THE Franciscan priests who trekked to this remote corner of the Peruvian jungle at the beginning of the century must have thought it was paradise. Here, on a grassy patch of land where the dark waters of the Pangoa River merge into the meandering Perene River, they erected a red-brick mission to teach the gospel to the Ashaninka natives who inhabit the thickly forested green-blue hills.
But lately the Ashaninkas find themselves living a long way from paradise. They have become pawns caught in a conflict between the Peruvian state and the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas.
The Rev. Teodorico Castillo has been in charge of the mission here for the past 35 years. He says things began to go sour when a road linking Puerto Ocopa to Satipo was opened in 1984. "Soon, trucks full of people, pots, pans, and furniture began to arrive," he says. "Overnight, a rough-and-tumble frontier town, saloon and all, sprang up on the sandy banks of the Perene."
Most of the newcomers were unscrupulous merchants, prostitutes, gamblers, and thieves attracted by the burgeoning river traffic in coca paste - the raw material for cocaine - that was carried down from the coca fields of the Apurimac Valley to clandestine airstrips downstream.
The new town soon attracted a raid from Sendero, which opposes corruption and decadence as part of its program to build "a better state." During "popular trials," the rebels judged and sentenced to death most of the newcomers. The settlers' shops and homes were razed.
But the Ashaninkas who lived in the mission nearby were not involved in the activities of the settlers and continued their traditional seminomadic lifestyle. Sendero spared their lives but wanted their minds and labor in exchange. They began teaching the Ashaninkas the new gospel of Mao, Marx, and Lenin.
When the Ashaninkas "failed to respond to the ideology and refused to join the `popular war,' Sendero launched a campaign of terror and intimidation against them," Fr. Castillo says.
On June 21, 1991, Sendero attacked the mission, burning the reed- and palm-thatched huts to the ground, destroying the fields of manioc, a kind of tuber.
"We were terrified and many of us fled to hide in the hills," says Santiago, a young Ashaninka leader. Others, including many women and children, were captured and led away by Sendero to be used as porters or as virtual slaves in the fields.
"They made us work very hard and give them everything, everything," says Rebecca, a young Ashaninka woman who recently escaped Sendero together with her one-month-old son, her husband, and six other men.
When the Army arrived at Puerto Ocopa to set up a base, only Castillo and six other families were left amid the smoldering remains of the Sendero raid. Today, however, more and more Ashaninkas are arriving at the mission seeking safety with the Army and the ronderos - the civilian self-defense militias that are armed and trained by the Army to fight the guerrillas.
At Puerto Ocopa, the Army has armed 50 Ashaninka ronderos with 12-gauge Winchester shotguns. The rest are armed with traditional bows and arrows. "We also train them in ambush, and counter-ambush techniques," says a young Army lieutenant.
"We conduct together with the Army four- to five-day-long joint rescue missions to liberate other Ashaninkas that are still prisoners of Sendero," says Santiago, the leader of the Puerto Ocopa militia, who says his sister and brother-in-law are Sendero prisoners.
Liberated Ashaninkas are led to the mission where they join about 200 other refugees. The mission itself has been transformed into a sort of walled city surrounded by trenches, moats, and jungle traps that conceal sharp poisoned stakes. Ronderos keep watch while villagers cultivate the 10 acres of land that have been salvaged since the raid.
All around, Sendero commandos lurk in the dense bush, quietly watching for the Ashaninkas to lower their guard. Santiago lost his brother a couple months ago: "We were fishing together in the river when a group of men set upon us out of nowhere. I managed to escape but they killed my brother with several machete blows," Santiago says.
Each day at dusk, barefoot Ashaninkas begin a procession that eventually winds its way behind the gates of the mission. There, they will spend the night huddled for safety and warmth under the colonnade of the mission's courtyard.