“Give us your bicycles!”
In the Peru of the late 1980s-early 1990s, the vicious revolutionary organization Sendero Luminoso was terrorizing the Peruvian countryside. In the middle of a hot morning, near the small rural village of Sillota, four members of Sendero (known as Senderistas), dressed in dirty work clothes but each carrying a rifle or shotgun, suddenly appeared before four campesino farmers and their wives, who were working their fields. The campesinos froze. The leader of the Senderistas said, “We know who you are. We know you have bicycles. We’re official representatives of Sendero Luminoso.” (Yeah, right. Like there could be “official” representatives of a terrorist organization. But there could and they were.) “If you don’t give us your bicycles, we’ll kill you.”
In rural Peru, poor people don’t have cars and even a bicycle is extremely valuable. The campesino farmers offered what turned out to be a fatal bargain. “How about if you get on the backs of our bicycles and we’ll take you where you want to go.” It’s easy now, in hindsight, for us to see trouble ahead and yell out, as if to the actors in a scary movie who rush back into the house where the murderer lurks: “No! Don’t do it! Give them your bicycles!” But their bicycles were the only way they could get around, get to town to buy the supplies they needed and to sell small cartons of their potatoes and other crops. Without their bicycles, they’d have to walk hours for each little journey they needed to make. Their offer also showed real courage. Senderistas often killed anyone who stood in their way, without a second thought.
But the Senderistas actually accepted the campesinos’ offer and the group of eight made it into the little market town of Chillutira a few hours later. (The wives went to Sillota, gathered community leaders, and tried to figure out what to do.) In Chillutira, all hell broke loose. The Senderistas started robbing houses, townspeople began to fight back, and soon the townspeople had killed two Senderistas, with two escaping. The townspeople held the four Sillota campesinos prisoner until they could notify the Army and an Army patrol could come the next morning.
The wives got to Chillutira that night and sat up all night near their husbands. The Sillota officials got to Chillutira the next morning to vouch for the campesinos but it was too late. The Army had taken them away, along with the bodies of the two dead Senderistas. “Please, let us go with our husbands,” the Sillota wives had begged.
“No,” the Army lieutenant said. “There’s no problem. Go to the Ayaviri base. You can visit your husbands there.” But that afternoon the Army truck arrived in the larger town of Ayaviri with all four campesinos dead, having been shot at close range. The Army claimed the truck had been attacked by terrorists but there were no bullet holes, they had made no radio report, and the only people injured were the campesinos.
Courageously, and with the help of human rights workers, the local prosecutor charged the Army officials involved with homicide but the Army had the case transferred to the military judicial system that, in Peru, had never convicted any Army official of any crime relating to human rights. Same thing here. The Army quickly exonerated the officers.
This was my introduction to human rights work in Peru—translating the Spanish documents, studying the case details. Holding their original identification cards, it really hit me. These had been young guys, late 20’s-early 30’s. They were flesh and blood. They had families, wives, and children to support. They had farms to tend. Their lives mattered! I felt it was important to stand up for them in any way I could, to honor them, to do whatever I could to not to let their lives just be snuffed out and forgotten.
John Wagner’s memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House), will be published in the fall, 2015.