I returned to Lima last night after having spent 3 days in Ayachucho, also known as Huamanga. Located in the Andes at about 2,700 metres, it is best known for it’s 33 churches, which represent one for each year of Jesus’ life, as well as their Holy Week celebrations. But enough with the Wikipedia details. Huamanga is a lovely small city and though it may sound clich, the people I met, both on the street and in relation to our CUSO assignment, were very friendly. Oh, and yes the weather was wonderful. On the dry and hot side during the day, due to the altitude and clear skies, and just cool enough at nights, to put on long sleeves.
Much of CUSO’s work in this part of the world, revolves around Social Justice and Capacity Building. In simple terms, that refers to empowering people to use the existing institutions to claim their rights, and transferring skills so that once the volunteers have left, the local people can implement best-practices and better fend for themselves.
Our purpose for travelling to Huamanga and Huanta, a smaller village a short distance away, was to visit volunteers working for La Defensoria del Pueblo ie. Neighbourhood Ombudsman. There is a heavy emphasis on woman’s and children’s rights, but can and do encompass institutional issues such as licensing and regulations.
We interviewed a woman with a claim dating back 30 years to a disturbing period in Peruvian history when a very violent Marxist terrorist group called Los Senderos Luminosos, known in English as the Shining Path, waged war against the Peruvian government. As often happens during internal conflicts, atrocities are perpetrated by each side and in the end it is the innocent who pay the highest price. Helena recounted how government forces entered her village accusing them of supporting the terrorists and as a result both her parents, a brother and her husband went missing, never to be heard from again. Her home was destroyed and after being held in a prison for a few days and personally subjected to the ultimate humiliation that a woman can endure, was released as a demonstration of mercy, so that she could attend to her children, which had been left alone, on the condition that they leave their village.
Overcoming the daily struggles of the human condition require that we learn to put our personal challenges in perspective and move on. Most hardships are easily and quickly forgotten, others, not so much. From personal experience I know that some events in my life, although not nearly as traumatic, can and do generate strong emotions, so much so that they feel as real today as if they had just occurred.
Thirty years ago, may sound like a long time ago, but to Helena it was clearly something she could not get over. Seeking justice requires her to keep the events alive. Hearing her story, put the three of us listening, in that village with her and keeping our emotions in check was very, very difficult.
Despite the horrors of her ordeal, Helena, who is now in her early sixties, walked with poise and grace, and spoke without any sign of personal shame but rather strength. The strength required to flee her village with young children, travel the long distance by whatever means to Huamaga, and with what little money she had, purchase trinkets to sell on the street so that she could feed her children. The strength required to rise from that level of destitution, to see her children attend university, and even though publicly funded, provide them with all the associated costs like books and materials, not to mention food, clothing and shelter.
La Defensoria del Pueblo, has taken on her case, under an existing law intended to settle damage claims against the Peruvian government, dating back to those dark days. The process is long and complicated, as they establish the validity of her accusations and negotiate the extent of her pain… When asked, after reaching the end of her tragic story, if she had anything more to add, she insisted on drawing attention to the support she has and continues to receive from La Defensoria, fully aware that what she was sharing with us, would serve a greater purpose by helping CUSO International to put a face and a voice to the good work it does and, thereby, providing material to use in it’s Fund Raising efforts.
Here but by the grace of God go us.