Resistence and Suffering

Eliana Suarez on how a group of Peruvian women survived that country’s political violence.

By: /
27 November, 2012
By: Eliana Suarez
Assistant Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University

During the peak of political violence in Peru (1980-1994), three Quechua women met each night to search for their family members who had “disappeared.” They looked through “body dumps” that were created behind Los Cabitos, Ayacucho’s largest military base, hoping to find any traces of their loved ones. Eventually, other mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters joined these courageous women, and together they formed the National Association of Families of the Kidnapped, Detained and Disappeared of Peru (ANFASEP) on Sept. 2, 1983. As ANFASEP’s advocacy efforts and membership amplified during the conflict, discrimination against its members also increased. The end of the conflict left many unanswered questions for these women, as the government dismissed ANFASEP’s demands for truth, justice, and reparations – in fact, it continues to do so today, almost 30 years later.

The resilience of these brave women – how they survived the sasachakuy tiempo (difficult times) of the Peruvian armed conflict – is hard to explain if their response is assumed to be the result of their ability to access both personal and institutional resources. In fact, most of these women were illiterate, in poverty, and lacked protection from any legal or political establishments. Instead, the actions of ANFASEP are consistent with ideas of self-protection as based on human agency, where people respond to threats creatively, pursuing viable options whether or not they are able to count on receiving protection or resources from law enforcement agencies, governments, NGOs, or other external actors.

Aspects of the Peruvian conflict and individual responses to it are certainly distinctive, but there are similarities to other cases. Examples of women’s courage and resistance have been documented in other post-conflict contexts such as Argentina, Bosnia, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and Uganda, just to name a few. Yet, despite this presence of agentic women in post-conflict zones as liberators, leaders, social advocates, and caretakers of families and communities, their contributions have not been emphasized to the same extent as their suffering. In fact, the resilience and strength of overall war-affected populations, rather than their fragility and dependency  are still under-examined in current peacemaking and peace-building policies and practices.

One reason for this is that, for the past few decades, a “trauma model” has informed the work of international-assistance organizations, particularly in the provision of psychosocial programs. A trauma-focused model of assistance is primarily concerned with supporting the healing of individual suffering caused by war in order to prevent new occurrences of violence, expanding in this way conventional forms of promoting and/or protecting human security from civilian protection against physical threats to protection within a psychological terrain. The dominance of the trauma-response model of humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of disasters is a heavily contested and debated issue. Some argue that western-defined responses to a traumatic event lack universal validity because such responses are framed by the socio-cultural, historical, and political context of the event and the individual responding to the event. For instance, the context of collective violence and social suffering are hard to explain through western explanatory frameworks of individual suffering or distress. Responses that are normal in one socio-cultural context, in other words, may be considered out of the norm – or even pathological – if examined through a western lens.

A specific example is the importance attributed by western models to “remembering” the traumatic memory as a prerequisite for healing. However, Elsaas found that in some Peruvian communities in the Andes highlands, “forgetting” traumatic events that had happened during past armed-conflicts was often the mechanism that allowed wounded individuals and communities to heal. Yet, despite numerous examples of differences in responses to traumatic events in multiple post-conflict contexts such as Cambodia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, psychosocial programs operating in those contexts often continue using inadequate models to support healing. In 2004, while describing humanitarian interventions in the aftermath of the coup d’état in Haiti, ethnographer Erica James summarized significant tensions within the political and economical milieus of humanitarian assistance with this question: “Where is the line between drawing attention to the suffering of others in order to assist them and appropriating the suffering of others for institutional or personal gain?”

While not all western interventions in the aftermath of war and/or disasters are focused on alleviating trauma responses, it is certainly the focal point of many. For instance, after the Tsunami in Sri Lanka, several organizations focused on offering play therapy to affected children and trauma training to local practitioners. After the earthquake in Haiti, identification as a “traumatized victim” was often instrumental to securing desperately needed resources, for example, tents and food. Similarly, in post-conflict Northern Uganda, a significant amount of Western-funded services are still dedicated to measuring post-trauma responses, often without representative participation from local providers. We wonder if some of these resources might have been more effective in enhancing civilian protection if dedicated to promoting local activism, as well as the use of local traditions and knowledge in the social repair processes.

Critiques to these interventions call attention to the fact that in focusing primarily on suffering, the strengths and capabilities of war-affected populations may be overlooked and/or minimized. In 2008, in response to such critiques, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), formed by several United Nations and non-United Nations humanitarian organizations, provided a new official framework for humanitarian responses in its “Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings.” The IASC guidelines were certainly a welcome departure from the intensity of the attention paid to the psychological state of war-affected populations, instead emphasizing broader psychosocial issues that affect those populations. Yet, while local capabilities are part of the assessment of individuals and communities in post-disaster situations, the IASC guidelines do not consider political participation and/or political activism (especially at a grassroots level) as evidence of community and individual resilience. Political participation, resistance, and activism are, however, key features of the resilience of marginalized groups, as demonstrated by the women of ANFASEP.

Indeed, lessons learned from my extensive field research with Quechua women in Ayacucho indicate that their resistance and resilience processes – their agency –developed even as they suffered extensive personal losses and social disruption. Despite experiencing extreme violence and discrimination, members of ANFASEP and other grassroots organizations actively contributed to the social repair of their communities and continue advocating for justice for victims of both sides of the conflict. However, these courageous acts of resistance might have been at risk if these women had been the focus of programs intended to alleviate their suffering rather than support their activism.

Fortunately, this was not the case. The small scale of the Peruvian armed conflict did not draw large international humanitarian responses, so the government, local NGOs, and other institutions supported most of the reconstruction efforts. Hence, the trauma-response model was not a dominant framework in the initial post-conflict years, giving space to local models promoting the resilience of communities and families. For instance, from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, the Consortium for the Integral Development of the Andean Families and Children (CODINFA), an interdisciplinary group of Peruvian practitioners, developed locally informed resilience-building programs in communities in the highlands of Ayacucho. Local NGOs working within a framework of defence of human rights also offered primarily legal and advocacy resources to victims.

A trauma framework, however, gradually permeated psychosocial interventions over the last decade in post-conflict Ayacucho. This framework has provided important services to persons in need, but has also diverted attention and scarce resources from addressing the roots of the conflict. In this context, an important contribution of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) was the identification of high levels of historical discrimination, subordination, and oppression against the indigenous population as the major underlying cause of the violence.

Mechanisms of transitional justice such as truth commissions, however, can also encourage an emphasis on suffering rather than on resistance, as observed in Peru. The CVR prioritized reparations utilizing a human rights-based framework. However, almost ten years after the dissemination of the CVR’s final report, disappointment over the inaccessibility of the reparations and prosecutions remains high. In response, a new Comprehensive Reparations Plan (PIR) was established in November 2011. Yet, the reparations articulated by the PIR and other mechanisms of transitional justice are also based on the recognition of suffering and so do not offer an adequate frame for recognizing contributions to social reconstruction such as those made by the members of ANFASEP. These courageous women no longer meet to search for their loved ones, but they continue to meet to remember, honour, and respect the dead and disappeared, and, most importantly, to keep demanding justice for their families. 

After almost 30 years, answers to some of these demands have only started to emerge. On June 18, 2012, the collective case “Cabitos 1983” – a case of persons who disappeared in 1983 – finally held its first court appearances in the city of Ayacucho. Witnesses offered their testimonies with two former army officers who had commanded “Los Cabitos” at the time of the disappearences seated in the accused rows. One of the founders of ANFASEP, “Mama” Angelica Mendoza de Ascarza, was the first to testify, accompanied by her husband, on behalf of their son, Arquimedes, who was 19 years old when he disappeared in 1983. Mama Angelica is now 85 years old. Local residents and NGOs supported the petitioners and witnesses, but this historic trial was hardly noticed by the national media. In my meetings with members of ANFASEP, they sadly compared  the ample media coverage and nation-wide support for the family of a young hiker that disappeared a year ago with the lack of recognition for their relatives who disappeared thirty years ago. While the extreme violence towards the indigenous population stopped more than a decade ago, discrimination and injustice undeniably persist. 

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