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Peru: "my hope and my reason for existing"

29-02-2008 Feature

In the 1980s and 1990s, Peru experienced an internal armed conflict between the army and police on one hand and insurgent groups on the other.It is now estimated that some 13,000 people went missing during those years.Juana Huaytalla Méndez, who has attended psychosocial support groups run by the Child and Family Network with ICRC backing, tells her story.


© ICRC    
  For many years, the handicrafts of Ayacucho conveyed the horror experienced by this region of Peru.   

My name is Juana Huaytalla Méndez. I am 45 years old. I have been living in Lima since 1982, but I was born and lived for part of my childhood in Ayacucho. I lost my mother in the internal armed conflict (1980-2000). She was called María Méndez. She was 31 when she disappeared from home on 16 July 1984. Ever since then I have been doing my utm ost to find out what happened to her, but without success. 

Until 10 years ago I had high hopes that I would find my mother alive. But my hopes have faded after searching so hard for her in vain. In 2005 the Ombudsman in Lima published a report with the names of people who had disappeared during the internal armed conflict, but I didn’t find my mum’s name. The disappointment was so painful that I felt as if they had plunged a dagger into my chest. I thought of all the wasted effort until then. That was the second time that that had happened, because a few years back, I saw my mum's name on a list stuck on the wall of a prison in Lima, but when I went to look for her, it wasn’t her, but someone else. 


Perhaps my life today would be less complicated if I had seen my mother die of natural causes. I confess that recently I was willing to admit defeat, but then I got up and went on struggling to discover the truth. It is hard to go through this, because uncertainty causes a lot of suffering.

My daughters have grown up now. They are a daily source of strength and support. When I talk to them about my mother I always end up crying because it upsets me that they have never known her. They often tell me that they would like to see the place I was born, but I can’t bear to go back. Once, years ago, I did return, but I quickly came back to Lima because the memories and the pain of the tragedy immediately came flooding back to me and I couldn’t stand them.

I have changed a lot after all these years of searching. Before I was very quiet, I hardly spoke and I was always hiding behind the others. Now I say straight out what I think and feel. I often ta ke part in marches with other women who have gone through the same bitter experience of having someone in their family disappear. With them I discovered that I was not the only person to be suffering, but that many of us carry this tremendous sorrow in our hearts. 


"Perhaps my life today would be less complicated if I had seen my mother die.”

Thanks to them, however, I have learnt new skills to earn a living for my family. At first we painted pictures of the things we had been through: the horror of the violence, the grief felt in our villages, the funerals and some of our ancestors'customs related to death. As time passed our themes became more cheerful. We now paint pictures of the countryside where some of the main themes are nature, animals, work, farming and pastoral scenes. 

Although my life has changed I have never for one minute stopped thinking about my mother and the possibility of finding her alive one day, or at least of knowing what happened to her. This is my hope and my reason for existing. I certainly cannot forget her.