The overnight bus from Lima was an experience I would try and avoid, if I could. We drove along the coastal plain on a muggy hot night, stopping to pick up passengers and sellers of choclo, oranges and bottled drinks, on the way, before beginning the long climb up into the sierra. It was a continual zigzag. On the upper floor we were constantly thrown from side to side which put an end to any idea of sleep. All windows were tightly closed and condensation from the heaving bodies dripped down the glass. A cockroach was trying to get into a bag of vegetables. Some passengers had already been sick and the worryingly thin sick bags were sliding around the floor. I was hoping that one didn’t burst just at my feet and I was praying that the driver would not fall asleep at the wheel. It was a long nine hours before the glimmering light of dawn eventually brought relief and the appearance of small farms and dwellings in the hills, now dotted with eucalyptus; cactus and pampas grass lightened the spirit. Then suddenly, we were there, over the hill and looking down on Ayacucho, spread out in the valley below us just coming to life and waking up to a new day.
I had a number of places on my wish list to visit during my trip but this was the one at the top. There were a number of reasons why this was so. It was here in 1824 that the battle of Ayacucho was fought and the victory that not only secured Peru’s independence from Spanish rule but signalled the end of the colonist’s power in South America. Simon Bolivar credited with the victory, changed the name of the city from Huammango to Ayacucho “the corner of the dead” or “field of blood” as a tribute to the many who died on the battlefield. It was in this city in the late 1960’s that the Sendero Luminoso was born under the inspiration of their charismatic leader, Abimael Guzmán. The “Shining Path”, was a Maoist guerrilla insurgent organisation representing pure communism, whose aim was to destroy the existing bourgeois state and replace it with a dictatorship of the proletariat which would in turn precipitate a world revolution. The brutal war between the rebels and the government force, that continued throughout the 80’s and early 90’s , resulted in thousands of deaths. Many innocents were caught in the crossfire. After the murder of one of their lieutenants, the Shining Path took revenge and massacred a whole village including old people, children and pregnant women. Guzman was unrepentant. “We responded with devastating action, neither we nor they have forgotten it, because they got an answer they didn’t possibly imagine, to be sure. lucanamarca, More than 80 were annihilated, that is the truth…. The main point to make is that we are a hard nut to crack and we are ready for anything , anything” The Christian church was a specific target for the terrorists. They refused to take the side of the revolutionaries and suffered terribly as a result. Many congregations were slaughtered and pastors killed. One of those was Rómulo Sauñe Quicaña. He came from a rural community and it is possible that he was descendant from the Inca royal household. He heard about Jesus as a teenager and gave his life to serving his Lord as a pastor among the Quechua people introducing new hymns in the Quechua language, using traditional instruments. As a gifted linguist, he assisted with the translating of the bible into Quechua. The effects of this work were truly revolutionary. The Quechan Christians now had a confidence and assurance in their faith that the Maoists with their dehumanising philosophy could not match. When you know that you are loved by God, being sold the idea that you are an economic unit as part of the proletariat mass holds no attraction. Because Rómulo Sauñe and others refused to bow the knee to the ideology of the Shining Path or to their methods, he was hated. Coming home from visiting a local church in 1992 his bus was stopped at a road block and he and four companions were murdered. Two weeks later Guzmán was captured in an apartment above a dance studio in a fashionable suburb in Lima and the war was effectively over. In 1987, at the height of the conflict, the Ayacucho Quechuan bible was first published but because of the upheaval and migration over the years, this had to be fully revised and republished. It was dedicated in May 2013 . Those who were there at the dedication describe it as a very moving scene, when massed choirs approached the city square from four corners and thousands joined the celebration, among them, many who had lost family members in the war and who had come through great suffering. I wanted to see the site of the ancient battle. I wanted to walk down those streets. I wanted to be in that square.
Arriving at the bus station that morning my thoughts, however, were not so much with the history and the events that unfolded in this place but with how dreadful I felt. This was brought on partly by the overnight journey and partly on account of the altitude. I was told that when you arrive at altitude the first thing you should do is nothing: no lifting, no walking and no work, just rest, for half an hour or so to allow your lungs to become accustomed to the thinness of the air. I wanted just to sit, but my companion was insistent that we find a hotel first of all. So we took a taxi to the city and called on a few dubious establishments. Each was regarded, by my companion, as too expensive so we searched for other equally disreputable places. Finally she settled on one. It was very tawdry, lacking linen, towels, soap, toilet paper in fact just about everything you would expect in a hotel, apart, that is, for a bed and a remote control for the TV. I was past caring. It was somewhere to rest. I threw myself on the bed and passed out for an hour or so while my companion went looking for a friend she knew. When she returned she had found somewhere better so we paid off the man behind the grill and left. The other hotel was luxury by comparison. But there was something more. The place had an atmosphere. It was hard to describe. Perhaps it was the little things that make up the whole, perhaps it was the way the staff went about their business, perhaps it was just fancy, but it felt a good place to be. My weariness had quickly evaporated and had been replaced with a surprising sense of well being and excitement at new discoveries. I was introduced to the owner, a man in his early seventies cheerful, warm and friendly and later, to his daughter. She ran a small clinic from some small rooms within the hotel and was the first and only person that I met on my trip who spoke English. She was Quechuan and was fluent in four languages. She studied in Brazil and the UK but her life’s work was as a medic among the desperately poor villages that surrounded Ayacucho. For seven years she had worked to provide proper sanitation in this region and was able to witness the astonishing improvements to health, particularly amongst children. Previously there was a very high level of infant and child mortality due to contaminated water supply. We had just met, but I felt I had known her all my life and I had this strange conviction that I can come here for a purpose. She spoke about a clinic she ran in a town outside the city and asked if I would like to see it. It was in Quinua, the site of the battle and a place we had actually planned to visit. Immediately we went looking for a combi bus to take us there.
The village is about an hour and half by combi and much higher up in the mountains (3,300m). Above the village is a large impressive plateau. You can stand here and look out across the valley, down to the city with the Andes circling around and that wonderful gasping sense of space and scale and beauty and the crystal clearness of the air like the purest water you drink or the finest wine. It had all the beauty we associate with the Scottish highlands but on a far far grander scale. At the edge of the plateau is a rather ugly obelisk, a memorial to the battle that was fought on that field. Inside there is a small museum telling the story of how the loyalists in red were defeated by the rebels in blue with the help of the local rural population wielding pitchforks and axes. A young boy acted as our guide and explained the significance of the various artefacts. After some hours the sky began to darken and we knew that rain was about to fall. This was the rainy season after all. We made our way back down to the village and reached the market just before the clouds burst open and heavy rain descended, loading the thin tarpaulin roofing sheets and scattering waterfalls in arbitrary directions. Lunch of cuy (guinea pig) rice and beans was followed by a look at the work of the artisans and their famous pottery.
The clinic is in the centre of the village: a single storey building, up from the road, typically concrete and bricks, and incomplete with reinforcing rods stretching to the sky. Our friend was in the middle of a consultation, so we took a seat in the waiting room. It was the same room and we could hear the discussion that was going on, although busy with our own activities, my companion checking on facebook and me scribbling notes. Quite suddenly, the conversation stopped and there was silence. I looked up. There were three medics, the patient and a relative around the table. All heads were bowed and there was prayer for the situation with the words, I heard many times, “nothing is impossible to God” When I remarked on this to my companion afterwards she was surprised. “Would medics in the UK not pray for their patients?”
Most of the building construction I had seen, apart, that is, from the major public building and the malls, was shambolic, unfinished and in a permanent state of disrepair. The clinic was no different but here the situation was much worse. The actual construction was poor. It wasn’t working. Two columns, hastily inserted in one of the rooms to save the concrete roof from collapsing, bore testimony to this. The junctions between the various parts of the building allowed water to drip down the walls of every room with dark damp stains turning green. Amongst the faded health posters and basic facilities it was a most depressing scene. On the concrete roof in among the debris of water tanks and make shift solar panels, we talked about the work. The need for the clinic was obvious. It was the only one. The government did not have the resources to provide anything here and so it was left to voluntary agencies to run and support this work. It often boiled down to knocking on doors to find someone who would help. The people themselves were desperately poor. Added to this was the spectre of domestic violence and the migration of young people to the cities often leaving the old people to die in desperate conditions with poor shelter. This was the summer and it felt quite cold. I shuddered to think what a winter would be like in these open concrete dwellings with tin roofs and no insulation. While our friend was describing the terrible conditions of these people and their basic needs, she broke down. I felt so helpless. I was a passing visitor a fleeting stranger. What could I do? I wanted to get out my height rod and measure up. I wanted to draw up sketch proposals for accommodation and improvements to the building. I wanted to get the materials, gather some workers, pick up my tools and get started right away. All I could do was to show some sympathy, buy some gifts from the craft shop and leave.
On the final leg of my journey home, all the experiences and memories were cluttering up my mind. They were too many: too many people, too many situations, too many memories to make any coherent and consistent sense of what it all could mean. As the miles and time and climate and language passed and moved into more familiar territory, the idea of helping with the clinic seemed nothing more than the craziest of ideas, an interesting interlude, a story to tell. The realistic possibility of it becoming a serious project, one that I could be part of, seemed more and more fanciful. After all it was in a remote part of a country in the southern hemisphere, on the other side of the world, it was three languages removed, it was among a different people and in a completely different culture. I had learned too much about the disasters that happen when people with misguided zeal blunder into situations to help and leave, having made it so much worse. Yet something niggled and it still does.
I came to see the place of so many memories but left with a memory of a cry of desperate need. One that would not go away.