By Sandro F. Piedrahita
Torn between allegiance to his parents and the demands of his conscience, the son of two ruthless guerrillas makes a dangerous pilgrimage to become a peaceful soldier for Christ. Read the first half of this story here.
One month after the death of Comrade Carlos
At some point, Comrade Juana announces to the young Abimael that he will be sent to an “education” camp for young guerrillas located in an occupied territory somewhere in the province of Ayacucho. She tells him that at his age, he should already be thinking of his revolutionary future and that he must learn Gonzalo Thought and train in the use of weapons.
“It is an axiom of Gonzalo Thought,” she tells him, sounding as robotic as all the senderistas, “that children must be encouraged to participate in the popular war.”
Soon she dyes his hair, since he would stand out in the indoctrination camp if he went as a blond boy. Despite having light hair, he has the Amerindian features and color of his dead father, and so he will be able to fit right in with the other young recruits once his hair is black. On the day when two men arrive in a pickup truck to take him to the camp, his mother also announces that he should not expect Winnie to be in the home when he comes back.
“You’re at an age where you no longer need a nanny. Comrade Barbara and I have decided that she should be let go.”
“Why?” asks Abimael. “I love her so.”
“The decision has already been made.”
“Can I at least say goodbye to her?” asks the young Abimael. “Can I at least give her a last hug?”
“I suppose,” replies Comrade Juana. “But make it snappy.”
Soon Winnie appears in the living room, her eyes red and swollen from recent tears.
“I am leaving for Ayacucho,” he tells her. “To a training camp.”
“I know,” says Winnie, trying to avoid crying in order not to upset the boy.
“And I’ve been told you won’t be here when I come back,” he adds.
“You have to go, Abimael!” Comrade Juana cries out. “Come on, the men are waiting for you.”
Then Winnie puts something in Abimael’s hands. On the front, there is a depiction of El Señor de los Milagros – the Christ of Miracles – and on the back a portrait of Saint Martin de Porres. The young Abimael looks at the image of the crucified Christ, with His mother Mary at His right, a sword piercing her heart, and Mary Magdalene sitting at His feet. The Holy Spirit is depicted above him, all with a purple background.
Abimael knows the image was painted by an Angolan slave in a small adobe church in Pachacamilla many centuries earlier. During a great earthquake, the entire church had collapsed, except for the wall where the “dark Christ” had been painted. Thereafter, the wall where the crucified Christ was worshipped had withstood a number of other earthquakes. The image came to be venerated by all Peru, culminating with a multitudinous procession in Lima every October.
“Don’t forget everything I’ve taught you,” says Winnie. “Your faith is going to be tested. Remember what the good Lord said in Genesis: ‘I am with you and will watch over you wherever you may go.’ Don’t do anything that will stain your soul. And in the most difficult moments, know that God is with you, know that God is still with you, know that God is always with you.”
Abimael gets into the pickup truck with the two men, and they drive several hours before they abandon the car and tell him they’ll have to make the rest of the trek on foot. After two more hours traversing the verdant mountains, even crossing rivers, they finally arrive at the hamlet of Urubamba, controlled by the Shining Path. A tall indigenous man awaits Abimael in the largest house in the village and greets him warmly, knowing he is the son of Comrades Carlos and Juana.
“You have great shoes to fill,” the man tells him. “Your father was a relentless warrior, and your mother has done great things in Lima. I expect you to shine among the brave ‘pioneers’ of the camp. Tell me by what name you want to be addressed. You can’t be a comrade at your age, but still you must choose a nom de guerre.”
“You can call me Martin,” Abimael answers, without giving it a second thought. “Yes, Martin is my name.”
There are about fifty other “pioneers” in the camp, none older than about fourteen and most of them sons of peasants who speak no Spanish. The thin man who initially greeted Abimael – his name is Comrade Jose – addresses them as “seedlings of the revolution” in Quechua and tells them a brilliant future awaits them. Then he tells them what their daily schedule will be: breakfast at six in the morning, classes on the teachings of Mariategui, Lenin, Mao and Gonzalo Thought from eight to noon, lunch at one, and training in the use of weapons, dynamite and explosives in the afternoon. Near the end of the course, some of the “pioneers” – the ones who prove the most adept – will be allowed to join older senderistas in occupying a nearby village or looting a mine for dynamite.
He then addresses Abimael directly: “And I am sure you will be among them, Martin, for the armed struggle is in your veins. You imbibed it in your mother’s milk.”
At first, Abimael understands nothing of the Communist philosophy he is forced to study every day. Among these, it is Presidente Gonzalo’s statements about the necessity for violence that befuddle him the most. He is simply perplexed when he learns that Presidente Gonzalo had written that “violence without remorse” is necessary to liberate the peasantry from capitalism and feudalism. And the more Abimael understands the message beneath the philosophical gibberish, the more he is astounded by its meaning. How could anyone possibly defend Presidente Gonzalo’s statement that political executions used as terror tactics were comparable to “killing weeds”? How to justify the claim that negotiating with the government instead of using selective and extreme violence was akin to eating “chocolate with poison inside”? How to approve Presidente Gonzalo’s maxim that you “kill one and influence a thousand”?
And there is one thing also: what Presidente Gonzalo has said about religion. Religion is a “social phenomena,” he wrote, “the product of exploitation that will end with the end of exploitation, to be swept aside as a new society arises.” To the extent Abimael understands what Presidente Gonzalo says about religion, he finds himself in profound disagreement, even at his young age, and he finds his stomach itself rebelling.
So, gradually, the more he learns, the more he discovers that everything he is being taught is contrary to what he has learned at church during Father Robles’ sermons. The senderistas are simply trying to teach him how to hate and how to kill. He engages in training in the use of arms reluctantly, wondering if it might not be a sin merely to participate in such practices.
And yet he excels in the use of weapons. He learns how to discharge pistols and rifles, how to use pineapple grenades, how to wrap dynamite in balls of mud and launch them with a huaranco, the traditional llama-skin sling invented by the Incas. He knows the only reason he is being given these lessons is so that in the future he might use his weapons to kill actual humans, and he winces at the idea. He begins to pray relentlessly, prays in the morning and in the evening and whenever he has a moment by himself. He certainly has no interest in contributing to the “all-consuming river of blood” proclaimed as the supreme goal by his instructors. He is appalled at the senderista anthems chanting that “the blood of the people has a rich perfume, it smells like jasmine, violets, geraniums and daisies…” Why this emphasis on spilling blood?
Finally, the day comes, the day Abimael has been dreading. Comrade Jose approaches him and has nothing but compliments for him, saying he had received excellent marks in all the classes on Communist philosophy, that he had excelled in the use of firearms and explosives, and that he was ready to take the next step. There is a mine not too far from Urubamba, about three days away walking on foot through twisting dirt roads which wound around the side of the mountains. The mine has dynamite, necessary to continue training the “pioneers.” About fifteen battle-hardened senderistas are to launch the mission, but Comrade Jose has decided that Abimael and another boy should go along to learn firsthand about the armed struggle and experience real conflict.
“There’s only so much you can learn from books,” Comrade Jose says to Abimael. “Only so much you can learn on the firing range.”
Abimael does not know how to respond. An attack on a mine would certainly result in deaths. He cannot contemplate the idea of actually killing a human being, or even of assisting others in doing so. But he cannot say “No.” One of the “pioneers” had done so when offered the chance to participate in the stabbing of a local varayoc suspected of collaborating with the Sinchi Battalions, and his punishment had been swift and decisive. He was left naked in the mountains, tied up so that he could not escape, and left to die for his infidelity.
Of course, the doomed thirteen-year-old was not the son of Comrade Carlos and Comrade Juana, which gave Abimael certain perquisites. Abimael, unlike the others, is not expected to fight in the highlands but to aid in his mother’s activities in Lima. Still, there are no guarantees, and Abimael feels deathly afraid that his punishment will be severe. For the first time in his young life, he has to think of the possibility of his own death. What if the senderistas decide to stone or hang him for his cowardice? What if they use him as an example for the rest?
And yet something deep inside him tells him it would be sheer evil to kill any of the men guarding the mines or any of the miners. What can he do? What recourse does he have? His first instinct is to pray.
He takes out of his pocket the image of el Señor de los Milagros that Winnie had given to him on the day of his departure and pleads with the crucified Christ.
“Lord, guide me,” he says. “If you want me to tell Comrade Jose that I shall not go on the expedition at the mine under any circumstances, please give me a sign. And if you allow me to go, please don’t let there be any casualties. I’ve heard that some of the Shining Path missions don’t result in any deaths. Grant me this favor, and I shall consecrate my whole life to you. But not my will, but Thine be done.”
On the day of the expedition to the mine, Abimael rises early in the morning, with renewed vigor. Since the Christ has not given him a sign, he thinks of it as permission to go, is certain there will be no deaths. Comrade Jose appears a few hours later and tells him it is time to go.
“I’m glad you’re going on this mission, Martin. It will make a man of you,” he says. “And if this expedition requires you to kill for the first time, it should be a great source of pride, not only for you but also for your mother. That would mean that, young as you are, you could be addressed as ‘comrade.’ Usually that only happens when a ‘pioneer’ kills a policeman and brings back his revolver. But killing a guard at a mine would be just the same.”
The trek is long and hard. Finally, almost at nightfall, they appear at the mine, known as the Cienfuegos Mine. “Viva Presidente Gonzalo!” cry out the Shining Path guerrillas, already unholstering their weapons. But there are only two guards protecting the mine, and they raise their arms in the air as soon as they hear the senderista chants.
“You can take all the dynamite you want,” says one of the guards. “We won’t stop you.”
“Just leave us with our lives,” says the other. “All the miners are deep underground, and they won’t bother you.”
“Do you want to shoot one of them?” Comrade Jose asks the young Abimael as if he were asking him if he wanted a cup of hot chocolate. “His death would be a trophy for your mother and would make you a ‘comrade’ immediately.”
Abimael says a very quick and silent prayer to the Lord of Miracles before he responds.
“No, I’d rather not,” he says. “I think I should receive the title of ‘comrade’ like all the others do.”
“You’re a little squeamish, aren’t you?” Comrade Carlos laughs. “The first death is always the hardest. But don’t worry. You’ll have more than enough time to earn your stripes, particularly given that your mother is Comrade Juana. Come, let us collect the dynamite.”
And with that, the night ends. It is Pentecost Sunday, and God has granted him a small miracle. Abimael will spend three more months at the guerrilla camp, but he will never again be asked to go on a mission. He redoubles his prayers and reaffirms his promise to consecrate himself to Christ.
* * *
One year after the death of Comrade Carlos
Soon after the young Abimael returns from the training camp, the older Abimael – Presidente Gonzalo – appears and begins to sleep in the room vacated by Winnie. The young Abimael is sure that her mother has asked Winnie to leave under pressure from Comrade Barbara, who disliked the nanny with a passionate intensity. Of course the feeling was reciprocated. Comrade Barbara was in the habit of parading buck naked through the apartment, and Winnie was scandalized by her conduct.
Abimael Guzman, a.k.a. Presidente Gonzalo, is a stout man, weighing almost three-hundred pounds, but he speaks with a soft voice that is almost like a whisper. Unlike Comrade Barbara, he is very gentle when dealing with the young Abimael. The young Abimael somehow knows that everything this man says has to be followed, that he is the grand puppet master over the lives of Comrade Barbara and his mother, as well as in the lives of many others.
Unlike the late Carlos, neither Comrade Barbara nor the older Abimael care if the young Abimael overhears their conversations. Now that Winnie is gone, there is no longer a danger that the boy will report what he hears to his intrusive nanny. So the young Abimael figures out that his older namesake has come to Lima with a special purpose, a unique mission having to do with a black woman named Maria Elena Moyano, a person simply called “la perra” by Comrade Barbara and “la revisionista” by the older Abimael.
Based upon what he hears, the young Abimael deduces that la perra is distributing milk to the children of a place called Villa El Salvador through public kitchens, and that somehow, that act of kindness is an unpardonable crime.
“She is a traitor to the revolution, recalcitrant and counterrevolutionary,” says the older Abimael as if he were stating gospel doctrine, “and there is no alternative but to end her life. After all, we have warned her. Programs directed to ease the plight of the poor like the milk program diminish grievances against the government and lessen the revolutionary fervor of the masses.”
The young Abimael tells himself perhaps he is misunderstanding, perhaps Maria Elena Moyano had committed other crimes, not just instituting the Glass of Milk program for the children of Villa El Salvador. But the more he learns about the doomed zamba, the more senseless the older Abimael’s plans appear to be. And now the young Abimael has no one with whom to share his anxieties. His father Carlos is dead and his nanny vanished, his mother fully co-opted by the words of Comrade Barbara and the man hailed as Presidente Gonzalo. And the young Abimael, as usual, seeks solace in prayer.
One bright morning a group of armed men appears at the apartment building bringing with them a man in handcuffs. Comrade Juana immediately ushers them into a room next to the young Abimael’s bedroom. Everything is done in a hurry, and the young Abimael sees through the passageway that the men tie the hostage to a chair as they scream at him.
“Capitalist pig! Now we shall see if you ever again write your bourgeois propaganda against Presidente Gonzalo and the revolution! Know that you won’t escape from this situation with your life, you revisionist worm.”
The man – a thin, slight creature in horn-rimmed glasses – has a red handkerchief in his mouth and can say nothing. But his eyes alone tell the young Abimael that he is terrified. Later the young Abimael learns that his name is Guillermo Townsend and that he is a reporter with the magazine Caretas. Apparently he has written a number of negative stories about the Shining Path’s incursion into the towns of the Andean highlands in the province of Cajamarca. The young Abimael gathers from conversations that the Shining Path is seeking a ransom in exchange for the life of the journalist, but that Presidente Gonzalo has no intention of releasing him alive.
The months draw out. His mother, Comrade Barbara and the older Abimael continue to revise their plans with respect to the retaliatory assassination of Maria Elena Moyano, the black woman who distributes milk in the shantytowns of Lima. At some point, a group of young men – none of them Amerindians – begin to join in the discussions. The young Abimael is beginning to get a fuller picture of why they plan to kill the Afro-Peruvian community organizer. He figures out that they resent anything done to help the poor outside of the “revolution” – it is a word repeated again and again by the older Abimael – so they decide to punish her for the Glass of Milk program which she has instituted.
Then the day comes. The older Abimael, Comrade Barbara and his mother are glued to the television set. They don’t mind that the younger Abimael is sitting with them. At around one o’clock in the afternoon, the first reports begin to come in. Maria Elena Moyano, the black feminist and community organizer, has been shot dead in front of her family as she attended a community event organized by the Glass of Milk committee. Then the television announcer states that afterward her assailants dynamited her corpse, whereupon the older Abimael, Comrade Barbara and his mother all erupt in cheers.
The young Abimael sees Maria Elena Moyano’s two children on the screen – their faces full of shock and a limitless sorrow – and he begins to cry. The older Abimael appears surprised by the boy’s tears.
“I promise you,” he says. “Once we seize power, the deaths will cease.”
“Go to your room right now,” Comrade Barbara orders, in the presence of his mother. Comrade Juana says nothing as her son leaves the living room still weeping.
* * *
Comrade Juana, Comrade Barbara and Presidente Gonzalo often disappear during the day, leaving the young Abimael alone with Guillermo Townsend. His mother leaves TV dinners in the refrigerator for the young Abimael and the kidnapped journalist, with instructions for her son to feed him, but to never, ever untie the ropes that bind him.
“If he ever escapes,” she warns her neglected son, “the police will come after me. You wouldn’t want to live alone with Comrade Barbara.”
But slowly the journalist begins to befriend the young Abimael as he is being fed. When Townsend learns that the young Abimael’s mother is an American, he starts to tell the boy wonderful stories about the United States, about Hollywood and Miami and the Florida Keys, about the skyscrapers of New York City and the Grand Canyon and the Mississippi River and America’s great baseball and football teams.
“I like to play soccer,” the boy confides.
“I love soccer too,” Townsend replies. “Are you an incha of Alianza Lima or Sporting Cristal?”
“Alianza Lima,” responds the young Abimael. “I think they have the best goalkeeper.”
“What’s your name?” Townsend asks.
“Some people call me Abimael. But you can call me Martin. Martin is my baptized name. I’m named after Saint Martin de Porres.”
“So you’re a Catholic?” Townsend queries.
“I guess,” responds the young Abimael. “But I never get to go to Mass. I used to sometimes, when my nanny Winnie lived with us. But my mother doesn’t believe so we never go anymore. One October, Winnie even took me to a procession in honor of El Señor de los Milagros when my parents weren’t in town.”
“I, too, have participated in the procession of Our Lord of Miracles,” Townsend replies. “I’m a Catholic just like you. And what a wondrous sight it was! Hundreds of thousands of the faithful, all the women in their purple habits with a white rope about their waists, the men in purple frocks carrying the heavy altar bearing the Dark Christ’s image, everywhere the purple and white balloons…”
After some time passes, the journalist asks the young Abimael for a favor.
“Couldn’t you unfasten the ropes, Martin, so that I can escape? I have a son about your age. His name is Claudio, and I’m sure he would love to see me.”
“I’m sorry,” responds the young Abimael. “If I let you go, my mother will be arrested or maybe worse. I don’t want to have to live with Comrade Barbara.”
“Comrade Barbara?” Townsend repeats.
“She’s a very mean woman, the one with the twin braids. She’s the one who puts all the bad ideas in my mother’s mind.”
“What if I don’t tell anybody? What if you just unfasten the ropes and we keep your mother’s involvement a secret?”
“I don’t believe it. I’m not a baby, you know.”
But a few days later, the young Abimael learns something dark and terrible from the older Abimael. Guillermo Townsend’s family has paid a ransom, and there is no longer any reason to keep the journalist alive. The young Abimael remembers what happened to Maria Elena Moyano. He faces the toughest dilemma of his young life, a tipping point unlike any other.
To release the kind reporter knowing it might lead to his mother’s imprisonment? Or to let his mother kill him?
The young Abimael decides to unfasten the ropes binding Guillermo Townsend. He knows his mother will probably be arrested, but he cannot allow a man to be killed merely because he is a journalist. The young Abimael wishes he could have saved the life of Maria Elena Moyano too, as well as the man who was stoned in Huanca Sancos, but he could not have done anything for them. But he can do something for the skeletal Townsend and after some initial hesitation decides to set him free.
The journalist kisses the hands of the young Abimael before he swiftly departs. “You’re a saint,” he says. “You’re an absolute saint.”
* * *
Twenty years after the incarceration of Comrade Juana
“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.”
The woman’s face is covered by a black mantilla veil, but the priest can still see the tears running down her face.
“What do you have to confess, Margaret? When was your last Confession?”
“About six months ago, Father Martin. It’s just that – well – I had nothing to confess.”
“And now you do?”
“It’s just that – well – it happened again. I’m sorry, Father, but Gregory is so handsome, and I let him have his way with me. I cheated on my husband once again.”
“Are you seriously contrite?”
“Yes, Father Martin. But I don’t know if the Lord can forgive me so many times for the same sin.”
“Not seven times, not seventy times, more like seventy times seven. God will always forgive you if you sincerely repent and have the firm resolve never to sin again.”
“That is my resolve, father, but I’m so weak. I dream about him sometimes, think about him when I am with my husband. I can’t – honestly – I can’t guarantee that it won’t happen again.”
“Be patient with all things,” Father Martin says, quoting Saint Francis de Sales, “but first of all yourself. And pray to God for strength.”
“I just think that I’m a miserable person in the eyes of the Lord. How can I receive His mercy when I sin and sin again?”
“Your misery does not hinder His mercy, Margaret. That is the way of the Christian. We fall, we rise, we fall again. But we never tire in seeking God’s mercy. I still pray for my mother, who has been incarcerated in the Yanamayo Prison in southern Peru for the last twenty years. And she is guilty of sins far worse than marital infidelity. I still dream of her redemption.”
“You don’t speak with an accent, Father Martin. Are you a South American?”
“My father was, but my mother was born and raised right here in Los Angeles, before she moved to Peru. After my mother was imprisoned, my grandparents brought me to California.”
“Your mother is in prison, Father Martin? What did she do?”
“She was a terrorist, Margaret, guilty of murder, bombings, kidnapping, you name it.”
“Yes, it’s true.”
“So how did you end up becoming a priest?”
“Because of the mercy and grace of God. Also an angel named Winnie, who died a holy death, surrounded by her children. I myself was responsible for my mother’s incarceration, something that pains me even today. But the alternative was to let an innocent man be killed.”
“That sounds much worse than committing adultery.”
“Yes, but don’t forget that small sins can lead to greater sins. My mother started her descent bombing electric transmission towers. And look where that led her, to bigger and bigger crimes.”
“I’ll try not to sin again, Father Martin.”
“Good!” says the priest. “I am hereby giving you absolution. The Lord declares you righteous, forgiven! Just remember that we are all beset by temptations. Don’t be mortified merely because you are tempted, for you have Christ and the Virgin Mary in your corner. Every time you are tempted, say the Lord’s prayer, and ask the Father to deliver you from temptation. And invoke the name of the Virgin Mary, a powerful intercessor when the evil of lust assaults you. With such powerful soldiers behind you, you are certain to prevail in your struggle against temptation.”
The woman makes the sign of the cross and leaves the confessional. Father Martin is an excellent confessor, for over the years, he has learned to understand the great weaknesses of the human heart.
Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic writer of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent. Before he turned to writing, he practised law for a number of years. He is Jesuit-educated, and many of his stories have to do with the lives of saints, told through a modern lens. His wife Rosa is a schoolteacher, his son Joaquin teaches English in China and his daughter Sofia is a social worker. For many years, he was an agnostic, but he has returned to the faith. Mr. Piedrahita holds a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
Sandro's other work on Foreshadow:
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 1 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)