Written by Fidgit
You think you’d know if you met a terrorist, right?
We were told of a heradura (footpath shortcut) through the hills outside of Ayacucho. Climbing out of the surrounding valleys along an abandoned road, passing a cemetery and heaps of trash, as usual. Where the not-a-road became yes-a-road, at the crest of a rise, the dog who decided to tour guide us for the day and I stopped to wait for Neon. One side of the road was lined by a stone wall and the space above that was thick with thorny shrubs.
A young woman stood on the other side looking at Mongo and me. I smiled and waved, and she turned around and summoned people on her side of the wall. Two young men joined her; she and one of them embraced, and they began the sort of chiding and cat calling at me, which we get often.
I replied in a friendly fashion as usual.
This moved us in to them shouting their few words in English, I replied in kind and then we continued in Spanish.
“Is this the way to Ayacucho?” I asked.
“Yeah, but you can’t go that way, they are not going to let you pass,” one of the guys said.
I was confused so just kind of brushed it aside.
“How many of you are there?” he asked.
Usually I inflate our numbers or take this opportunity to point out that we have a satellite tracker so hundreds of school children know where we are. For some reason, this time I said, “it is just two of us and this dog,” as Neon appeared.
“What are you guys doing up here?” I asked, curious.
They all glanced at each other.
“Are you here for a futbol match?” I guessed.
Again, they looked at each other, “yeah, a futbol match, sure.”
We thanked them and wandered forward along the high wall. I wondered what was on the other side. Where the wall dropped, blue tarps were strung up blocking all but the tarp roofs from view.
As we approached where the entrance was, there were 8 to 10 men, mostly young, standing lining the road. The first thing I noticed was their stances, it was military at-rest. They were completely covered. Wearing black or green and full face masks with only their eyes showing.
Again, “Hola,” I greeted cheerily. They continued to stare straight ahead, a few nodded in acknowledgment.
One replied, “Hello, how are you?” as we passed him.
“I am fine, thank you. How are you?” I parroted the salutation I know is taught in schools.
“I am very well, thank you for asking,” again, it was odd his head was not moving to look at me, but his greeting was so well crafted I just had to coo and praise him.
As I looked closer I noticed he had a fake assault rifle size gun of metal pipes slung over his shoulder. These matches must really get out of hand, I reckoned. I also felt strongly that I should not look too hard.
A large, older man stood at the narrow entrance to the complex, on a slight rise above the road, also watching us. He wore black pants and a black t-shirt. The only one whose face was uncovered and clearly in charge.
“You having a futbol match in there?” I asked conversationally in Spanish as we continued to walk. Now I was feeling awkward. Something was off about this situation and I just wanted to get us out of it as quickly as possible.
I don’t know how to explain this to someone who has not lived in South America but being polite is of the utmost importance in exchanges. If you do not at least greet and say goodbye, you are being immensely rude. If the person in charge acknowledges you, you respond. Walking through without a word would have been extremely disrespectful.
“Well, I hope your team wins!” At this, they all smirked.
“Chao,” I waved as we completed the gamut.
A moto taxi offered a ride to town. A beat up old station wagon full of families was driving up the hill. I told myself these things were normal This was normal. Everything was fine.
We walked on.
“That seems like awful lumpy ground to have a futbol match on,” I commented to Neon, “and did you see that kid had a fake gun?”
“Yeah, they all did,” she replied, ever the more observant of the two of us.
“It was kind of a weird vibe, wasn’t it?” She agreed.
We walked on into the city. Which we later learned had been ground zero for the Shining Path. A movement which, in some vestiges, remains active and allied with narcos since 1984 as a means of accessing weapons and holding territories against police forces, between whom murders continue to this day.
“Uno puede morir, pero esto (señalándose la cabeza) queda en los demás.”
-Abimael Guzmán, líder de Sendero Luminoso
“A person can die, but this (pointing to his head) remains alive in others.”
– Abimael Guzmán, leader of the Shining Path
You’d think you’d know if you met a terrorist.
But would you actually want to?
Or would you rather just think it was folks getting together to watch a soccer match . . . on a hill?