Weatherhead Resident Scholar
Memory and Truth in the Shadow of War: Local and National Reconciliation in the Andes
During Peru’s “dirty war” between Maoist Shining Path rebels and state forces (1980–2000), the Quechua-speaking peasants in Ayacucho suffered violence by both sides. Many villagers initially supported the rebels but shifted to the state when the Shining Path’s authoritarian nature became clear. Despite this, state forces continually raided peasant villages suspected to be “rebel strongholds.” At the same time, Shining Path frequently attacked villagers, often posing as state military patrols, to massacre peasants they called “traitors to the revolution.”
“Villagers repeatedly told me about ways that they had been engañado, meaning both tricked and betrayed, by rebels and the state,” says Caroline Yezer, who conducted over two years of fieldwork in a small highland village in Ayacucho. When Peru initiated a state-led Truth Commission in 2002 to research and document both state and rebel war crimes, the villagers participated eagerly — but the experience proved unnerving.
The Commission’s general survey questions touched on their compromised history and elicited anxiety, suspicion and ultimately, rejection. “Like the simulated military uniforms worn by attacking rebels, people said the whole inquiry was all a ruse, meant to fool villagers into betraying themselves again,” Yezer explains.
These conspiracy theories resonated with Biblically-inspired rumors circulating among growing converts from Catholicism to Evangelismo, or born-again Christianity. In Yezer’s dissertation, Memory and Truth in the Shadow of War: Local and National Reconciliation in the Peruvian Andes, she examines how, for some villagers, Christian Gospel prophesies—rather than the humanitarian rhetoric of the Truth Commission—shaped the recounting of the war. Apocalyptic rhetoric offered villagers a context for both the terrors of the war and the ongoing brutal treatment by the state police aimed at controlling the drug trade and destroying their livelihood.
“As truth commissions become a global standard to mark a nation’s transition from abusive to democratic regimes, we must understand the dissent that may exist alongside them,” observes Yezer. “Anthropology is in an excellent position to show the local meanings behind rejection of official peacekeeping projects. In Peru, challenges to the Truth Commission were not irrational, but alternative forms of testifying to the violence and exclusion of peasants in the Andes today.”
Affiliation at time of award:
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University