Voices of the Voiceless
Matthew Brown - Alborada Magazine (Issue 2 - Winter 2015)
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The Peruvian governments headed by Alberto Fujimori between 1990 and 2000 went to extreme lengths in their efforts to confront the insurrectionary warfare of the guerrilla organisations Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).
Having defeated the neoliberal platform of author Mario Vargas Llosa in the 1990 presidential election, with significant support from the poorer sectors, Fujimori made an ideological about-turn to the right. He implemented economic policies more drastic than those proposed by Vargas Llosa, relaxing market restrictions and cutting state spending in a brand of economic reform that came to be known as ‘Fujishock’. In 1992 he staged a ‘self-coup’ in which he allied with the military to close Congress and intensify the campaign against Shining Path, with few qualms about the human rights of the guerrillas or innocent bystanders. Most victims were Quechua-speakers of the Andean mountains that run through the heart of Peru.
The arrest in 1992 of Abimael Guzmán, Shining Path's secretive leader, and his subsequent imprisonment garnered much global media attention. In 1996, with Shining Path having retreated towards the jungle and Fujimori declaring victory over the insurgents, the MRTA guerrilla group took Japan's embassy in Lima, kidnapping hundreds of guests and keeping dozens of hostages for several months. The stand-off was eventually ended when Peruvian special forces, cheer-led by President Fujimori, stormed the compound.
These military victories, combined with populist electioneering and electoral fraud, kept Fujimori in power until his corrupt edifice fell apart in 2000 and he resigned, via fax, from Japan. Fujimori has been in jail in Peru since 2007, convicted of corruption and human rights abuses, including a series of massacres committed in the 1990s by the Grupo Colina military death squad.
Fujimori's government was also responsible for human rights abuses that were not documented in the 2003 report by the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and which received little coverage outside of Peru. These were the mass unconsented sterilisations of around 300,000 Peruvians, most of them indigenous women, between 1992 and 2000. The population of Peru in 2000 was 26 million, meaning that over one per cent of its people were sterilised by the state.
Most were not offered the opportunity to consent to the operation. The programme was carried out in the most marginalised sectors of Peruvian society, in the provinces where infrastructure and state services are poor to non-existent and illiteracy is high. People were forced into being sterilised by a state that didn’t value their opinions, lifestyles or their ability to make choices. Some were rounded up like animals and taken to clinics for operations. Others were told they had no option, that they had to be sterilised for their own good. Medical workers in the Peruvian Andes were given targets to meet – a certain number of operations performed per month – by a government that was obsessed with neoliberal policies, population control and achieving its goals through target culture.
What did it feel like to have this done to you? What are the emotional legacies of being abused in this way by a state that is supposed to protect you from violence? Due to the isolated nature of many of the communities where this policy was carried out, villagers and campesinos took a long time to realise that they were not the only ones suffering. The legacies of a civil war and a repressive state campaign of terror in the countryside meant many people felt unable to say no to medical workers representing the same state as the army, the police and their affiliates. These legacies legacies deterred people from speaking out even after 2000, as the Peruvian state sought to cleanse itself of the crimes committed in its name by the Fujimori regime.
The fear of speaking out combined with the acceptance that no one was listening meant these stories have remained untold for two decades. Brave women and activists have for years tried to reveal the truth, but there has been little inclination to listen.
Supporting the victims
The Quipu Project is a transmedia documentary project that aims to drive these stories, and the people telling them, into the public sphere, and to break through the political, social and technological divides that have created the conditions for their suffering. By linking a landline telephone number in Peru to a web interface, people can call and relate their experiences. These are uploaded to the Quipu Project webpage (www.quipu-project.com), where visitors can offer messages of support to be listened to from a landline in Peru. The benefits of the internet - sharing, dissemination, empowerment - are being brought to the Andes and to people without direct web access.
The Quipu Project has helped to bring the scandal and tragedy of Peru's unconsented sterilisation programme to a wider audience. But there is no happy ending and none is in sight. Legal prosecutions of the perpetrators of these crimes and their intellectual authors have repeatedly foundered, despite the best efforts of underfunded and intimidated legal advocates and human rights activists in Peru. Supporters can pressure their members of parliament to raise the issue with the Peruvian embassy in London, and to encourage the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and development NGOs to back the campaigns for justice.
The subject is also likely to be a divisive issue in Peru's 2016 presidential election campaign, in which the current favourite is Keiko Fujimori, Alberto's daughter and long-designated heir. Were Keiko to be elected in the April elections, it is unlikely that demands for justice from the victims of the unconsented sterilisations would be heard. Opposition candidates have seized on Keiko's ambiguous declarations regarding the sterilisations in order to attempt to distance her from the women who are her natural constituency.
The project calls on all candidates and parties to listen to the testimonies and commit to bringing about justice for the people who were sterilised without their consent. We will continue working to make sure that the voices of the unconsented sterilised people of Peru, which have been silenced for too long, can be heard loud and clear around the world.
The Quipu Project is a collaboration between its participants in Peru, Rosemarie Lerner and colleagues at Chaka Studio, two academics at the University of Bristol, Karen Tucker and Matthew Brown, and creative technologist Ewan Cass-Kavanagh
The Quipu Project website goes live on 10 December 2015: www.quipu-project.com
Matthew Brown is Reader in Latin American Studies at the University of Bristol
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