicians, military officials and the media. 

The independent truth and reconciliation commission was founded in 2001. Its exemplary work, including listening to about 16,000 witnesses, is regarded as a milestone in Peru’s process of dealing with its past. The commission found that 54% of the victims were killed by the Shining Path, while the Peruvian military and paramilitary groups were responsible for 42%. 

Victims become gracious when perpetrators admit their guilt, said Gauck during his speech at the opening of the museum. He also stressed this belief during his private conversations with president Ollanta Humala. Whether his advice was taken on board remains to be seen, not least in the Lugar de la Memoria. The consensus about dealing with the past in Peru was stable enough to build a place of memory, but so far, it has not been strong enough to fill it. 
Ein leerer Ort der Erinnerung (

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