e-mail us


No one to speak for dead Peru rebels


More than a month has passed since those rebel voices in Peru were silenced. Most were uneducated teenagers or young adults.

Last December the Túpac Amaru commando unit overwhelmed guards at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru. The siege of the compound eventually led to the April 22 military raid and the deaths of one hostage, two soldiers and all 14 members of the commando unit.

Various reports indicated some were executed as they pleaded for their lives. They had already released most of their captives and by several press accounts resisted executing some others when they had the chance just seconds before their own deaths.

We never got to know them personally.

One of the youngest rebels, a teenage woman, it was reported, grew homesick during the 126-day ordeal. "She cried at night, asking for her mother," said police Col. Marco Miyashiro, a former intelligence chief and one of the freed captives. "They sent her to the first floor and banned her from contact with the hostages."

After the siege ended, Bolivian Ambassador Jorge Gumucio described the commando unit as "four adults and 10 children."

Said Cardinal Augusto Vargas Alzamora, titular head of Peru's Roman Catholic church, who visited the compound: "Most of them were adolescents."

Congressman Luis Chang, one of five legislators held by the rebels, said that when he talked with the youngest rebels, it was obvious they were as anxious as the hostages to get out of the residence.

"I remember talking to one boy who wanted to go back to the jungle. He said he missed the food more than anything."

One of the two women rebels loved to watch soap operas on the television, freed hostages said. Another rebel just wanted enough land for a small farm.

Most of the younger guerrillas barely had grade-school educations and had little in common with their captives.

After President Alberto Fujimori visited Cuba in February seeking a possible place of asylum for the hostage-takers, one freed captive recalled one of the rebels asking if Cuba was reachable by bus. He was told that Cuba is an island.

Most of us don't often have the means of meeting and knowing the non-elites of Latin America where poverty is the rule and not the exception. Many times if we do listen to their voices and don't understand or like what we hear, we categorize them. They become rebels or guerrillas or members of a movement.

Whether consciously or not, the process allows us to distance ourselves from their humanity and their legitimate aspirations. Like having food enough to feed their families. Or the chance to go to school or to work or to say what they think without fear of being taken away and executed by local army units.

I am not saying the group was justified in taking hostages. I am asking what desperately poor people can do to draw our attention to their plights.

It was widely reported that just hours before the army moved in, diplomats were signaling that, at long last, progress was being made in the negotiations. A deal was being cut. Apparently some decision-makers simply didn't want a compromise.

A Canadian human rights commission sized up the April military raid saying it brought relief -- but did not address the roots of violence in Peru: poverty and "growing militarism and authoritarian rule, along with a justice system that denies the most basic and internationally recognized standards of due process."

Do we care? CNN has returned to Atlanta.

One would think that with normality returned to Lima, Peru is finally back on the road to justice and democracy. Truth is, these are alien goals to the elites who rule Peru. Nor, might we conclude, are these the goals of U.S. foreign policy -- despite lip service to the contrary.

Not with the Fort Benning, Ga., School of the Americas on our land. It has trained some of the worst Latin American human rights violators.

Peru is a nation of festering disease where infant mortality rates are high and most families, when they work, barely eke out subsistence level incomes.

I remain troubled. I am troubled because the freeing of the captives appears to have done nothing whatsoever to touch on the causes that led to the hostage-taking in the first place. I am troubled because so few seem to care that the hostage-takers had legitimate grievances.

In one news release during the siege, the Túpac Amaru seemed quite reflective in assessing a moral dilemma they felt they faced. "The approach of taking over an embassy might not be right," a group member said, "since it does not correspond to our tradition, but then again, that tradition has been violated a million times over.

"There is no other way to be heard in a country where people who operate basic needs programs in the communities, such as soup kitchens and milk-for-the-poor programs, are arrested, where members of the liberal opposition are detained, where there is not the slightest sign of democracy. It was the only way available to us in order to stop an irrational economic policy, to stop the irrational violation of human rights that takes place outside the jails and worse yet inside them."

Propaganda? Not if it rings true to virtually every assessment made by human rights monitors who follow life in Peru.

All 14 rebels killed. The evidence indicates that President Fujimori ordered his troops to execute all the captors, including those who refused to execute their hostages and tried to surrender. A trial would have meant even more attention given to the rebels' causes. So much for due process.

Most of the rebels died playing soccer. They died having killed no one. Following their deaths, their families were not allowed to see their corpses -- lest evidence be gathered on how they died.

The mother of Rolly Rojas, one of the guerrillas leaders, said police did not allow the family to open his casket or hold a wake.

"They said, 'What's so important about a wake?' " said Maria Fernandez, another mother. "I told them I had not seen my son in seven years, but they just would not listen."

When will the cries of these mothers be heard?

Tom Fox is editor and publisher of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 1997