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The International Writers Magazine
Maximum Security in Peru

The Dust of Ayacucho
Emily Hopkins

Floating in the warm wind, the mixture of laughter, music, and unfamiliar languages swam through the air. I bounced a young boy on my knee, as he gripped my long hair that dangled in his face, swirling in the dusty breeze

Electric pinks, yellows, blues, and greens of the women’s clothing jumped out against the pale landscape, unsubdued by the constant layer of dust in the air. Women were busy weaving and making purses. Children scurried everywhere: chasing after a soccer ball, pulling on the long skirts of their mothers for attention, and crawling through the dirt that kids across the world seem oblivious to. A glimmer in the sky grabbed my attention, and I lifted my head, gazing above the buzz of life happening below. There, the jagged edges of the crude barbed wire pierced the sky –blue, but heavy with dust- and I instantly found my reality again. I was in a jail.

Every bump of the bus surged through me as we rode down the broken streets, past the broken houses. The bus was silent- the air heavy with anticipation. Ayacucho, nestled within the Peruvian Andes mountain range, is a name that carries with it a bloody past, full of recent terror. The Shining Path, a guerilla group derived from the Communist Party in the late 1970’s, began meeting and developing in Ayacucho. Consequently, brutal slayings and guerilla warfare took place there, beginning in 1980. In the following years, blood and destruction ensued throughout Ayacucho and spread into many parts of Peru. Though the imminent fear of the Shining Path has subsided, an indelible mark of terror was left on Peru, and throughout the world.

Ayacucho lacks an immediate danger, but its streets still echo the destruction that tore through the town-- leaving businesses destroyed, children abandoned, and lives broken. Our group from Villanova made the long journey from the safety of our ivy-covered-stone-building campus, to the crumbling streets and dusty hills of Ayacucho, on a mission of community service.

I braced myself as we stepped off the bus, performing a mental inventory, trying to locate the calculated, understandable reason why I needed to come here. The dust was overwhelming as the first breath of Ayacucho coursed through my body: it filled my lungs, stung my eyes, and crawled up my nose. It must have clouded my mind too, for there was no logic I could find, only a desire to discover this world unknown to me.
Traveling here through an international organization, Cross Cultural Solutions, meant various volunteer opportunities set up throughout the week had been scheduled for us-- including nursing homes, orphanages, growing businesses, and a jail. The long days and the heavy warmth of the sun accompanied us as we carefully explored this world.

The plazas housed bustling marketplaces, buzzing despite the draining afternoon heat. The dust that surrounded us brought with it the smells of life in Ayacucho: the thick sweetness of fruit from the marketplace, mixing with the sweat of the workers coming own from the hills, and the odor of animals rambling through the street, not seeming to belong to anyone or be on any specific course. Vibrant clothing woven of blues, greens, oranges, and pinks that had illuminated the city, and the faces of its people, for generations was found in every market, on every street.
Surrounding the valley, countless churches with crosses stood tall, whispering the story of unwavering faith. A tone of sadness, determination, and rebuilding seemed to resonate through the markets, the buildings, and everyone, in the town.

Our trip to the neighboring Yanamilla Maximum Security facility presented an unimaginable situation. I lacked experience with jail or convicts, and couldn’t help but have a sinking feeling in my stomach as we passed through many security checkpoints, each one bringing us deeper into the gray, heavily secured walls. I could have never known that inside this prison, surrounded by guards and guns, with a language I couldn’t understand, deep in the mountains of Peru, I would find an important part of myself, which I would only realize as the years passed.

The sons and daughters of female inmates lived with them in jail, most imprisoned for drug charges: cocaine production and sales produce many problems in the region. Many of these children were born inside these walls, and for the first few years of their lives allowed to stay with their mothers. Regardless of the barriers that could have kept me separated from this world, an immediate chemistry caused color, language, history, and status to disappear. I instantly became theirs, and we spent the day playing games, coloring, reading to them in broken Spanish, feeding them, running around, and endlessly laughing. The mothers, who worked on weaving goods that they could sell in markets, looked on with gleaming eyes, occasionally shouting out their maternal commands.

Coming from a middle-class, conventional lifestyle, I carried with me a sense of guilt, feeling out of place and awkwardly observing this world from the outside. I was there, but soon I would be gone, like a ghost-- leaving everything as it had been before I arrived. I questioned what would remain as I returned to the only life I had known, drastically different from this one I was so fully, and unexpectedly, a part of now.

As the bus took us away from Ayacucho on our last day, I coughed and wiped the dust from my face one last time. A tear fell with the thought of never seeing this place again, a town that had so quickly embraced us. The fresh feeling of life ran down my cheeks, and took away the remnants of Ayacucho that had made my hair, face, and clothes all the same shade for the last 10 days. Remembering the screeching laughter, the soccer games, reading endless books, and hugs-hugs that I never imagined I would be a part of- a thought slightly soothed me. I knew that I couldn't fix all the broken businesses, befriend all the lonely children, or change the world. But, as the bus bumped its way through the dirt and out of town, I held on to the hope that the world could change me.

© Emily Hopkins april 2007

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