My earliest memory of Peru is a newspaper photograph from 1980 of dead dogs hanging from lamp posts in downtown Lima. Their stiff bodies were wrapped in posters that said: deng xiaoping son of a bitch. In the picture, bewildered policemen are cutting down the bodies in the early-morning light. Some of the dogs drip blood, others are painted black, but most are simply dead.
I was living in Mexico, where my family had been granted political asylum. My father was neither a terrorist nor a bomber. He was just a left-wing journalist. But back in those years, that was reason enough to be exiled. We would avidly read any news about Peru, and on this occasion the papers carried a photo of cops cutting down dogs. The street beyond the dogs looked filthy, dismal. To me, the black-and-white photo was the real colour of the city. I was five years old and that, insofar as I understood things, was my country.
In our house, the picture – and the murders that came later – was the subject of lengthy deliberations. My father’s friends wondered if the time was ripe for a revolution in Peru. For all of them, revolution in Latin America was imminent, as inevitable as hurricanes in the Caribbean. They never wondered if it would come but only when, and in which countries it would triumph. At home, in long sessions cloudy with cigarette smoke, bearded men in tortoiseshell glasses would debate, conspire, or just hide out.
While my ‘uncles’ were changing the world, we, their children, would play in my room. We must have been a rather picturesque gang – preschool kids with Sandinista Front for National Liberation T-shirts and Che Guevara notebooks. Our identification papers all said ‘political refugee’. I had a T-shirt with Saddam Hussein’s picture on it. My favourite game was ‘guerrilla warfare’.
I lived in this alternate reality until the day democracy returned to Peru, and freely elected President Fernando Belaúnde guaranteed all exiles a peaceful return. My parents were happy to return to our country. But I remembered those dogs hanging from lamp posts and didn’t think it was such a good idea.
In the mid-1980s, the Shining Path was fast becoming the most lethal guerrilla force on the continent. These revolutionaries looked nothing like my father’s friends; in point of fact, they were more radical than most Latin American subversive groups: they considered Cuba a right-wing state; the Soviet Union an imperialist equivalent of the United States. And the ‘open’ China of Deng Xiaoping was for them a revisionist regime that had betrayed true revolutionary values. They also held Che Guevara, whom they called a ‘bourgeois clown’, in contempt. And they were right about one thing: Che’s military strategy was useless in the nations of the Andes. After all, he had been captured and put to death in Bolivia, a country geographically similar to southern Peru. So rather than copy the tactics of guerrillas all over the continent, the Shining Path studied Mao’s experiment and designed a war for poor peasants, or peasants who were in a pitiable state beyond poverty.
Instead of buying weapons from Cuba or Nicaragua, the Peruvian Maoists killed people with rocks, clubs and knives in hand-to-hand combat. That gave them operational independence. But it also desensitized them when it came to using violence. Besides, the senderistas wore no uniforms but disguised themselves as civilians and under this cover harassed the army. In turn, the armed forces began firing on the civilian population. Finally, the senderistas tried not to win over the population because it was equally effective to terrorize them. For instance, in the early 1980s in the village of Lucanamarca, they used machetes to kill sixty-nine people in a single day. And ten years later, on 16 July 1992, they packed a car with half a ton of plastic explosives and blew up a business street called Tarata during the rush hour. Twenty-six people died that night, with 150 wounded. More than four hundred businesses and 164 apartments were destroyed. Doing things like that made them into the most lethal guerrilla force on the continent.
The Shining Path took control of a third of rural Peru. But to win the war against the state they would have to conquer the capital, which is where I lived. The senderistas’ strategy was to seize control of the poor neighbourhoods around Lima and from there to attack the population within the city. Tales of hordes of beggars who would some day charge down from the hills to attack our houses and steal our belongings fuelled my childhood nightmares.
The violence also created daily inconveniences. We learned to put tape on our windows so they wouldn’t shatter when the shockwave from a bomb blast hit. We learned to dive for the floor when we heard shots. If we ate out, we would dine early so we could get home before curfew or, conversely, we would go to parties very late so we could return after curfew. We learned never to park opposite military installations because the soldiers had standing orders to fire on any parked car. Over time, you can get used to anything.
The most frequent – the signature senderista terrorist attacks – were power outages, which they produced by dynamiting the towers carrying high-tension wires. They always chose Christmas or New Year, when families would be at home, to inflict maximum inconvenience. And always at midnight. Power outages were the only events in Peru that took place punctually.
The Shining Path used these outages as a show of strength, and to confirm their message they’d often follow up with explosions in the hills surrounding the city. Another treat were fires in the shape of a hammer and sickle, blazing in the night. No one dared to put them out.
One day in May 1999, almost twenty years after I saw the photo of the dogs, I entered the Picsi jail in the northern city of Chiclayo. It had been designed for 300 prisoners, but at the time it held 974, 252 condemned for ‘acts of treason against the Nation’, the legal term that included terrorism.
By then the reign of the Shining Path seemed like ancient history. For seven years, we’d had no bombs, no power outages, and the senderistas leader Abimael Guzmán was in prison. End of story. Apart from that, I knew very little about the history of the movement, and until then I had never seen a terrorist with my own eyes.
It was the first time I’d ever entered a high-security prison. At the entrance, a policeman took away my camera. And two steps inside, the air seemed twice as heavy as outside. Between the Picsi prisoners and freedom there were two walls, each eight metres high, topped with barbed wire and separated by what was called a no-man’s-land, a grey, arid space ten metres wide.
No-man’s-land was the first sign we were entering hell. The police playing cards and wiping off the sweat on their necks with their shirtsleeves knew that this was not the best place for getting promoted, and they eventually took out their frustration by spitting on the cell bars. Many of the prisoners leaning against those bars hadn’t seen anything but those walls for ten years: their outdoor time was limited to the yards inside each pavilion. For sixteen prisoners with life sentences in Pavilion E, no-man’s-land was the last horizon they’d ever see.
In those days, I worked in the Public Defender’s Department, a government institution whose remit included supporting the work of the human rights activist Father Hubert Lanssiers. The government’s counter-terrorist policies had resulted in the unfair arrest and incarceration of hundreds of innocent men. Lanssiers had been charged by the president with interviewing prisoners who had requested re-evaluation. He would review their cases and recommend pardons if he thought they had been jailed without proof or had been the victims of bogus trials during the last years of the war against terrorism. Lanssiers was not popular with the authorities, and public opinion was also against him. The entire country believed that it was better that ten innocent men be in jail than for one terrorist to be free. After seven years of peace, the army and the police could admit a few mistakes. They would call these abuses ‘caring too much’ about security.
That day in May 1999, Lanssiers, two lawyers and I walked into Pavilion E. Lanssiers, the tallest, led the way through the phalanx of prisoners, who silently made way for us to pass. I noted nervously that we had no escort, and when we reached the pavilion’s central patio, where the tables for ceramic work and the weights with which the prisoners worked out were located, I understood we wouldn’t need any.
The imprisoned senderistas did not glare at us in the defiant, challenging and proud way they did when posing for the camera crews that recorded their arrests. And they weren’t shouting out the incendiary slogans I had seen emblazoned on their banners. Some of them were arrogant, but Lanssiers’ stare was even tougher than theirs, and he spoke with a confidence that won respect. ‘I’ve been here for eight years,’ said the first prisoner we interviewed. ‘And I was sentenced to twenty more. I was locked up because a neighbour who was a terrorist and who wanted to get even with me lodged a false accusation. My family is on the outside – just three women and a boy. They can’t farm my land, so we’re going to lose it. My daughter became a prostitute just to survive. What’s the use of having me here? If my case isn’t reviewed soon, what’s going to become of my children? Of course they’re going to become criminals.’
I whispered to the lawyer who accompanied me: ‘This guy was screwed over. He’s right.’
The lawyer smiled and whispered in my ear: ‘This guy? This is Comrade XXX. He murdered twenty-six people in cold blood. His case has already been reviewed.’
Lanssiers listened to every man who spoke and assured each one that cases would be examined, but that anyone who had committed murder would never be freed. He didn’t say it to challenge them. It was, simply, the truth. But he said it looking right at Comrade XXX and other prisoners whose crimes he knew. I was impressed at the respect he showed even them, the murderers, as he fixed his gaze on them. I later discovered that was the same way he looked at the police, government functionaries and lawyers. It was a stony blue-eyed stare that reduced everyone to the same level. You were a human being, nothing more, nothing less.
It was hard for me to understand that stare of his and the fact that he hated no one. Some of the Picsi prisoners had taken part in the Tarata attack, which took place a kilometre away from where I was living. The apartment of a family friend was blown to pieces. It could have been mine. So that day, in Pavilion E, face to face with the perpetrators, I felt absolutely no pity for them and certainly no respect.
We left Picsi when it was already getting dark, worn out after talking with more than a hundred men. We needed a drink. In the hotel bar, Lanssiers ordered a glass of milk and spoke more readily but still in the same direct Spanish he used to speak to the senderistas. Only his Rs betrayed his francophone origins. He smoked black-tobacco Incas, the cheapest and smelliest cigarettes on the market. He would light the next with the butt of the one he was finishing. I eventually worked up the courage to make a point: ‘You seem very used to talking with murderers.’
‘The important thing is that they get used to me,’ he answered drily.
‘Of course. But it’s easy to see that you didn’t live through what we did. Since you’re a foreigner . . .’
I said that with a certain air of condescension because I was used to well-intentioned Europeans who thought the laws that worked in Sweden would work in Peru. Like many Peruvians, I accepted the ever tougher laws against terrorism and drug dealing, even those allowing terrorists to be judged by anonymous tribunals. That was the way to subdue them.
Other things annoyed me. During those years the Intelligence Service had expanded its powers to the point where it controlled practically everything, and the Internal Revenue Service had become a political blackmail agency. The government had dissolved the Constitutional Court and nullified the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Human Rights Court. But I still believed – a point I tried to make to Lanssiers – that in order to democratize the regime all subjects related to terrorism had to be removed from public debate, because they only discredited those of us who favoured democracy.
After listening to my argument, which I thought ironclad, Father Lanssiers smiled and ordered another glass of milk. Then he said to me: ‘When I was a boy, I lived in a small city near Brussels. I remember the immense joy we all felt on 10 May 1940, when we got to school and found the doors locked. We didn’t know why. It’s true that war was in the air. Hitler’s speeches were on the radio and my parents, who spoke German, knew what was going on. But my friends and I were eleven years old, and all that seemed a bit fanciful to us. So we went home, running around and playing. Five minutes later, planes appeared in the sky, and people came out shouting to us to get down on the ground as the bombs began falling. Playtime was over.’
Lanssiers’ voice appeared to have only one tone. At no time did it get louder or express emotion. He could recount an execution as if it were a recipe. This was the case even when he talked about his family. ‘My grandmother had it much worse than we did. She lived on the triple border of Holland and Germany, where the Germans launched a parachute attack. The SS invaded the village and shot her. My aunt died buried under the ruins of her own house. The people who found her saw that her death hadn’t been instantaneous because on the ground next to her were the marks left by her nails as she tried to scratch her way out. In that town, not a single house was left standing.’
From that moment on, as Father Lanssiers told it, his family lived and slept in the basement, where there was less danger from bombs. When they finally managed to flee towards the sea, the Messerschmidts followed them all along the road to Dunkirk where the British were boarding ships. The one the Lanssiers were to escape on was sunk and amid the terrifying sirens of the bombers, the blown-up tanks and the corpses, Lanssiers remembered his mother gathering her children together so that, at least, they would all die together.
His mother had experience of war. She’d been captured several times by the Germans during the First World War in Liège where she’d served as a courier for Free Holland. His father, moreover, was a rabid socialist who’d fought in the Foreign Legion. At home, the family awakened to the sound of the bugle and went to sleep with the Internationale as a lullaby. I asked Lanssiers if being a socialist wasn’t practically a crime to the Nazis. He presented me with a smoky smile: ‘It was all the same. The mere fact of existing was a crime to the Nazis.’
When he finished his tale – which utterly demolished my argument that ‘he hadn’t suffered the way I had’ – I fully expected a homily about tolerance and forgiveness. But it never came. Lanssiers didn’t pontificate or philosophize about that time beyond a few words charged with black humour. His feelings seemed composed of a sceptical silence. I had to ask: ‘Why did you choose to come to Peru?’
Lanssiers swallowed the rest of his milk and stuffed out his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray. ‘I haven’t been able to choose many things in life.’ Then he said goodnight and went up to his room. The next day, we all went back to Lima.
Some weeks after the visit to Picsi, a report reached my office about an incident that had taken place in the Yanamayo Maximum Security Prison in Puno, a place high in the Andes near the border with Bolivia, where several senderistas leaders were serving their sentences.
Conditions in Yanamayo had already brought about rioting. The temperature would fall to -10°C at night, and there was no heating. The prison was far from any town or military installation, and the National Police (themselves under military control) rarely allowed personal visits or civilian inspections. This most recent riot had sparked when prison authorities tried to confiscate all radios, which were prohibited inside the jail, along with books, magazines and newspapers. The prisoners refused to hand over their radios. The police called in a regional prosecutor who, following established procedure, made an ‘official’ demand. Again, the prisoners refused. Without repeating the demand, the prosecutor departed, leaving the prison in the hands of a battalion from the Special Operations Command.
The next day, three terrorist leaders were evacuated. The bruises on their bodies showed they’d been raped with nightsticks, which the authorities referred to as ‘the rods of the law’. No other criminals were allowed to leave.
The press did not cover the incident. No one mentioned it. Many newspapers at the time were carrying out a campaign to show that candidates opposed to the government were homosexuals. One of the papers, El Chino, had actually published a photo of two pigs’ heads. Under the picture were the names of the anti-government candidates.
My office could not release information about Yanamayo without sacrificing the already slight confidence the military had in us, so we had no possibility of intervening. The report had come to me simply so that I could correct the spelling and punctuation. But I wondered how many similar situations were happening out of the public eye. Murders carried out ‘for our well-being’. How many crimes were silently allowed to go unprosecuted, because nobody wanted to know?
I started to hear stories. A few months later, during an official trip to the city of Ayacucho, the birthplace of the Shining Path, I was introduced to a peasant, Angélica Mendoza, who led an association of the families of the disappeared. At dawn, on 2 July 1983, the army had taken away Angélica’s son, Arquímedes Ascarza. Angélica remembered that there had been about thirty men armed with rifles and automatic weapons, some wearing uniforms, others in civilian clothes. They got out of two trucks and almost knocked the door down as they forced their way into her house. They beat Arquímedes’s brothers, kicked his father and threatened them with rifles as they lay face down on the floor. They searched – that is, destroyed – the house, looking for something, although no one knew what. All they found was Arquímedes, barefoot and in pyjamas. Swearing and cursing, they dragged him outside.
Despite the weapons pointed at her face, Angélica clung to Arquímedes with all her might. So they dragged her to the truck too and kicked her until she let him go. Angélica screamed for her neighbour Eutemio, a policeman, to help, but he wouldn’t leave his house. From the truck, Arquímedes told his mother to pick him up the next day at the barracks. That was the last time she saw her son. He was nineteen and had dreams of joining the police force.
Hours after her son’s arrest, Angélica’s tragic odyssey through the barracks and police stations in Huamanga province began. The army said it knew nothing, that maybe the Republican Guard might have information. The Republican Guard sent her to the Civil Guard, who suggested the Investigation Police. Everywhere, the answer was always the same: ‘We know nothing, mamacita. We know nothing.’
Two weeks later, a man suspected of terrorism but now freed from the Los Cabitos military base, handed Angélica a letter from her son. The writing was shaky, but it at least reassured her that her son was alive. Arquímedes told her he’d been tortured, that if he complained, they’d shut him up and torture him again. His cellmate told Angélica that a woman, unable to endure more torture herself, had denounced Arquímedes as a terrorist. That’s why he was imprisoned. The last thing the cellmate had learned was that Arquímedes had been put on a helicopter.
Mad with despair, Angélica began to search the ravines where the bodies of the dead were tossed: Puracuti, Paycochallocc, Huascahura. One constant in the bodies she found were signs of torture. Sometimes, the physical mistreatment was so severe it was the obvious cause of death. Other times, she’d find bodies with their hands tied behind their backs, on their knees, with bullet wounds in the back of the neck or temples. Generally, the executioner delivered the coup de grâce in the back of the head so he wouldn’t have to look his victim in the eye.
The technique for effacing the identity of the bodies varied. Many were blown apart with explosives or had their eyes gouged out. Soldiers often guarded the mass graves. Sometimes, Angélica tried to dig up the graves, and soldiers would threaten to kill her. Her only response was, ‘If you want to kill me, kill me, but first tell me where my son is.’ The nervous soldiers would insult her, shove her, pull her away from the ravines, but she’d insult them in turn and fight over the bodies with the scavenging dogs and pigs that inevitably gathered at the mass graves. All she wanted to know was if Arquímedes was there, the only thing she needed was confirmation of his death.
None of the young conscripts had the nerve to shoot at her. As they became ever more familiar with her, they stopped trying to keep her out. On one occasion, in the Quinua cemetery, not far from Ayacucho, the police even disinterred fifteen bodies so that Angélica could look them over. ‘None of these can be your son,’ they said. ‘These were brought by navy people at Esccana.’ Angélica recognized a teacher from San Miguel and his entire class. Before she left, the police said to her, ‘You are a mother, we all have mothers. Pray for us, please, so that nothing happens to us.’
Other times, she would get to a mass grave only to find that the bodies had no heads or that the faces had been painted over. As Angélica told me her story, I began to think that we were from two different countries at war with each other. In mine, all I had to do to protect myself was to put tape on my windows to keep them from breaking. Angélica could do nothing.
Lanssiers would frequently visit my office – actually the office of my boss, the Public Defender. Whenever he came, I tried to chat with him, but he didn’t remember me or our conversation. And even if he did, he was not the kind of person who wasted time in idle chit-chat. He went straight to business.
At one point Lanssiers published a collection of articles and my boss offered either (I don’t remember which) to host a presentation or to write something about the book in the newspaper. Politicians have no time to write and part of my job was to write the speeches and articles that my boss then revised and signed. The article on Lanssiers’ book was no exception.
The collection consisted of old articles about emergency humanitarian situations the priest had witnessed in Asia. His style was as acrid and cutting as his manner of speech, and his common-sense attitude neutralized the brutality of the events he described.
I isolated the facts of Lanssiers’ biography so I could write my review. After the Second World War, Lanssiers joined the Allied occupation army in Cologne. His comrades sold weapons, blew up houses using compressed air bombs, exchanged cigarettes for women. Nevertheless, they still seemed more civilized than the Nazis. Later, in the mid-1950s, he joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and went off to do missionary work in Hokkaido, the coldest, most miserable and most solitary part of Japan. Finally, he was sent to Indochina, at the same moment the Khmer Rouge was on the rise.
His job was giving spiritual support to Catholics wherever he could find them. There were not many. No less important was the information he sent to his superiors in Japan.
As a ‘spy for God’, Lanssiers tried to get into Saigon before the Vietnamese took control, but he arrived three days too late and had to flee to Cambodia with the French forces who had fought against the Communists and were now retreating towards the Mekong. For a decade, he lived through the French withdrawal, the arrival of the Americans, and the advance of the Vietcong (on one side) and the advance of Pol Pot (on the other). He travelled with the South Vietnamese rangers who invaded Cambodia. Fascinated by the war, Lanssiers felt right at home with the combatants. ‘Even the stomach problems I’d had for a long time disappeared as soon as I arrived.’ Instead of battle fatigue, he felt frustration when he learned of a fight in which he couldn’t participate.
But the major conflicts did end, as did his adventure. In 1979, his superiors in Japan ordered his transfer, and he found himself aboard a banana ship sailing from Tokyo to Latin America. By then Lanssiers looked more like an adventurer or a refugee than a priest.
At this point in my life, I was fed up with Peru. Before I worked in the Public Defender’s Office, I was a scriptwriter for a TV soap opera. The channel, which also had an opposition news programme, was expropriated from its owner by the government, and turned over to the minority shareholders. The programming changed. My next writing opportunity was scuppered when the principal actor in the comedy I was to write scripts for was hired away by the state channel, and his writers were assigned by the junta. Television work disappeared from my future.
Later on, an official newspaper hired me as a journalist. It was almost a fictitious business, because it was never really sold on the streets. Its only function was to publish front pages favourable to the government. In turn, the government showed its thanks by supporting the owner’s other businesses. Many of the political columnists didn’t believe in what they were writing but they had families to support and so they didn’t complain. The editorial writers created a contest – who could write an article in favour of the government in the shortest time? The record was five minutes twenty seconds.
My prospects, you see, were pathetic. Even so, compared with the stories I kept discovering about people like Angélica Mendoza, my problems seemed more like those of a spoiled rich boy. I suppose those of us who’ve had a religious education but whose families are left-wing have two handicaps: guilt and that thing we call a ‘social conscience’. We may try to repress them, but it’s impossible. I felt like a bourgeois cockroach.
So I embarked on a modest heroic quest of my own. I decided to immerse myself in the subject of the disappeared in order to write an article that would include statements by Lanssiers. I hoped his name would enable me to sell the piece to one of the opposition newspapers. After all, Lanssiers had been linked to the paradoxical combination of humanitarianism and terrorism ever since those issues had taken centre stage in Peru. But he avoided interviews, political statements, or taking a position. That attitude enhanced his value.
I thought, given what I knew about him, that I could get Lanssiers to make some forceful comments. With regard to general information about the disappeared in Peru, I had at my disposal the institution where I worked and its archives. The Public Defender’s Department analysed 7,762 disappearances, of which 1,674 were found alive, 514 were found dead, and 4,022 remained in a mysterious limbo. Years later, we would learn that almost 70,000 people had died or disappeared since 1980, more than those who had disappeared as a result of the repressions of the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships combined.
I thought all that information would oblige the taciturn Lanssiers to make a forceful statement. Besides, a new factor was nourishing my hopes: at the time, the commission in charge of pardons for the innocent had finished its work. The Public Defender’s Department had announced its decision to place observers in the 2000 elections. To punish us, the government transferred all the commission’s pending cases to the Justice Department. It was a favourable moment for Lanssiers to raise his voice against the regime.
I spent two weeks annoying his secretary before getting through to him. I told her that I had to speak with him in person without admitting that what I wanted was an interview – a request I suspected he would probably turn down. Every time I called, I repeated that I was working in the Public Defender’s Office, in the hope of gaining her confidence. Finally, I did get to speak with the priest, and I requested the interview. ‘Are we going to talk about politics?’ he asked. ‘I don’t talk about politics. There are things that are not worth discussing.’
‘We’re going to talk about your memories, Father Lanssiers. Your story.’
‘Frankly, I have no idea who’d be interested in my story.’
But he did grant me the interview, even though he still did not remember me.
Lanssiers received me in an austere office inside a school attended by middle-class boys and girls and run by his order. From the moment he lit his first Inca, we both understood that we were engaged in a fight. I wanted him to give me a juicy headline, and he wanted to stick to his story about working in the prisons.
‘The first time I walked into a pavilion crowded with senderistas in the Frontón prison, I was given an icy reception,’ Lanssiers told me. ‘When I asked to speak with their delegate, I was sent from one man to another, until I said, “This is like the Vatican when you want to talk to the Pope. First you have to talk to the bishop and then with another bishop who takes you to a monsignor, who takes you to another…” But my comment had no effect. They had no sense of humour. When I finally managed to meet the delegate, he tried to indoctrinate me. I had to make a deal: “I won’t catechize you, and you shouldn’t catechize me.” Then we began to get along well.’
In the eighties, the senderistas were not like the other prisoners. They believed they belonged to an unbreakable collectivity. They had their own ceremonies with red banners and pictures of Mao. They wore khaki uniforms in the Chinese style and marched singing anthems, all with much more discipline than the police. Paradoxically, they soon declared their area in the Frontón jail a ‘liberated zone’. No soldier or civilian, unless he was a member of the party, was allowed to enter their Blue Pavilion. Only bullets entered.
Father Lanssiers was the prison chaplain. His first task was to obtain mattresses for the prisoners who until then had slept on stone beds. He came up with the idea to telephone the recently elected president of Peru, Fernando Belaúnde. Lanssiers had no contacts and made no attempts to work through established channels. ‘I didn’t think much about my powers in those days.’ He called the president’s office directly and, incredibly, weeks later, he did reach the president. In a rage, Belaúnde ordered mattresses to be sent to Frontón because ‘it’s shameful that foreigners should be the ones who show concern for our own prisoners’.
But not all the authorities treated the chaplain so cordially. His incomprehensible concern for the terrorists and his constant warnings in newspaper articles about innocent people being jailed unjustly made people suspect he was a subversive. The navy obstructed him in every way it could, and the National Anti-Terrorism Department kept him under surveillance for years. If they still allowed him to visit jails, it was because he was the only one the senderistas would admit to their pavilions.
‘So your relationship with the armed forces has always been tense?’ I deliberately interrupted him.
‘Anyone’s relationship with armed people is usually tense. And in those days, the cops usually shot, almost as a hobby. They’d kill dogs, birds and sometimes people. One day they killed two prisoners. When the prosecutor and the judge went in to examine the bodies, they were held hostage. Then I was called in. I was worried because I’d left the car parked where it would be stolen, so I wanted to resolve the matter quickly. I said to the senderistas, “Just once, the prosecutor and the judge explain to the cops that people are not to be killed, and what do you do? You kidnap them. Are you crazy?”
‘What they wanted was to perform their own rituals over the bodies, a liturgy much more complicated than the Catholic rite. “Comrade So-and-So, murdered by that dog Belaúnde, the Revolutionary Army will avenge you . . .” The comrades, wearing ski masks, would repeat each sentence nine times and give speeches against each of the functionaries. And if the functionaries tried to speak, they’d be silenced.
‘I had to spend the whole night there to protect the officials. At about five in the morning, the senderistas began to debate whether they should return the bodies. Two more hours. Finally one came and said, “Comrade, we decided that we aren’t going to return the bodies to the traitorous reactionaries . . . We’re going to give them to you.” All I could think was, “What luck that they’re rather light.” I carried them out and gave them back to the reactionaries. The car wasn’t stolen but, of course, no one was punished for the murders.
‘Another time, they took the entire administrative staff of the National Penitentiary Institute prisoner. I’d get a call every night. That was in 1985. The next year, in July, the terrorists in the principal prisons all rioted at the same time. These were repressed using the quick method: in a single day, almost three hundred prisoners were murdered. The orders came directly from the government of Alan García.’
‘Would you say then that President García was a murderer?’
‘If I started condemning all the murderers I know, I’d have to find another line of work.’
That was strike two. I’d have to forget my headline and just try to listen.
‘Father, have you ever felt fear?’
‘I don’t know. I think I lack imagination. In some situations I would have been smarter if I had been afraid.’
‘What is the most lethal group you ever encountered?’
‘The Khmer Rouge. They were irrational. The senderistas are irrational too, but they’ve changed. Now they have a sense of humour.’
‘What if a group like the Khmer Rouge took power in Peru? Would you be afraid then?’
Lanssiers put out his last cigarette, which barely fitted into the ashtray. Everything seemed to suggest that he was finally going to express a feeling, perhaps even make a statement about values because, for the first time, he waited a few, almost imperceptible seconds, thinking over his answer.
‘Yes, I’d be afraid. But I wouldn’t leave. It’s a matter of principle. In simple terms, you have to do something to keep people from one another. And often, all it takes is for enemies to get to know one another.’
After three hours of conversation, Lanssiers reached no conclusions, gave me no answers, resolved not one doubt. He eluded any question that implied an opinion and refused to say anything that wasn’t a pure, direct narrative told with a total absence of emotion about the things he’d seen. I left his office with something too long to publish anywhere and with my head filled with things no one wanted to know.
I wrote the article but it was rejected even by the opposition newspapers and despite the information I managed to eke out of Lanssiers about the disappeared. The argument was that there was no ‘hook’ or angle to the story; it didn’t fit in with the picture of Lanssiers. One of the editors suggested it would be better if I wrote about pretty girls on the beach. Something with nice photos.
Months later, on 11 October 2000, I left Peru.
I was living in Spain when I learned about Father Lanssiers’ death. His two-pack-a-day cigarette habit wasn’t the cause. He had died of a ruptured ulcer. At the request of the prisoners, the priest’s coffin went to three jails, and in each it lay in state. Standing next to his coffin, terrorists, soldiers, rapists, ex-ministers, thieves and drug dealers all wept.
Many things have happened in Peru and the rest of the planet since then. Many terrorists have killed in the name of beautiful things like liberty or God. And many countries have invaded others in the name of democracy or freedom. Perhaps for that reason, I’ve come to share, more than ever, the sceptical neutrality of Father Hubert Lanssiers. When two groups willing to die for grand ideals face each other, the dead quickly bury the ideals. In one way or another, Deng’s dogs are still hanging from the lamp posts of the world, and the only thing that changes is the colour of their cold fur.
Photograph © Carlos Bendezú / Revista Caretas