Leave Lima, travel a long road to 4,000 meters up in Peru’s central highlands and you come to Uchuraccay. It’s a remote and desolate place. Most people outside Peru have never heard of it. Jane McClenahan on a story rarely been covered in mainstream media.
Yet events there 30 years ago have cast a long shadow over the country. Mention of this small village’s name makes many Peruvian journalists fearful. Eight journalists and their guide made the long, exhausting trip there in 1983 to investigate ongoing violence involving the Peruvian military and Maoist insurgents, the Shining Path. As they approached the village, they were met, apparently by locals, and, according to the official version, beaten to death. Photographs of the bodies show at least one of the men had had his eyes removed.
Now, journalist Carmen Valdivieso Hulbert, a friend of the men who were killed, is investigating those deaths in a documentary film named after the village.
Nearly 70,000 people died in Peru’s massive internal conflict in the last two decades of the 20th. Still, the deaths at Uchuraccay stunned Peru and left the media reporting on the horrific deaths of its own. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, post Uchuraccay, eight journalists have been killed in Peru. However, many journalists have felt under tremendous pressure to temper their reporting after Uchuraccay.
To many, what happened has not been satisfactorily explained. The Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) had been ratcheting up operations in the area around the village for about a year. Initially, it had the sympathy of local indigenous people, but relations soured. The locals killed five Senderistas in early January 1983. The Government praised locals and told them that, if any other outsiders arrived on foot, they should kill them. (The military itself used helicopters in the remote region.)
The journalists arrived shortly after this to investigate what was happening. The village was stuck between the control of the Shining Path and the Government. A later Government enquiry, led by internationally feted writer Mario Vargas Llosa, concluded that local peasants had killed the journalists after mistaking their cameras for weapons.
Many Peruvians still aren’t buying that.
Valdivieso Hulbert, now based in the United States working for The Associated Press, she is searching for the truth about their deaths. She alleges that the military was working in the area – being trained by mercenaries. Furthermore, she says photographs from one of the deceased men’s cameras shows the journalists talking to locals when they arrived in the area.
However, she says her attempts to discover the truth have been consistently thwarted. She suspects by the military, or its friends.
A feisty, determined women, she is clearly motivated by a need to serve the memory of her friends well. She cites numerous examples of being followed by individuals both in Peru and in the U.S. She believes the Peruvian military is not yet ready to give up its secrets. Too many of those involved at the time are still alive – and their proteges are in power.
Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described events in Uchuraccay as “an emblematic reference of the violence and pain in the collective memory of the country.”
The Peruvian Government has repeatedly refused to take up the case. Now lawyers for the journalists’ families are trying to get the case heard at the Inter-America Court of Human Rights.
See here for more about Carmen Valdivieso Hulbert’s documentary Uchuraccay.
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