Flight, Exile and Identity

passing through
A group of displaced people going to a neighborhood twenty minutes away must pass through land strewn with garbage. Iván Ramírez Zapata.


by Ivan Ramírez Zapata


The newspapers wondered where the thousands had come from. How we had done it. And the radio asked as well, and the television sent cameras, and little by little we told our story. But not all of it. We saved much for ourselves, like the words of the songs we sang, or the content of our prayers. One day, the government decided to count us, but it didn’t take long before someone decided the task was impossible, and so new maps were drawn, and on the empty space that had existed on the northeastern edge of the city, the cartographers now wrote The Thousands. And we liked the name because numbers are all we ever had.

                                                                                  —“The Thousands,” Daniel Alarcón


Teresa lives in Ate, a working-class district in Lima. Until 1984, she resided in a rural community in the department of Ayacucho. That year, the terrorist organization Shining Path killed her father-in-law, one of the community’s wealthiest cattle farmers, right before her eyes. After that, she was constantly anxious and stressed, a condition that still affects her health. She feels that people like her have not received much compensation for their suffering, adding, “I go here and there with my testimony, but what have we achieved? I haven’t achieved anything.”

Teresa is one of the thousands of people displaced by Peru’s internal armed conflict from 1980 to 2000, a conflict involving the subversive organizations Shining Path and the Revolutionary Movement Túpac Amaru, the Armed Forces and Police, and peasant and Amazonian self-defense units. The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR), which began its work in June 2001, estimated 70,000 dead, 40,000 orphans, and more than 20,000 widows as a result of the internal conflict.

Some 430,000 to 600,000 people were thought to have been displaced from their homes during that period. Displacement caused the greatest impact from the war in terms of numbers, but it also was one of the least visible. Thus, it is difficult to place it on the postwar agenda and use it to characterize people’s identities—“displaced persons” instead of “internal migrants.”



It took Teresa quite a while to think of herself as displaced. She recounts that “It wasn’t until the  gentlemen from reparations, from the NGOs, came to talk that I realized that we were displaced people.” Since 2005, Peru has had a national policy of reparations for those who suffered damage and abuses during the armed conflict. This led to institutionalization that, among other things, has adopted the language of human rights and has set up a formal scheme of determining who was affected by the civil conflict—including victims of displacement. Like Teresa, many people “have learned” they were displaced through contacts with some organization and the discourse of reparations based on human rights and the kind of harm people suffered.   

Kevin, a community leader of displaced people in Puno, has a similar story. He began to identify as a displaced person when he encountered the word “displaced” in the 1993 law that created the Program of Support for Repopulation (PAR). He realized that the new regulations provided support for people like him. In fact, displacement was one of the themes related to the conflict that initially received official attention. During the decade of the 90s, to talk about displacement was, for the most part, to talk about “return.” That is, state policy was to try to get displaced people back to their communities of origin in the context of a general strategy of pacification and reconstruction. About half of the country’s internally displaced people did return to their communities, but it is estimated that only 21,000 returned with the help of PAR. After about ten years, PAR was consolidated into the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations (MIMP) with fewer resources and reduced capacity.

These bureaucratic contexts are fundamental for mobilizing around the issue of displacement and closely related to the work of the institutions that define and regulate the concept of internally dispaced persons, establishing a series of protocols to identify and provide service to them. In the quote at the beginning of this text, the narrative voice assumes the identity of someone who fled because of the war, though not as “displaced,” but more concretely as one of “the thousands,” whose massiveness is an observable characteristic. Because an individual is part of a floating population that doesn’t belong to any state or civil entity that might offer some type of assistance, the word “displaced” is meaningless outside the official contexts. Thus, many displaced people go on with their lives without assimilating their experience in these terms.

Related to this invisibility is the difficulty of gathering statistics about displaced peoples. As Marc Vincent points out in the book Caught Between Borders (2001), one of the obstacles in counting displaced persons has to do with the “unseen displaced persons,” that is, those who have not entered into contact with humanitarian or rescue institutions—which usually obtain the first information about displacement. These displaced people mingle with the urban population or simply prefer to remain anonymous. Thus, the National Registry of Displaced Persons, set up in 2006 under MIMP responsibility, has some 60,000 people registered to date, a figure much smaller than the 430,000 to 600,000 estimated displaced persons, and remains small even if we don’t count the 215,000 to 300,000 displaced persons who may have returned to their home communities.  It is quite likely that part of the discrepancy can be attributed to unseen displaced persons who have not had contact with the discourses of reparations or human rights.



This invisibility has a particularly crucial subjective aspect within Peru’s postconflict context. 

“The difference is that they are displaced and I am a victim; I am the one who was affected; my parents were killed. Displaced people have not lost anything; they have left their things behind; they have left in fear. I, on the other hand, have lost everything. [They killed] my parents; they burned down my house, everything. So I am a victim,” says Julia. She arrived in Lima in the early 80s after surviving an attack by the Shining Path against her village in Ayacucho. Julia considers herself both a victim and a displaced person. The conjunction “and” is important. Many others displaced by the conflict did not lose close family members. According to Julia, the mere fact of being displaced does not make one a victim.

This distinction is not in accordance with the main discourse of attention and reparation for those affected by the armed conflict, which considers displaced people “direct victims,” a condition equal to those who have suffered torture or rape or whose family members had been killed or disappeared.  That is, while the official discourse sees all of these categories as “direct victims,” people in their daily reality do not see it the same way.

It is not only Julia who explicitly makes a distinction of this type. Such feelings do not come out of a vacuum. In Peru, as in many other countries, it has been difficult to fit displacement in the same category as victimization. The CVR final report is an example of this. Volume VI of the report has a long section about internal displacement. The section mentions that displacement comes about “as a direct reaction to specific violations of basic rights,” such as “murders, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, violence against women, kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, expropriations and destruction of property.”  This phrasing suggests that displacement in and of itself is not a particular violation of a right, at least not in the sense of the other ennumerated crimes.

The  CVR report also points out that normally “the causes of displacement cannot be attributed to a specific event,”  which distinguishes it from other forms of abuse. Indeed, in cases such as torture, rape or forced disappearance, there has to be an aggressor who performs a concrete act of violence against a body. These concrete actions can even later be judged in court. It is not possible, on the other hand, to prosecute cases of displacement in Peru (a few countries do permit this; Peru does not). Thus, victims have more channels than displaced people through which to seek justice.

Moreover, this complexity corresponds to what happens in civil society. Given that civil society puts emphasis on prosecuting human rights abuses, and displacement cannot be prosecuted, the result is that displacement is seldom at the top of the agenda of human rights groups. The CVR and human rights groups pay less attention to displacement because it does not fall neatly within the traditional agenda of denunciations and protection of human rights, even though the CVR does categorize displaced people—at least technically—as "direct victims." Thus, this agenda has successfully incorporated as “victims” people who suffered torture, rape, forced disappearance, among other crimes, but has been unable to do the same with displaced persons, at least to the same degree as these violations. In this way, the idea that separates victims from displaced persons is an unintentional result of the primcipal discourses about the conflict and postconflict in the framework of human rights and transitional justice.

Another complication lies in determining what the difference is between displaced persons and the rest of the population living in situations of poverty and vulnerability. The difference exists: displaced persons have experienced flight and survival in the context of armed violence. But that difference cannot be seen. In the mid-90s, a mission from the International Council of Voluntary Agencies warned that a dramatic corollary of displacement is poverty. Almost twenty years later, Mexican researcher Javier Lozano Martínez asked in his 2014 book Desplazados por violencia en asentamientos humanos de Huanta y Lima, Perú (Persons Displaced by Violence in Human Settlements in Huanta and Lima, Peru) how many of the poor people living in these cities were displaced people that no one had registered as such. That is, poverty is visible; displacement is not.



In the decade of 2000, especially after the CVR report, the emphasis on displacement shifted away from return to the communities. To talk about displaced people now is to talk of those who did not return. Moreover, several official documents stress that the programs of reparations and attention are targeting the non-returnee displaced population. This focus is somewhat arbitrary, for reasons we do not have the space to discuss here. It’s enough to say that at the level of international discussion, return does not constitute the end of the condition of being displaced.

What is certain about the condition of displacement is that it is a concrete experience of flight and exile that has a lasting, specific impact on subjectivity, regardless of the difficulty of identifying as a displaced person and figuring in official statistics. Displacement, in its most tragic form, means an interruption of life plans and an undesired loss of the world that made up one’s previous life. Teófilo, a national leader of displaced people, recalls how after he was displaced, “I was really angry because I had left my crops; I had left my family; I had left my political work, everything.” Yes, these things can eventually be recuperated, but the time consumed and the effort spent in recuperating all that was lost because of injustice cannot even begin to be compensated. César, for example, a displaced resident in the district of Lurigancho-Chosica in Lima Province, cannot pardon the necessity of flight from his community, leaving behind his younger brothers and sisters. They all survived, but the years lost in separation stamped his memory with guilt and grief.

A popular saying affirms that the loss of a dear one can never be recovered. This pain is especially sharp for those who have lost family because of the armed conflict. Many of the people who were displaced did not lose family members, but it is worthwhile asking if there is also something in the nature of displacement that cannot be recovered. The testimonies in the previous paragraph suggest that is true, but the uniqueness of the experience of being displaced complicates the possibility of imagining this loss and expressing it.  

The displacement of thousands of Peruvians is talked about little or not at all today. While in Colombia it is a theme of public relevance, in Peru it is only a footnote or a small chapter in the post-CVR agenda. Social scientists are also not interested in further investigations of this theme. Displaced people today are not neglected. The state has incorporated them in its formal code of laws. Whether this incorporation is satisfactory or not is a matter for another conversation, which must be held, but keeps being pushed aside. Thus, symbolic displacement has been added to geographic displacement: displaced from the community, academic debate and the public discourse.



Ivan Ramírez Zapata is an anthropologist at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos and a member of the Study Workshop on Memory. He was part of the curatorial team that put together the permanent exhibit of the Place of Memory, Tolerance and Social Inclusion.