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Caminantes de le memoria by Heeder Soto

Inga Seifert is a dialogue practitioner and peace worker. She has an MA in Political Science, specialising in Regional Studies of Latin America.


It started with an interview with three ex-soldiers, who had participated in the armed conflict between the Peruvian government and the Maoist guerrilla, “Shining Path”. They really changed my whole concept of what military meant. “Doctora,” they said to me, “please help us to contact the civilians, they won't listen to us...” And then they told me their stories of poverty, internal displacement, forced recruitment between the age of 14 to 17, brutal training methods and finally, also what they were ordered to do by their superiors. They were the first ones in Peru to talk to me about the need for a dialogue...

I wouldn't have imagined the process to have started with former soldiers, but the encounter had been so intense that I felt a deep commitment to make it possible. I found very few people who thought the same, but then I came across a documentary of the anthropologist Heeder Soto: “Caminantes de la memoria” - Memory Walkers (or Wanderers).

The documentary interviews the victims, but also the “perpetrators” - ex-military and ex-Shining Path fighters. I was impressed by the respectful way the camera captured their thoughts and feelings. The documentary gives no answers. And some of the people from the human rights movement said to me with a sneer: “Oh, that's just a bunch of video clips stitched together – it makes no sense!” And it's true, the different parts are not really connected, but isn't that exactly a true reflection of the present situation? It captures the problem the soldiers brought to me: People don't listen to each other.

At the end of the documentary, however, Heeder says: “The memory walkers - the victims, the orphans and the perpetrators - continue on their way. Some of them have just started to walk, while others, like the victims, have been on their way for a long time. The perpetrators killed a big part of me that will never be recovered or indemnified. Have I forgiven them? I don’t know... But I'd like to see them as humans, imperfect, the same as me. And if I saw them one of these days, first of all, I'd like to listen to them.”

Bit by bit our peace programme also started with walking. We needed to put together a dialogue team, train the team members in mediation techniques and psychological support and start to prepare interested individuals for a direct dialogue, face to face with “the other side”. Naturally, the kind of dialogue process that we promoted could not involve the national level, the high rank military or the political and economic elites who have no interest in shedding light on this dark period of Peru. The imbalance of power relations is too strong to reach a dialogue between the indigenous population in the most war affected regions on the one hand, and those politically responsible for the armed conflict on the other. The latter have benefitted from the war and continue benefitting from social inequality, hence, they have no interest in an honest dialogue. So, why promote an individual dialogue process between low rank soldiers, guerrilla and victims at community level?

I asked myself this question many times, but each time, when I was hesitating, it were my Peruvian friends and colleagues from the dialogue project who encouraged me to carry on. I think there is a kind of hope in these encounters, and it can be contagious.

After two years of preparation workshops with the different sides and one-to-one interviews with potential candidates the big day had arrived: 18 participants gathered for our dialogue event, among them family members of the disappeared, displaced persons, ex-military, ex-guerrilla fighters, and also representatives from the church, local government, judicial institutions or universities. We had prepared five tables for five to seven persons each, and each table offered a question for debate. For example, what forgiveness meant to each participant, or if they could find meaning in dialogue and if yes, under which circumstances. One trained mediator and one assistant facilitated the conversation at each table and there were two rounds for the groups to participate in two different tables.

In the end, we had a plenary session where we invited the participants to share their feelings and experiences during the last two hours or their conclusions regarding the main question: does dialogue make sense and under which circumstances? One lady stood up and shared her feelings with the group. She had been at the table with an ex-guerrilla fighter and she told us that it had been hard for her to sit beside 'that man', because the Shining Path had executed her father. Then she asked the man directly: “Sorry, sir, what was your name?” When he said his name she answered: “Oh, just like my father!” And you could hear all of us drawing our breath... She continued, saying that despite the difficulty of it all she was happy to be with us, because she believed in dialogue and that there was no other way of moving forward, no other way to heal than to listen to each other and to start to build up a peaceful society together, so the terrible bloodshed would never repeat itself. After other comments from different participants, the former guerrilla fighterstood up and started to talk. He asked for forgiveness for the horror that his organisation had brought to Peru, and to so many families. He said that he understood now that this had not been the right way to create social change and he hoped that we'd scuceed in teaching the young generation about the past so that they wouldn't believe in ideologies of hate any more.

As a closing ceremony, we had chosen the exchange of small pot plants between the random pairs of participants who had been tasked with presenting the other person to the group that morning. But then the lady stood up again and asked us for a little change of plan: She asked to exchange her plant with the former guerrilla fighter. They both got up and met in the middle of the circle. They exchanged the plants and she embraced him. They stayed like that for a short while, embracing and crying. It felt like time stood still for a moment and we all had tears in our eyes.

Then a young military member chose to exchange plants with one of the leaders of the family members of the disappeared. She said that as a mother she could feel their pain and that she wished that one day the Peruvian army would be prepared to promote justice within the institution. Another young woman who had lost family because of a military massacre gave her plant to an ex-soldier. Afterwards, several participants told me that for them it had also had a healing effect to witness the reconciliation.

Considering that there is still a huge inequality of power between former war victims and the ruling elites it's sometimes hard to think of forgiveness and reconciliation. But it can start as an individual process and thus create examples of hope and healing. Also, when talking to an indigenous leader, he told me his story of pain and feeling inferior because of racial discrimination. Additionally, he felt a lot of rage and hatred for the people who had discriminated against him and he grew up with a lot of anger towards society. Then one day he received psychological support at his local church and learned to overcome this self hatred and hatred of others. Many survivors of violations of human rights are afraid to forgive, because they fear that this means forgetting and letting the perpetrators get away with their crime. Interestingly, the indigenous leader stated that achieving the ability to forgive his aggressors and society as a whole gave him the courage to raise his voice against injustice and more positive power to work for a peaceful society.

#Dialogue #Conflict

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