Page last updated at 13:23 GMT, Thursday, 29 October 2009

Peru's lingering war wounds

Funeral procession
A funeral procession is held for villagers massacred by soldiers 25 years ago

Few wounds heal more slowly than those inflicted by a civil war. Dan Collyns reports from Peru where people are still struggling for reconciliation nearly a decade after the killing ended.

It was too late for the vet to save Tino and Zorrita. The Labradors died from poison which had been left on the doorstep of their owner's home in a middle-class Lima suburb.

Then came the telephone calls. "What we did to your dogs. We are going to do to you," said the deep-voiced caller.

Salomon Lerner, a university rector, is not, you might think, the typical target for death threats. Some years ago, he was president of Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an exhaustive investigation into the country's bitter civil war between 1980 and 2000.

Now, along with Peru's most famous author, Mario Vargas Llosa, he is part of a commission to create a museum of remembrance for the victims.

Peru defence minister Rafael Rey

The forces of order were defending society and there were excesses which I neither deny nor justify

Rafael Rey
Peru's defence minister

But memory is controversial in Peru.

Three decades ago, dead dogs were hung from lampposts - symbols of the capitalist state which the Shining Path proclaimed it would overthrow in a popular revolution, irrigated by a river of blood.

But the Shining Path do not kill dogs anymore.

Salomon Lerner's Labradors were, it appears, poisoned by an extreme faction of Peru's political right who disagree, sometimes violently, with the conclusions of the commission he presided over.

The state-sponsored commission concluded that, while the Shining Path was the main perpetrator of what it called "extreme violence and unusual cruelty", the armed forces had to share the blame for the deaths of some 69,280 people in the brutal internecine conflict.

According to its findings, the armed forces were responsible for about a third of those deaths and disappearances.

Precious few military leaders have ever faced trial, and many military officers and politicians, including ministers in President Alan Garcia's government, openly reject the commission's findings, accusing it of a left-wing bias and overestimating casualties.

Peru's defence minister, Rafael Rey, is one of them. He told the BBC the commission's estimate was far above the real number of deaths.

"The forces of order were defending society and there were excesses which I neither deny nor justify," he admitted.

A glance at any tabloid-plastered kiosk on a Lima street corner shows that more than a decade after the end of the conflict, there are many versions of the truth, and reconciliation is a long way off.

Some papers show outrage at the threats against Mr Lerner's life, others accuse the 'caviares' - a term used to ridicule middle-class liberals - of fishing for public sympathy.

But Salomon Lerner is not the only philosophy professor making headlines in Peru.

Standing ovations

Abimael Guzman, the Shining Path's jailed leader - once a provincial university professor - had his book of memoirs published recently under the noses of the authorities.

His lawyer, a former political prisoner who smuggled the manuscripts out of his client's solitary cell, was duly charged with attempting to justify terrorism and the book was removed from sale.

The book launch, in a non-descript hotel in downtown Lima, attracted several hundred Shining Path supporters, among them former political prisoners and their families.

Map of peru

As I sat there trying to spot undercover policemen among the audience, I was amazed at the turnout and the standing ovations for a book written by the defeated leader of a defunct and totally discredited communist movement whose principal victims had been the very people it purported to defend.

The 74-year-old man once known as 'Presidente Gonzalo' now spends his remaining days in solitary confinement, but with the luxury of a personal library.

Clinging to his personal Maoist-Leninist-Marxist beliefs, his absurdly doctrinaire code which unleashed the deadliest violence in Peru's history, seems starkly anachronistic amid the bustle and commerce of modern Lima.

Ironically, he shares the high security naval base jail in Lima's port, Callao, with Vladimiro Montesinos, the ex-intelligence chief who negotiated Mr Guzman's public call to end the armed struggle.

Mass grave

After two years in and out of court, Mr Montesinos's boss, the former president Alberto Fujimori, is also beginning a long stretch convicted of human rights abuses.

Many of the women were raped before they died

The former adversaries now face spending the rest of their lives in prison.

The sixth anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's findings passed this year without recognition from the government.

For the villagers of Putis, in the highlands of Ayacucho, the day was an opportunity to finally bury the victims of a massacre by soldiers 25 years ago.

The exhumation of a mass grave revealed the remains of more than 120 civilians, including children. Many of the women were raped before they died.

No member of the military has been prosecuted for the crime. The soldiers used noms-de-guerre, and Mr Rey says there is simply no record of who was posted to the military base in December 1984.

Unacceptable, says Peru's human rights ombudswoman, Beatriz Merino. Many agree with her, and forensic scientists continue to work on other sites unearthing more evidence of the past, no matter how much some people might want to bury it.

Every time a chapter seems to close on Peru's tumultuous past, the book insistently opens up on a new page.

Peru began the new century with democracy and prosperity, yet I am reminded of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's motto - a country which forgets its history is condemned to repeat it.

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