Walking around Ayacucho Peru it is difficult not to see a dichotomy.
Down one street I cross in front of a beautiful colonial church with its ornate carvings and majestic bell towers.
Next I turn the corner down a dusty crumbling road lined with rows of small single room brick homes with cement floors and rusty old corrugated metal roofs.
Dotted throughout the city I find hidden courtyards enticing me with their flowing fountains while only a lucky few homes may have a running spout.
In the bustling center of town, I visit market vendors and store owners who are busy earning a profit while in many of the doorways and park benches I see the poor sitting idly and whiling away the hours in a solemn silence.
This is where I came to volunteer, nestled on a high plateau in the Peruvian Andes, in a city of great colonial beauty scarred by a tumultuous past fighting for independence and against political corruption.
For thousands of years the region was inhabited by indigenous cultures such as the Huari, the Nasca, and later the Inca. But in 1540 Francisco Pizarro and his troops came in conquest and thus began the Spanish colonization. In 1825, Simón Bolívar led a rebellion against the Spanish royalists and it was at the Battle of Ayacucho that Peru and much of South America finally gained its independence.
It was also from this battle that Ayacucho got its name. In the local Quechuan language, aya means “death” and kuchu means “corner” and the people declared it ayakuchu due to the mass casualties that lay on the battlefield.
For most of its modern history, Ayacucho has remained one of the poorest regions in Peru. Due to a corrupt government system, all of the money, wealth, and power remained in Lima and little to nothing was disseminated to the other regions. Mounting poverty and hunger eventually led to a new revolutionary period in the 1980’s by a brutal Maoist guerrilla group known as the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso).
As a volunteer with the organization Cross-Cultural Solutions, I was able to meet with and hear a first hand account from a previous Shining Path member. He explained that at the initial uprising much of the public was in support of the Shining Path, looking to the group to help free them from subjugation of an elitist regime and to improve living conditions throughout the country. However, the Shining Path proceeded immediately with guerrilla warfare tactics and soon changed that support into fear.
Eventually, the Peruvian government had no choice than to declare an emergency and use its military might to suppress the movement. This was even more unfortunate for the local peasants in the highlands who became caught in the cross-fire between the Shining Path and the military. The man explained to us that the Shining Path would dress in military uniforms and seek assistance from the peasants. Anyone who offered assistance would be brutally killed. In a twisted and sad reverse of fortune, the military did the same, dressing as a member of the Shining Path and persecuting those who helped.
The peasants had no choice but to abandon their homes and flee to the city. A city that had neither the infrastructure nor the resources to cater to an influx of unskilled and ill-educated peasants from the highlands.
Today, Ayacucho remains in a state of development. While the city works to revitalize the colonial facades and quaint cobbled streets to attract tourism, many residents continue to lack basic needs like clean water, education, and health care.
An alternative interpretation of aya is “soul” or “spirit” and some say the name is instead a salut to the devotion and spirit of its people. Despite their hardships, there is no doubt that they are a resilient people and that Ayacucho is experiencing a resurgence. With some money now flowing in from Lima and increased tourism, as well as volunteer support, my hope is to see this beautiful historic area and its people prosper once again.