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  • Hanging out at the beach in Huanchaco, this young couple from Seattle told me about the Museum of Remembrance, a museum about the civil war that wracked Peru in the 80s and early 90s in Peru, between the state and various leftist revolutionary groups, the largest and most important being the Shining Path. Now that is something right up my alley.

    I was aware of this war and the Shining Path when it was happening, but it wasn’t something I followed closely or knew much about, I was too busy doing drugs and getting laid in those days. I knew they were Maoists (though I don’t really know what that meant at the time), that the fight was bloody, and that the state had turned to mass arrests and terrorist tactics to fight the terrorists themselves. I knew that the president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, was a ruthless bastard. As a student of communism and communist movements in grad school, I learned a little more, like about their leader, Abiel Guzman, and I learned what Maoism actually was, but still the Shining path was fringe knowledge.

    Before I left on this trip I’m on, I read a few Mario Vargas Llosa books, one of them called “Death in the Andes”, which dramatized the tactics of the rebels in the mountains, the nonsensical ideology, the irrational treatment of villagers, the indiscriminate use of violence. One vignette in the book told about a French couple who had been planning for years to take a trip to Peru and Macchu Piccu, and on the bus through the mountains from Lima were pulled off and stoned to death. Not something you want to read before making that same trip. All this had made me more curious about what really happened, so when I heard about the museum, I knew I had to go.

    When I got to Lima, I went the first chance I got. The museum was set up by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was created when the conflict ended in order to document what had happened after they had finished their investigations. And there is nothing hidden that I could tell, atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict are vividly shown in mostly black and white photographs starkly presented in solid white rooms. Each room told a story –
  • about journalists killed by villagers who had mistaken them for unwanted rebels –
  • about mourners identifying the dead –
  • about refugees far from home –
  • about the state rounding up whoever –
  • about the man who fashioned himself a South American Pol Pot –
  • about the survivors of massacres –
  • about those who didn’t survive –
  • about those accused –
  • about those unjustly arrested –
  • about those disappeared –
  • about the state arming locals –
  • about locals taking justice into their own hands –
  • about the Shining Path taking over a prison –
  • about the state taking the prison back –
  • about student rebels –
  • about what happened to them –
  • about those who protested the violence –
  • about their funerals –
  • about orphans –
  • about the unjustly held returning home –
  • about the mothers of those who never have –
  • More than once I teared up, more than once I wanted to cry out in anger, and the genocidal idiot Maoists, at the blind repressive state, at the meaningless pain and death. By then end, with the captured innocent returning, with the mothers of the disappeared, my heart had been torn to shreds. I wanted to take those people in those photographs and hold them and comfort them as best I could, this gringo who could not truly comprehend their pain.

    When I stepped out of the museum into the bright hot Lima desert sun, I didn’t know what to do. I could only walk. Somewhere. That ways towards the hostel, I guess, who knows how far. I couldn’t deal with finding the right bus, hailing a cab. Just walk, numb, that way. And I did, only tangentially aware of my surroundings. One hour, two hours. I got lost.

    But then I stumbled upon the most wonderful this in my world, what I am always searching for in new cities. A little neighborhood. A street off the main drag, tucked into a corner of the massive city somewhere, with little shops and cafes and bakeries and barber shops. A neighborhood where only the people who live there know about it. I walked into the barber shop and got a haircut and a shave. I sat in a café playing basso nova music and had some tea and a sandwich (damn Lima food id good, even just a café sandwich!). I had found my neighborhood. I could live there.

    And the happiness returned to my heart. Life sucks. But life is good.
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