“Costa, sierra y selva” – the coast, the mountains and the jungle. In Peru, three different worlds coexist but mutually ignore each other. The journey from chaotic Lima to Ayacucho, a small city in the Andes, lasts almost 10hours. The bus slowly proceeds along the road to reach as high as 4,900 MASL metres above sea level and then descends back to 2.746, putting your stomach and lungs to the test. These two cities aren’t separated just by the Andes, but also by a social, cultural and ethnic divide. Before the journey to Ayacucho, I’ve always perceived Peruvians as a melancholy and resigned people; ‘probably due to their dreadful history,’ I thought.
Ayacucho is home to the tragedy that shocked Peru, 36 years ago, when the Peruvian communist Party, Sendero Luminoso, caused an internal armed conflict that ended with the death and enforced disappearance of 70,000 Peruvians.
The bloody war between the subversive groups and the armed forces was a no-holds barred war. Sendero Luminoso, as a terror strategy, killed anyone who stood in its way. The State allowed the army to capture, torture, and finally execute all those suspected of being “terrorists”. The victims of this foolish conflict were innocent civilians caught between two fires, mostly Andean, Quechua speaking peasants, and indigenous people of the Amazon forest. While in the capital city, nobody noticed anything; the “first class citizens” simply overlooked the fratricidal war that was being fought in the hinterland.
That’s the story I studied while I was packing up and getting ready for my ‘Peruvian experience’; that’s the report I thought exhaustively explained Peru. But I was wrong, and I needed to know Angélica to become aware of that.
Angélica Mendoza de Ascarza, better known as “Mamá Angélica,” used to live near Ayacucho. On 2nd of July 1983 at 2.30 a.m. a military patrol stormed into her home and took one of her eight children, Arquímedes Ascarza Mendoza, into custody. He never came back home. Thousands of students, peasants, and professors shared the same fate as Archimedes.
A sunburned face framed by two long black braids and a traditional hat are Angélica’s distinctive signs. When I first learned about her, I was just beginning to realize that there’s a whole part of the story that has never been told.
The day after the visit of the patrol, Mamá Angélica went to Los Cabitos, a military base in Ayacucho. Everyone there denied having taken Angelica’s son into custody. The militaries went on disclaiming any responsibility despite the evidence: a tiny piece of paper on which Arquímedes asked for help. So she covered the deepest canyons and explored the most hidden places to find Arquímedes, or at least his remains.
“I shouted out his name, but the echo of the ravine was my only answer. I’ve walked through all these places, looking for his body. The day wasn’t the day, the night neither. I was looking for justice… I haven’t found it yet”.
In spite of her background, Doña Angélica Mendoza was the first to rebel against the violence spread by the conflict. She overcame the stigma stemming from the unfair accusation that she was a liar and a terrorist and opposed the State. Lots of women followed Mamá Angélica’s example and joined her fight, confronting a society that was indifferent and tragically unaware: that’s how ANFASEP was born (a national organization of victims).
“We explored all the ravines for our missing men. We looked through piles of discarded bodies devoured by pigs, and dogs. There were just parts of dismembered cadavers. Sometimes we only found bones and skulls”.
When I listened to the incredible story of Angélica, I eventually knew the truest Peru. During the journey, I had the chance to meet other amazing women. Adelina, who lost his husband and was a victim of sexual violence; Norma, whose daughter was killed because of her ideas; Doris, a victim of torture; Eudocia, forced to move to Lima after the killing of her partner. All these women showed me a story of feminine resistance, stamina, courage and hope, of which Angélica, now 87 years old, represents just the first chapter. Women are the true face of the determined and endless fight for peace, truth, and justice in Peru.
Since I’ve come back home, if anybody asks me, I answer that Peru isn’t just the country of Machu Picchu, Cusco, and all the other “gringos’ places”; Peru is the country of Peruvians, a people of fearless women.
 Angélica Mendoza de Ascarza, “Mamá Angélica. Memoria para los ausentes”, documentary for the Peruvian TV program Relatos, 2001.
 A member of ANFASEP, “Mamá Angélica. Memoria para los ausentes”, documentary for the Peruvian television program Relatos, 2001.