An Andean Odyssey

When Rains Became Floods: A Child Soldier’s Story
Lurgio Gavilán Sánchez
2015, Duke University Press
152 pages, plates, paperback

MIRACLES continue to define a reality in Latin America that can often be far stranger than fiction, something that the great Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa knows only too well. He wrote of this autobiography by a child soldier in his country’s savage civil war, “It is a miracle that Lurgio Gavilán Sánchez survived this perilous adventure”. That war – between the Maoist guerrilla movement Sendero Luminoso (the Partido Comunista del Perú) and a corrupt, increasingly brutalised state – cost upwards of 80,000 lives, let alone $1bn in damages, and traumatised an entire rural generation. Perhaps more miraculous was that Gavilán emerged emotionally intact and without bitterness, having fought for both the insurgents and the Peruvian military before becoming a Franciscan priest and, eventually, an anthropologist.

Such experiences are beyond the understanding of most people, as is the cruelty and violence witnessed by the boy from a desperately poor peasant family in the Ayacuchan countryside who joined Sendero at the age of 12. Gavilán could not read or write, had attended school for just a couple of years, and spoke only the local indigenous Quechua language. An older brother had joined a guerrilla column and so he followed out of loyalty – but also a strong sense that, for folk of his ilk, there were few other possibilities. Moreover, Sendero was on the rise as it had begun to prosecute the first stages in a strategy of prolonged popular war to surround, choke and ultimately subdue the cities and hence the state. Gavilán was a guerrilla for just over two years before being captured by the army at the age of 15, although for much of this time he endured an itinerant, starved existence that belies the image of Sendero as a ruthless killing machine. Moreover, his story reveals his deep disillusion and eventual disgust with the organisation that treated its own cadres with as much hatred as it did its enemies.

Describing the sickeningly frequent executions of his own comrades for minor infractions, carried out after a commander walked the ranks then touched an offender on the shoulder, he writes: “This kind of death happened often. What I most remember is when the military leader ordered us to form a column, two by two. Then he would tell us that one of us had fallen asleep on guard. I think almost every one of us fell asleep at one time or another. Was this a crime? For the party it was. It was written in the imaginary rulebook. The person had to die … A few minutes later, a fifteen-year-old adolescent received the touch of death. His hands were tied, he was shot without being allowed to say a word. We buried him by the stream that flows down the eastern side of Mount Razuhuillca.”

After his capture, Gavilán joined the army fighting the very guerrillas he had been comrades with, and remained with them for a further seven years, witnessing equally extreme brutality – the “horrifying hypermachismo” that pervaded military culture – and the secret executions of captured insurgents routinely carried out by soldiers. A chance encounter with nuns travelling with his unit for protection lured him into the church, and – to escape the horrors of war, to atone for his own wartime sins, and to satisfy a compulsion to serve the needy – he joined the clergy, becoming a Franciscan priest. One of the ironies of his holy trinity of his existence – guerrilla, soldier, priest – was that all these offices in Peru were to the left of the political spectrum: Maoism, the populist tradition of Peru’s armed forces, and the liberation theology of the Peruvian church. Orin Starn’s profoundly perceptive introduction to the book also notes the common thread that runs through these stages in the protagonist’s life: “If a single theme runs through the tale, it is the almost magical capacity of certain institutions and ideologies to shape lives. Gavilán marched under three banners – the Communist hammer-and-sickle, the Christian white, and, as a soldier, the Peruvian national flag. All three had a vertical command structure that demanded absolute obedience from their followers. Each proffered its own sacred articles of faith, whether Chairman Gonzalo’s teachings, the glories of Peruvian patriotism, or the Word of God.”

Gavilán eventually left the church in order to pursue a university degree, going on to study for a PhD in anthropology at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico. It is a measure of his achievement that so many distinguished figures have been involved in the publication of this remarkable memoir – Starn is a distinguished professor of cultural anthropology, the eminent Peruvian anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori provided a Foreword in which he noted that “this is the history of an exceptional life”, and the book is translated by Margaret Randall, the prolific author and intellectual – but it is to the author himself that most praise inevitably must go.

As Starn so rightly points out, this is a unique story and a triumph of the human spirit without doubt, but what makes it so special is Gavilán’s telling of it: at once a form of Andean Zen prose that is spare and haunting, deeply rooted in an understanding very distinct from the conventional Western outlook, but also a “magical, devastating, powerful piece of writing … a latter-day Andean Odyssey, with Gavilán, like his ancient Ithacan prototype, also somehow managing to survive the hardships, temptations, and perils of a long journey in search of his own place in the world”. – GO’T