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Peru Faces a Brutal Truth

September 09, 2003

The Shining Path, an infamous Maoist guerrilla movement, divided Peruvians into two types: supporters and opponents. Those who resisted were eminently expendable, the communist leadership decided cruelly, leading to about half of the 69,000 now-documented deaths or disappearances in the violence that swept the Andean nation between 1980 and 2000.

Shining Path fanatics were not alone in inflicting kidnappings, disappearances, torture and murder on Peruvians. The nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported Aug. 28 that national security forces under three administrations were responsible for a third of that toll and paramilitary armies caused 13% of the civilian deaths.

The commission's report, based on thousands of interviews, staggered Peruvians: It established twice as many fatalities as previously had been estimated for the country's years of instability. Particularly troubling for Peruvians must be the societal schism made so transparent by the commission's report. How did Peru's urban "haves" ignore the slaughter of rural "have-nots," particularly those in marginalized Indian populations? Now that the commission has rounded up its long list of victims and detailed descriptions of depredations, what's next? How does this panel fulfill its title and offer Peru not just painful truth but also reconciliation?

A huge part of the answer will lie in how the whole nation responds, how it accepts that so grave an injustice against so many can only occur with a grievous loss of collective conscience. As a leading Lima newspaper told the nation in its banner Page One headline on the commission report, "All of Us Peruvians Are Responsible."

That said, the most notorious of the perpetrators of death and destruction must be brought to justice. The commission, in encouraging fashion, already has handed two dozen files containing cases of the most egregious human rights violations to the nation's attorney general. More files should follow. Those found guilty of atrocities must be punished to the full extent of the law.

Though some victims' families are seeking financial reparations, impoverished Peru just can't afford these. The government, however, owes its people moral compensation. The past horrors and how they occurred should not be forgotten, but memorialized in word, scholarship, stone and events of remembrance. Peru also could assuage its conscience and improve the nation by bettering lives in its forgotten villages. The rural poor deserve to join the modern world, finally getting such basics as clean water, sewers, roads and power.

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