Rita Santiago finally has a place to call her own, a small shack in the Lima desert. Her living conditions are far from ideal; her home does not have running water, it leaks in the rain and turns into an oven in the summer. It is precariously placed; she is constantly afraid the unstable hillside composed of loose rock and sand will give and crush them in a landslide.
But despite all of this, for her the home is a triumph. Rita and her husband forced it to become a habitable place for their family with an endless reservoir of grit and determination. They cleared the piles of rock, carving a flat space in the rubble-strewn plot. They carried the construction materials up the hillside and built the house by hand little by little. Rita and her husband didn’t own the land, they simply found the open space, built a home and took possession of it. Rita and the hundreds of thousands of other people like her are often referred to as invadadores, or invaders. Rita understands this perspective. But for her, it seemed like her only opportunity to end the displacement, instability and hardship that has followed her like a curse since the fabric of her life was left in tatters by the internal conflict that terrorized Peru from 1980-2000.
“A part of me resents this country,” Rita said. “My family has been destroyed, and on top of that I wasn’t able to finish my studies and have a career of my own. This is all a consequence of the political violence that we lived through in the 90’s. Everything that has happened to me, I am still recovering from it.”
The conflict began when an armed communist insurgent group known as Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path in English) began to gain power in the rural provinces of Peru, particularly in Ayacucho, culminating in an attempt to overthrow the Peruvian government. Sendero Luminoso was militarily defeated by Alberto Fujimori’s government in 2000, and now Peru is mostly peaceful. Today’s youth did not live the conflict it is something they learned about, something they see traces of, it is history. However, within the shanty towns and rural communities where MEDLIFE works, the consequences of the devastating internal conflict in Peru are still very much alive. The circumstances of countless families are a direct result of the displacement, chaos and loss caused by the conflict, the results of which remain as ever present obstacles in the lives of victims like Rita Santiago.
Rita was born in the HuÃ¡nuco, a city in central Peru. Her parents were poor farmers. They had food on the table and their kids went to school, but still, Rita remembers that farming life in HuÃ¡nuco was hard. Rita’s father always had bigger dreams for his children, he didn’t want his kids to continue with the poor farmer’s life he had. “Every father wants the best for his children,” Rita said. “My dad wanted me to study and prepare for a career, because he was a farmer and wanted the best for us. He didn’t live for himself, he lived for us.”
As a child, Rita believed that she would have the opportunity to live up to her father’s dreams for her. One day, Rita’s father was out with his youngest son, and they didn’t return home when expected. What initially appeared to be an innocuous late arrival would mark the end of Rita’s childhood.
Her father never came home. His body was found in a hole on the riverbank, covered by just a little bit of sand, his head, legs, and fingers all detached in a pile with the bodies of two other men, recognizable only by their clothes. Her youngest brother was never found, and became one of an estimated 15,000 people who disappeared during the conflict. Rita’s family was devastated and terrified. They had no idea why they had been killed, maybe the killers were coming for the rest of the family next. Who knew?
Rita now says it was government soldiers who killed her father. “The soldiers thought that everyone that lived around us were terrorists, but we weren’t, we were farmers. We were dedicated to agriculture, we weren’t terrorists,” Rita said.
Sophia Mahen, an expert on the conflict and human rights who has held prominent positions in Amnesty International and the Commission de la Verdad, an organization that conducted the most thorough investigation of the conflict, explained that “In terms of the violence, you have to look at the idiocy of the state in their answer to the armed organization of Sendero Luminoso.” At first the state ignored Sendero Luminoso, and when they finally did go to help the peasants communities that were under Sendero Luminoso’s control, they ended up hurting them in much the same way that Sendero Luminoso did. They didn’t know who among the rural population was working with Sendero Luminoso, and so, often they treated them as if they all were.
Sendero Luminoso made its base of operations in Ayacucho, a city that heads a very impoverished and primarily indigenous region in southern Peru. When news of conflict in Ayacucho began reaching Lima in the early 80s, many Peruvians dismissed it as a conflict in a far off Andean province with only regional impact. Even when Sendero Luminoso sent a gruesome announcement of their presence and power, hung canine corpses on lampposts on a major Lima Boulevard, it was not taken too seriously.
Sendero Luminoso was able to rapidly take control of the highlands. By 1990, at the height of their power in the last days of President Alan Garcia’s government, just 32% of the territory and 40% of the population were under the control of the national government and military. Sendero Luminoso was detonating car bombs in prosperous districts of Lima like Miraflores that had seemed insulated from the chaos that had enveloped other parts of the country. In addition to heavy military and territorial losses to Sendero Luminoso “Hyperinflation bordered on 60 percent monthly, the economic crisis brought havoc to the population and was destroying the state and the social fabric with as much or more efficiency than the insurgency itself.” (loc 645 How Difficult it is to be God.)
Alberto Fujimori’s took office in 1990 and instituted an authoritarian regime.
Fujimori, an extremely controversial President, tried to take back the territory controlled by Sendero Luminoso in a bloody campaign that killed thousands upon thousands of innocent peasants like Rita’s father. “When the state went to defend them (the rural indigenous population) from Sendero Luminoso, they had the idea they were all Senderistas,” Mahen said. “The Indigenous is other.”
Meanwhile, many provincial communities under Sendero Luminoso’s control, who were their supposed base of support, began organizing armed resistance to protect themselves from the violence besieging them from both sides, and particularly against Sendero Luminoso. On the other hand, when their lives were at risk, many people did not resist and instead fled their communities.
Faced with a crossroads after her husband’s tragic death, Rita’s mother decided that her family was no longer safe. As the violence escalated in their community, they decided to abandon their home and flee to Tingo Maria, where the mountains meets the amazon in central Peru, hoping to escape the violence and begin again. As violence and chaos spread across Peru, many people made the same decision, creating a wave of migration and displacement that would leave a lasting mark on country’s demographic distribution. “The kids now, they were born in the cities. They have cut their ties with their old communities,” Mahen said. “Ayacucho lost 20% of the population, you have to interpret that they went somewhere else. Many went somewhere close to wait, and returned after the violence passed. Many went to the city and now the kids don’t want to go back. They stayed in their place of displacement.”
Rita’s family left in search of a better life, but they didn’t find much more than a change of scenery. The eldest of her two remaining brothers, 18, felt that since their father was gone it was his duty to support and care for the family. Her brother took on the responsibility and guided the family, helping them find a way to sustain themselves through farming once more, getting by on nothing but rice, bread and bananas. “This was supposed to be an age of having fun,” Rita lamented about her brother’s lost adolescence.
They were able to live, but they could not escape the violence. The conflict continued to be a part of their daily lives. “This was a terrible time; you couldn’t go out in the street…there was a lot of violence by both terrorists and the police,” Rita said. She remembers running into the jungle to take shelter when bombings rocked the community, hiding with her siblings until the explosions stopped and order returned. “We were afraid we were going to die, and we hadn’t done anything. They thought we were going to fight, but really we were just trying to get food.”
One night Rita’s mother was with a group of friends, talking and dancing, when three hooded figures appeared asking everyone for identification. They were frightened by the men, and plus, she didn’t even have an ID, so she lied to them and left with a friend as soon as she could. As they walked home, they heard three shots ring out in the night. A neighbor told her that her son had been shot. Rita’s mother ran to try and find him. She saw one of the hooded men again, she knew he was responsible and tried to chase him through the jungle, yelling at him to come back, but she lost him in dense foliage and darkness. She never found the hooded man, but she did find the body- her son was dead from a bullet to the head. “My mother felt dark,” Rita said. “She had no idea what to do.” Why had he been killed? Had it been the police, the military, or the terrorists? All she could do was hide the body in the jungle and hope the rest of her family would be spared.
They kept quiet, hoping nothing else would happen. Her mother began working as much as she could, leaving the kids to fend for themselves throughout the day. “We were basically living on the streets at this point,” Rita said. In 1994, Rita finished high school. She was still holding onto her father’s dream for her of finishing her studies, and she felt she needed to somehow help her family; moving to Lima seemed like the only option.
So to Lima she went along with countless others with nothing more than an urgent need for work and a safe place to call her own. The Commission de la Verdad concluded this in their final report about the effect the migration of people like Rita who had been displaced by the violence had on the urban capital of Lima:
“The massive displacement from violent zones constituted a painful process of uprooting and impoverishment of hundreds of thousands of Peruvians. This led to compulsory urbanization as well as a historic regression in the pattern of occupation of the Andean territory that will have a long-term effect on the chances for sustainable human development. The displaced population experienced the dislocation of social networks, forcing them to adapt to new circumstances with varying levels of success and considerable suffering, which posed an enormous challenge to the provision of services in the cities.”
She went to Lima alone, and began working as a live-in housekeeper, where she worked long hours and subsisted on bread and butter for low pay. “I was always hungry,” she said. Even though her wages were low, she managed to save some money after a year, but instead of using it for college, she sent it home to her mother. She continued this way for a few years until she met her husband through a friend and they quickly married.
They still didn’t have a home, but her husband had heard there was open land in the hills for the taking. A huge number of people were hiking up into the hills, clearing plots, building houses there, and squatting. The land had owners, sometimes they tried to kick the invaders off, sometimes they allowed them to slowly buy it, and sometimes there was a legal process that allowed communities of invaders to take possession of the land titles after they had occupied it for many years. In all of these cases, people with nowhere to go in Lima were doing whatever they could to take a piece of it. Rita and her husband decided to go try and do whatever it took to get a place of their own.
3 years later, they had built a house; 15 years later they finally owned the land. “I was working and my husband as well, so we could put together the money to buy the land.” In 2015, Rita could proudly say she legally owned the land. “If you don’t get the money together, later the owners will evict you. So we were able to make a deal and last year we were able to pay. It was hard; at times we had to not eat so we would have the money… I have made my house nice enough, from what it was.”
The process of rapid, unplanned and disorganized urbanization in Lima has a long history and host of causes that go beyond just the internal conflict. Vast expanses of communities exist with dismal living conditions that are subjected to social and economic exclusion are often not even counted in census data and sometimes even physically walled off from other parts of the city.
It is in these places MEDLIFE does it’s work in Lima. Rita is not an outlier in these places, and many people have a story to share like hers. Rita admits that the trauma of the past has haunted throughout her whole life, that sometimes she felt like giving up, like she couldn’t go on living, but she always kept going. “After everything I have lived through, everything that has happened, I have kept going through. I want to continue. This is what I want,” Rita said. As her life took on some semblance of stability, she began to feel like things would be ok, she had lived through so much, and her experiences had made her strong. “If you never have to face your own mortality, then you don’t realize its importance; you don’t realize the things that are worth fighting for.” She began to dream again. She has accepted that she will not study in university like her father had dreamed for her, but maybe her kids can- and so a fathers dream for his daughter became her own. Today, in her small home in the hills, Rita is still fighting for that dream, for a better life everyday.
Rita’s struggle is not over. In 2015 MEDLIFE met Rita in a Mobile Clinic. That same year, Rita was diagnosed with breast cancer. MEDLIFE has taken her on as a follow-up patient, and is working with her day by day to get through chemotherapy. While fighting the disease, she has continued to show the strength and resilience to adversity that has characterized her life. Rita’s story exemplifies that of so many of our follow-up patients, who often are people who have overcome tremendous obstacles for what little they have with no support and no safety net, only to get knocked down again by an unexpected illness or accident, leaving them at rock bottom with nowhere to turn for support. Rita’s story is still unfolding, as MEDLIFE works with her day by day to fight her illness. Check back in the future for an update on Rita’s progress.