- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 16, 2002

AYACUCHO, Peru A truth commission formed to shed light on atrocities committed during two decades of civil strife heard dramatic testimony last week from relatives of the victims accounts that left several commission members in tears.

"I never thought that this day was going to come: the hour of truth and telling," said Liz Rojas Valdez, 23, whose mother was abducted by police 11 years ago and apparently tortured to death by the army, leaving her alone with her brother. "It's important that we all know the savagery that there was that a human being can be so savage and do so much harm."

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's mission is to examine the causes and political climate that led to the deaths of 30,000 people and to the disappearance of at least 6,000 more from 1980 to 2000.

Ayacucho province, a region of rugged mountains and deep, jungle-cloaked valleys, was the birthplace of the ferocious Shining Path insurgency and the site of the worst atrocities in a state-sponsored campaign of brutal repression.

Most of the people caught in the cross fire were highland Indian peasants who spoke the ancient language Quechua and have long been discriminated against by the dominant European-descended elite in Lima, the capital.

"During so many years, Peruvians preferred to turn their faces and not look straight ahead, not pay attention to the tragedy that their most humble countrymen were living," said Salomon Lerner, the commission's president.

"That is what we want to begin to change today. The truth commission wants to make the public hearings a forum for those who during many years had to suffer numerous abuses in silence."

The four days of public hearings that began last week will include testimony from 32 people. The first to speak was Angelica Mendoza, whose 19-year-old son, Arquimedes, was abducted from her home by hooded soldiers. Nearly 19 years have passed since then.

Mrs. Mendoza, who heads an association of relatives of disappeared people, said that shortly after midnight on July 2, 1983, soldiers wearing black hoods and carrying assault rifles swarmed over the 6-foot wall around her small, concrete-block home on a dirt street at the outskirts of town.

They had come for Arquimedes, a business administration student at the Universidad de Huamanga, a hotbed of rebel sympathizers. They kicked in the front door and dragged him from the house in his pajamas.

Now, as the government truth commission takes testimony and investigates 20 years of guerrilla violence and state-sponsored repression, Angelica Mendoza's story illustrates the sense of helplessness that Peru's highland Indians felt during the long years of bloodshed.

Both sides resorted to savagery. The Shining Path terrorized villages by massacring peasants who refused to join its fight, sometimes hacking them to death with hatchets. The army killed even greater numbers of people it viewed as rebel sympathizers.

Arquimedes' fate was decided by the army.

Mrs. Mendoza, 72, is a native speaker of Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas. Her face shaded by the white, high-crowned hat favored by Indian women in Ayacucho, she poured out her tale of anguish in broken Spanish, the pain of remembering palpable in her voice.

She recalled her son saying, as soldiers pulled him barefoot from his bedroom: "Mama, don't cry. I'm a big man now. Don't worry. I haven't done anything wrong."

"Why are you taking him?" Mrs. Mendoza remembers screaming at the soldiers.

"I held onto my son, and they dragged me with him to the door to the street, punching me, kicking me and twisting my arm. Only then did they get my son away from me."

The army troop carrier roared away into the dark. She ran after it, shouting for her neighbors to help. No one came out. Only when soldiers in the truck began shooting at her, did she stop and turn back.

As they were dragging her son away, one of the hooded soldiers said they were just taking him for questioning and would release him the next day at the entrance to the airport next to the army base.

"But they did not return my son to me," she said, her voice thick with sadness.

At dawn she hurried to the military base, only to be told the army had not arrested her son. She went to the local headquarters of the national police, then to the offices of the Republican Guard, a paramilitary police force. Both denied any role in her son's abduction.

"Running up and down, looking here, looking there, asking. Always the same answer: 'We know nothing,'" she said. "It was a very dangerous time. People were afraid. They even threatened the authorities."

Peru's elected government had imposed a state of emergency in the Ayacucho area to facilitate the fight against the Shining Path. The commander of the military base on the edge of town exercised political control over civilian officials, and his power went unchallenged. There was a 6 p.m. curfew. Anyone on the street after that could be shot.

Mrs. Mendoza's search for Arquimedes has continued for nearly 19 years, taking her to places of horror beyond the nightmares of most people.

With other parents, she's made frequent visits to the garbage dumps on the outskirts of Ayacucho. There, she climbed over fly-infested mounds of mutilated, decomposing bodies, mostly students from the local state university, tortured and killed by an army seeking information about the Shining Path.

The scenes were so horrific she cannot erase them from her mind. Bodies with eyes, tongues, jaws, fingernails or fingers missing. Once she found 15 bodies without heads.

Even if mothers or fathers recognized the bodies of loved ones, they were not permitted to remove them.

Soldiers with assault rifles guarded the dumps, Mrs. Mendoza said, "until the dogs and pigs finished, until they left nothing but bones. When the animals finished, there were only bones. You could not recognize them. But we would pick up what bones we could and take them to the hospital to be buried in a common grave."

After all these years, she still hopes she can find Arquimedes' body more so now that the truth commission is investigating the violence.

"We want to put a flower, a candle at his grave," she said. "That is what we all are hoping for, senor, that they turn over the remains so that we can bury them. That is what we want: truth and justice."

Miss Rojas, the second witness to testify, said her mother, Marcela, a teacher, was seized by police officers in 1991 when she went out to buy vegetables during a strike called by the Shining Path. Miss Rojas, 12 at the time, was left an orphan with her 8-year-old brother, Paul.

She said that through persistence, she became friends with one of the police officers who was participating in her mother's torture to obtain information at a military base. He told her he did not want to take part in the torture but was forced to.

Miss Rojas said the officer told her that her mother was being held in a cell so narrow she could not sit down and was being fed leftovers usually given to pigs. He also said all female prisoners were repeatedly raped.

Miss Rojas said the police officer told her that her mother had said: "Senor, you know I'm not going to get out of here alive. I ask you that you tell my daughter to take care of herself, to be strong and to never let herself be separated from Paul."

"That's what he told me," Miss Rojas said, crying softly.

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