More than a decade after the guerilla movement in Peru largely ceased, the rebels' attempt to move into politics has reopened a searing national debate

During a scorched earth military campaign that threatened to topple the Peruvian government, the Maoist guerilla group known as the Shining Path terrorised Peru with assassinations, bombings, beheadings and massacres. So Peruvians were rattled last year when a group of former guerillas began collecting signatures to create a political party to participate in the democratic process they had once sought to destroy.

Among their goals was an amnesty for crimes committed during the war, which lasted from the early 1980s to 2000; it would allow the release of jailed Shining Path leaders, including the group's reviled founder, Abimael Guzmán Reynoso.

More than a decade after the struggle largely ceased, the rebels' attempt to move into politics has stirred emotions that are still raw and reopened a searing national debate on what the war meant and how to move on.

“We are at this moment in a fight over what to remember and how to remember,” said José Pablo Baraybar, executive director of the Peruvian Team for Forensic Anthropology, which has exhumed bodies from several mass graves from the war years.

Students in the spotlight

What alarmed many Peruvians about the Shining Path's effort to reinvent itself was that many of the hundreds of thousands of signatures the former guerillas collected came from college students too young to recall the turmoil of the war. Driving home the point, a television station broadcast interviews with young people who were unable to identify a photograph of Mr. Guzmán, whose bearded face was once as recognisable as that of the president.

“It showed that many young people don't know anything about what happened,” said Fernando Carvallo, national director of the Place of Memory, a three-story museum being built in Lima to commemorate the conflict. In a sign of how deep the wounds remain, even a project intended to be as even-handed as this one was initially opposed by the previous president, Alan García, and has depended on foreign financing, mainly from Germany and the European Union.

In January, election officials rejected the effort to create a new Shining Path-linked party, ruling that the group adhered to anti-democratic principles and had failed to meet some technical requirements of the election law.

Peru has seen impressive, although uneven, economic growth in recent years, but many of the inequities that helped set off the guerilla conflict remain, including crushing poverty in urban slums and villages and marginalisation of indigenous populations.

At least one faction of the Shining Path remains active in a remote jungle in central Peru, where its activities are focused on drug trafficking. It recently shot down a military helicopter and killed several soldiers, giving Peruvians an uneasy feeling that the awful past was not so distant.

Part of the difficulty here is that both sides, the Shining Path and the government forces, were responsible for horrific abuses. That makes the process of agreeing on what happened more complex than it was in countries like Chile or Argentina, which have tried to come to terms with human rights abuses committed by military dictatorships.

2003 report

Most discussions of how to memorialise the war in Peru begin with the 2003 report of a government-sponsored Truth Commission, which estimated that more than 69,000 people had died in the conflict. The commission concluded that close to half the deaths were caused by the Shining Path and almost a third by government forces. The rest were attributed to various armed groups, including paramilitary forces, another rebel group and village self-defence patrols.

Alfredo Crespo, a lawyer for Mr. Guzmán, the Shining Path leader, disputed the panel's conclusions, saying that the numbers were inflated and that the government bore responsibility for most of the bloodshed. He said Mr. Guzmán, who was arrested in 1992 and is serving a life sentence, had paid his debt and should be freed. “There comes a moment after the war ends when you have to suppress the pain and think about the future of Peruvian society,” Mr. Crespo said. “You have to heal the wounds and begin a process of national reconciliation.”

Such words are shocking to many Peruvians, coming on behalf of the man who created the Shining Path's brutal ideology. The group was notorious for killing villagers who did not support it and putting signs on the corpses to warn others of the dangers of dissent.

Today, the landscape of memory in Peru is as rocky as the ground at La Hoyada, a lot on the fringes of the city of Ayacucho, the capital of the region of the same name that saw the fiercest fighting during the war.

In the 1980s, La Hoyada was a dumping ground for the bodies of people detained and tortured at a nearby military barracks. The site also contained an outdoor oven used to burn some of the bodies. A well-known victims' rights group, Anfasep, which includes women who believe that their husbands or other relatives may have been secretly buried or cremated at La Hoyada, has erected a cross there and is asking the government to preserve the site.

Adelina García, 47, stood on a recent afternoon in the shadow of the concrete tank that once fuelled the oven. As with many people, the war came at her from both sides. Her father-in-law was killed by the Shining Path. In December 1983, she was beaten unconscious by government soldiers who hauled off her husband. She never saw him again and believes he was killed and his body dumped at La Hoyada.

“These plants here know where he is,” she said, eyeing the agave plants and bushes that have taken over the lot. “If they had mouths, they would tell me where he was buried.”

Truth Commission

The Truth Commission registered more than 4,000 possible mass graves. Mr. Baraybar, the forensic anthropologist, led the exhumation of 92 bodies at Putis, an Andean hamlet in the Ayacucho region where government troops massacred at least 123 villagers in 1984. He said his team has located other burial sites but has been unable to receive government permission for further exhumations.

The Ayacucho victims' rights group also wants the government to make good on promises to pay reparations to victims' families. And it wants the courts to move ahead with cases against the officers responsible for the deaths.

The group created one of the country's first memory museums, in Ayacucho, in 2005. It has a display of clothes worn by people killed in the conflict, which in some cases made it possible for relatives to identify their bodies. And it features a life-size model of a mass grave.

If the museum in Ayacucho adopts the victims' point of view, the Monument to Military Valor, on a military base in Lima, takes a different approach. The museum is a full-size replica of the Japanese ambassador's residence, where 72 hostages were held for 126 days by another rebel group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. The replica was built so that army commandos could practice a raid on the building beforehand, which they carried out in 1997 in an operation that left 2 commandos, 14 guerillas and 1 captive dead.

But witnesses, including one of the hostages, later said they had seen up to three of the guerillas surrender, alleging they were killed afterward. A group of military and intelligence officials has been charged in the killings, but the case has dragged on in the courts for years.

There is no mention of the charges in the museum, which the director, Maj. William Meyhuay, a veteran of the raid, said were baseless. “We want people to know the real story,” he said.

The Pro-Human Rights Association, based in Lima, has been instrumental in pushing the case arising from the raid and has worked with the La Hoyada families. “The fundamental thing about memory is that it has to help us prevent the rise of projects that can bring us back down that road of violence and terror,” said Francisco Soberón, the group's executive director. “Memory acts like a vaccine.” (Andrea Zarate contributed reporting.) New York Times News Service

Keywords: Peru civil war

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