ON the riverbank at Aucayacu, a young Peruvian Army recruit gazes across the swirling, muddy waters of the Huallaga River in the heart of one of the most impenetrable bastions of the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas.
The soldier has just returned from a two-week patrol in the lawless, coca-growing zone where ``Operation Aries'' - billed by Army chiefs as the ``final offensive'' against the guerrillas - is under way.
He says he has no idea whether he has killed anyone on the other side. When under attack by rocket-propelled grenades, launched by the guerrillas against a makeshift Army camp, he said, ``You just fire. It's dark. Maybe you hit someone, maybe you kill.''
This latest chapter in the internal war between Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the Peruvian state, which began 14 years ago today, is a low-tech and often dirty affair. In addition to widely known Sendero brutality, human rights agencies have reported on allegations from fleeing civilians of Army abuses - rape, torture, and extrajudicial execution.
Officially, the death toll since Operation Aries commenced in early April is low: some 15 guerrillas killed in action, a few soldiers wounded. But information coming from the combat zone has been impossible to verify. The Peruvian Army continues to deny the International Committee of the Red Cross access to the region. Even Carlos Gonzalez of the Tingo Maria prosecutor's office admits, ``Across the river, it's a totally `red zone.' No one knows what's going on in there.''
Nationwide, the Maoist revolutionary movement, whose aim is to overthrow the Peruvian state, has been severely weakened since the 1992 capture of founder-leader Abimael Guzman Reynoso. But small factions continue to terrorize rural areas and the capital where, since Sunday, they have exploded several car bombs to mark their anniversary.
In Tingo Mars hospital, a three-year-old girl with chest wounds from bullets fired when an Army patrol burst into her village of Yanajanca is proof that innocent civilians are caught up in the counter-subversive action.
But this is one of the most lawless areas of Peru. The Upper Huallaga valley is traditionally responsible for producing up to two-thirds of Peru's coca. For years, Sendero has held the balance of power in the area, mediating between coca-growing peasants, Peruvian ``middlemen,'' and drug producers.
Through the income generated by charges for land rights and protection, the Huallaga has rapidly become Sendero's chief source of war materiels. Guerrillas in the zone have Soviet-made guns, sophisticated communications equipment, and even rocket launchers, according to captured guerrillas and local Army officers.
Because of the complex interrelation of coca-growers, drug traffickers, and guerrillas, the Army is hard-pressed to identify the enemy. Illustrative of that dilemma is Ely Puertas Dominguez. Labeled a Sendero militant by local Army officials, Mr. Puertas claims he is a coca-grower, ``forcibly recruited'' to help carry supplies for the guerrillas during a three-month campaign. ``I've told the Army my story. It's no use. Even if you've only carried supplies, you are considered one of them,'' he says.
To overcome the identification problem, the Army is busy promoting ``repentance.'' Under laws passed in May 1992, the government gives special treatment to guerrillas who turn themselves in. At Tingo Army Base 10, ``repented'' guerrillas live under protection, guiding patrols and identifying Sendero leaders.
One young militant explained why she abandoned the guerrilla ranks. ``I was with Shining Path for 18 months. You live in the jungle; you eat like an animal. They tell you that, when the people's Army eliminates the `old society,' you'll live well and ride around in cars. But it's all a trick. I don't believe it anymore, and I want to help stop it.''
Nationwide, the government claims thousands of Sendero sympathizers have turned themselves in. But analysts say no more than a couple hundred genuine Sendero militants - as opposed to those forced to join - have voluntarily abandoned ranks.
Skillfully using intelligence to capture most guerrilla leaders, and bolstering community self-defense organizations, the Fujimori government has succeeded in weakening Sendero. Statistics show that armed guerrilla attacks and the number of dead from political violence are down in 1994 - to around a third of last year's levels.
President Alberto Fujimori has promised to eliminate Sendero by 1995, when he plans to run for reelection. Cleaning up pockets of hard-line resistance such as the Huallaga Valley may be essential to achieving that goal.
But as Sendero expert Carlos Tapia points out, Peru's final battle is not Operation Aries, but ``to build a more just and democratic country on a solid economic base so that current inequalities are done away with.''