Peru Indians Take Up Arms Against Rebel Terror

Gabriella Gamini,
The Times, UK,
November 19, 1994

Chivranti and his two fellow Ashaninka Indians looked at the ageing American rifles with suspicion but accepted them. “The spirits of the jungle used to protect us but now an alien force has invaded and we are frightened,” Chivranti said. “We accept guns to replace our bows and arrows because if we don’t fight back our people will die out.” The trio had reached the Peruvian army base at Ciudad de Dios after three days of struggling through dense tropical vegetation. They were lost several times.

In broken Spanish and sometimes resorting to primitive drawings in the red earth, they described how they had escaped from the tiny village of Tsiriari after seeing 40 members of their community massacred.

“Hooded gunmen came. They burnt our bamboo huts and then began to shoot everywhere. They took the women and children and cut their heads off. Only a few of us got away,” Chivranti said.

The three Ashaninkas could not specify the date of the attack on their village, but it was part of a continuing campaign by the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) rebels, who have lost control and support in the rest of Peru. Sendero still believes in an indigenous revolution and sees Peru as the crucible for a new world order despite the fact that Abimael Guzman, its leader, appears to have renounced such aims from his prison cell in Lima.

The last remaining Sendero faction, led by Oscar Ramirez Duran, a rival of Guzman’s, has retreated to the remote central jungle regions round the Rivers Tambo and Ene that are inhabited by the Ashaninkas, Peru’s largest indigenous tribe with about 30,000 members. More than 4,000 of them have been killed in Shining Path attacks since 1987, according to humanitarian organisations working in the region.

“It’s more than 10 per cent of their entire population, and if the killing continues the tribe will be wiped out,” said Oscar Espinosa of the Centre for Amazonian Anthropolgy, a Catholic organisation.

In August 1993 the dismembered and charred bodies of 64 Ashaninkas, including women and babies, were found scattered around the village of Mazamari. Their traditional thatched huts were burnt and their manioc-root plantations destroyed.

Human rights groups say several mass graves containing Ashaninkas executed by Sendero when they refused to join the armed struggle have been discovered after months of search in the jungle. “Some accounts say these people were brutally buried alive,” said Senor Espinosa. “The remains show signs of torture and violent death, and we fear that many more graves like this will be uncovered.” The rebels are also holding more than 6,000 Ashaninkas captive in their training camps, using them as agricultural labour. Accounts by Ashaninkas who have escaped the camps say the rebels move through the jungle using the captives as cannon fodder in gun battles with the army.

“They have displaced thousands and forced them to work at gunpoint. Women and children are used to protect the terrorists from army fire. At least 70 per cent of them are suffering severe malnutrition because they are being allowed to eat only leaves and worms,” Senor Espinosa said.

The Peruvian army, which boasts that it has rescued some tribespeople from Sendero, housing them in scattered refugee camps, is unable to exert effective control or cope with the flood of displaced Ashaninkas. It has only one helicopter and relies on foot patrols to cover a vast area.

At this isolated army base, with an establishment of only 60, Alferez Renato, 25, the commanding officer, said: “Here we are fighting an endless war. Saving these indigenous people from extinction seems an impossible struggle.” It is as a last resort that he is handing out rifles to fleeing Ashaninkas.