I arrived for a six week visit to our sister diocese of Peru about 10 days after the London bombings. A few days later a second set of bombers attempted, but failed, to set off four more devices. Everywhere I went I met huge outpourings of support for Britain. And the accompanying message was always, “We know what your country is going through. We have experienced terrorism here too”.
The effects of the Shining Path violence are still evident in Peruvian society. For about a decade the rural hinterland of the country was especially unsafe. Over that period millions flocked into the shanty towns or “pueblos jovenes” that surround Lima, mostly living in shacks made of matting. Economic life stagnated. Businesses failed. The Anglican Diocese itself almost collapsed totally as foreign personnel (especially targeted by the guerrillas) were withdrawn and Peruvian nationals with saleable skills headed north, to the USA or elsewhere. Priests told me of messages pushed under doors threatening to burn their churches down. Then, in the late 90’s, the government of President Fujimori (himself now in exile after fleeing corruption charges, but planning a new presidential bid next year) broke the back of the Maoist movement and Peru began to enjoy the peace, stability and economic growth that characterise it today.
Everyone I met had their stories of suffering from the Shining Path period. It was good of them to empathise with the present London experience, if somewhat overgenerous – it is unlikely that Britain will face anything remotely resembling the sustained attack on its structures and economy that Peru went through.
About a month into my stay, by which time I had been joined by 16 fellow members of the Diocese of Worcester, we were invited, with the permission of the prison authorities, to spend a day as part of our hosts’ long standing ministry to women prisoners. Sentences are undeniably harsh by European standards, particularly for women, and it is not uncommon to spend well over a year in custody awaiting trial. But the regime itself in some ways compared favourably. There are real efforts to teach skills, and mothers can have their children with them up to three years of age. The prisoners make craft goods which are then sold outside with the money returning to the producers to provide funds for extra toiletries, food etc. There was good access to outside telephones lines, though medical assistance is not as readily available as in European penal institutions. Much mirrored the conditions of life in the poorer areas of Lima itself.
With the exception of telephone kiosks the same seemed to apply in the maximum security section we visited after lunch. We were allowed, even encouraged, to take in a modest amount of cash with which to purchase handicrafts from the prisoners. There were few prison officers but the women told us there were no problems with violence. One block brought out guitars and sang songs to us and we replied with the “a capella” version of the 23rd psalm we had practised for such eventualities. Then they began a dance and invited us to join in. The women told us of how dramatically their conditions had improved in recent years. We were introduced to a tiny baby conceived during a conjugal visit to one woman from her husband who is a prisoner in another jail. We watched some of them making sculptures from clay and painting. And we learned that visitors are permitted for most of the day. Some prisoners told us that they are currently awaiting retrials because the law under which they had been convicted had been ruled unconstitutional. Then they began to speak of how they cared for each other because they were all members of the same party, and how their leader was prevented from mixing with the other prisoners. Suddenly the lack of religious pictures and scriptural passages on the walls (unusual for Latin America) struck home – these were the Shining Path members we had heard so much about on the outside.
One of the hardest things that Britain has had to cope with in these last few weeks has been the very normality of the lives of those who detonated bombs in London. We want the perpetrators of such atrocities to be radically different from ourselves, creatures of utter evil whose lives are depraved in every aspect. However, even allowing for some wrongful convictions, and for some whose offences may have been entirely non-violent, I can’t escape the fact that, in Peru, I have been dancing with terrorists. And that they were without exception pleasant, friendly, appreciative individuals.
I need to hold on to the fact that well-intentioned and caring individuals can commit appalling atrocities in the name of some cause deemed high enough to justify it. The original aim of Shining Path – to present a solution to the poverty and inequality rife in Peru by promoting a society based on the radical equality that underpins communism – is not of itself evil; indeed it has much in it that is laudable. The use of violence as part of the means to overthrow despotic regimes is the story of the liberation of Africa (and elsewhere) in the 20th century. Somewhere Shining Path lost the balance. It terrorised the general population more than it pressurised the government. And maybe it was ill-fated in presenting a communist solution at the very moment when that political philosophy was collapsing across the globe. It never succeeded in breaking out from being a small vanguardist force. Its attacks on Peru’s economy did not persuade the mass of the people that capitalism was the prime problem. Part of the tragedy of the recent bombings in London (and before that in Madrid and elsewhere) is that it is hard to see any realistic link between the political goals of the bombers and their actions.
It was a thesis of the French existentialist (and erstwhile international goalkeeper) Albert Camus that to understand all is to forgive all. For Christians I suspect that has to be a statement more about God than humanity. To understand is not automatically to forgive. Or maybe to forgive is not to exonerate from the consequences of a person’s actions. I’m glad, not least for the sake of the many friends I have made in Peru, that the Shining Path terrorism is a thing of the past, and that those who led it on its violent course are largely now behind bars. But I’m grateful that I was allowed, briefly, to see not only the scars that Peru bears from its history, but the humanity, the normality, and even the face of Christ, in some of those who bear responsibility for it, and who now serve out their sentences. And that the Anglican Church continues to minister in such places.