I recently began my summer fieldwork in Lima, Peru, where I visited the photo exhibit Yuyanapaq, or “To Remember” in Quechua. Created by Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2003, the exhibit is a compilation of photographs that document the impact of political violence on the Peruvian population in the 1980s and 1990s. It groups violent events geographically and categorically, portraying the aftermath of bombings, murders, and attacks by the Peruvian military, the Maoist group the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), and the other communist armed group the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Yuyanapaq is impressive not only in that it does not shy away from exposing the realities of violence, but in that attracts a wide range of Peruvian visitors who, upon being reminded of the country’s violent period, will hopefully work to prevent it from recurring.
The photos evoke Peru’s violent past, even showing physical harm done to the war’s victims. Multiple images show dead and mutilated bodies. They capture inadvertent looks of shock and awe from survivors and first responders, and the utter anguish of family members as they look over the corpses of their loved ones. The only thing that I can think to compare the exhibit to in the United States is a miniature version of the Holocaust Museum. Yet whereas in the Holocaust it was easy to place the blame on the Nazis, and even on one clear, specific perpetrator, in Peru political violence and human rights abuses were committed by both the state military and leftist armed groups such as the Shining Path. How might the moral ambiguity that this type of conflict generates help us better understand the nature of violence? Were all those who committed violent acts in the context of Peru’s war “bad people” at heart, no matter what side they were on? If not, then what pushes otherwise decent people to commit such horrific acts?