A Vision in Peru: How Billy Azurin Found His Motivation to Succeed at School Everyday
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Around the age of 5, Billyiton Brian Azurin Prada, or simply known as Billy to his friends, moved to America from his small town of Toraya, Peru. He is currently a junior at Francis Lewis High School and is the first one in his family to receive a formal high school education.
As the only Latino student in the Leadership branch of the JROTC Academic team, Billy maintains a disciplined daily work ethic and is always there for his friends. He is an aspiration to those around him, but beneath his amiable manners and agreeable demeanor are memories of his childhood that lived through terrifying bloodshed.
Billy speaks both Spanish and a bit of Quechua, the native language of several indigenous groups in South America. He spent the first several single digits of his life living there, but Peru at the time was at war with a terrorist organization. Named Sendero Luminoso, or “The Shining Path”, the extremist group plagued his country for decades and brought suffering to the countless people that lived there.
Lead by a man named Abielmao Guzman, a former university professor, the group began its terror around the country by late 1970’s to the 1980’s. He was obsessed with the idea of Communism and supposedly went to China and met Mao Zedong himself.
“He’s not like Lenin, he’s not like Mao Zedong, he’s not like Bin Laden.” Billy said, describing the man. “He didn’t come from a military family, he wasn’t a people’s man, he wasn’t a religious leader. He was just an unknown professor.”
According to Billy, Guzman had a powerful voice that could convince many people to follow his ideologies. Because of this, his organization was easily able to capture children as recruits and persuade them to join his cause, then proceed to brainwash them beyond repair. But not all of them were forced to join. A lot of children volunteered to be a part of the movement, eager to play around with military grade weapons such as AK-47s.
“The children are what hit everyone because they were so innocent.” Billy said. “They would say ‘Hey mom, look at this gun, this is so fun.’ Children my age, your age, or even younger were given military training and how to kill, kill, and only kill. Think of the most sweet, innocent kid. He has nice shoes on, he has a collared shirt all tied up, he has his pants tucked in. The nicest kid you could think of could be a lieutenant.”
Billy had a personal friend who joined with the Sendero Luminoso. He disappeared from their circle of friends one day and returned some time after. When inquired upon where has he gone off to, the friend simply said he got recruited to Sendero and how the AKs felt “powerful”. Billy never saw him again after that.
Although child soldiers played a big part in the organization, Guzman also recruited many men and women. He was said to have a personal quote on persuading the populace:
“My people, join my cause, for we are reforming, bringing a new age of Peru, but If you don’t join, I will not kill you. Just know that I have a thousand eyes and a thousand ears. I see everything, I hear everything. I will not kill you if you don’t join, but the same can’t be said for your family, your animals.”
When his army was amassed, the first place Guzman attacked was a town called Ayacucho.
“Everyone got massacred, hand to hand.” Billy described. “They would go to a child’s neck and snap it. Children were forced to watch their mothers getting raped, their fathers getting beaten, their brothers and sisters having forced to kill each other.”
After demolishing Ayacucho, Sendero Luminoso moved to prey on other towns and villages. By the time the Peruvian army responded and got to action, they had already destroyed dozens of villages, having sacked, killed, raped, and looted. One particularly brutal method of their killing was stoning, which is to bash a victim with a stone until they die.
“Pretend I’m a child.” Billy explained. “Hands down and on my knees. They would grab a rock and beat me to death. It was painful. A bullet would be instant.”
The Peruvian army was determined to catch the terrorists, but they were just as cruel and merciless. Since members of the terrorist group blend in with the common people, it was extremely difficult to tell them apart. A peasant could invite you in their house for dinner and instead find a gun to be pointed at you. Even the people themselves couldn’t tell who’s who.
Anyone could be in part of the Sendero Luminoso. So the army decided to arrest anyone they find suspicious, torturing them until they confessed they were terrorists. It didn’t matter if they were telling the truth. Billy had an uncle who had his toenails slowly ripped off each day and was beaten senseless until he was forced to admit, despite not actually being a part of the organization.
At some point the army managed to capture a few terrorists. From there, they had their own way of interrogating them.
“They would shoot them in the leg, capture them, and hang them from the legs on helicopters like chickens.” Billy described. “They would fly to the highest point on mountains and take tours around it in circles for hours and hours.”
When the terrorists did not confess, as they were fanatics hopelessly brainwashed beyond reason, screaming “long live Guzman”, the army began killing them. They would drop them from the helicopters and let them fall. Billy recalled bodies would randomly fall from the sky as his grandpa drove him, hitting the ground like raindrops. He wasn’t sure what they were at the time, wondering if they were cows that fell off the mountaintops. His grandpa would tell him not to look and keep on moving.
“Yeah, these were terrorists,” Billy said, “and I’m glad. They deserve it. But still, you would get that feeling, like ‘Wow, is this what we are doing to ourselves? Our own people? Just how far did we get to reach this point?’”
During this period of chaos, Billy hung around a group of friends. One of them he knew was definitely killed in action. Another got captured by terrorists, but was released and was never heard of again. The third one of the bunch disappeared, and Billy had no idea where he went off to until last year he went to visit Toraya in summer. The kid, he found out, was actually his taxi driver. He was amazed to find him again, but they didn’t really have anything to say to each other.
“Things changed after the terrorist attack,” Billy said. “I wasn’t a little peasant kid anymore. I went to America and things changed. I’m in my nice collared jacket, my jeans, my shoes, all cleaned up. And when I see him, well, he wasn’t doing bad himself, but when you see the difference between us you couldn’t help but wonder, ‘What would have happened if I stayed and went with them?’”
The two acknowledged each other, but they had nothing to say. It was depressing, as well as irritating, to see how great their difference was.
“You know it’s sad when you can’t even say ‘hi’ to your childhood friend. He’s a taxi driver, and I’m a student looking to go to college. You can tell which one of us is feeling guilty here.”
Billy described the struggles of his people as a “two front war”. Even though the Peruvian army fought for the country in name, they were just as savage and heartless as the terrorists.
Eventually a prisoner sang out their secrets, and the as Peruvian army gathered more and more crucial intelligence, they started to fight and pushed the terrorists back. They began to ask the villagers instead of falsely accusing them. It was around this time when the threat of Sendero Luminoso arrived at Billy’s hometown, Toraya.
He was just a little kid around this time, and did not witness the fighting firsthand, but according to his mother there was a man, a farmer, who stood his ground against the impending dread that is the Sendero. The farmer was proud and stubborn, having no intention to abandon his land, but he was also very rich. He had two kids who were well off in France, and when he contacted them for assistance, they sent back high quality military-grade weapons.
“We were amazed,” Billy claimed, “they sent weapons like machines guns and mortars.”
The farmer, possibly being ex-military, began to train any able bodied men who is willing to fight. In the two months that the terrorists took their time advancing, the farmer properly whipped his men into shape, having drilled them into soldiers and how taught them how to shoot.
When the terrorists arrived, they took the battle outside of Toraya. It was fierce and bloody, but the farmer managed to defend it from them. He had snipers positioned, and with their height advantage they were able to shoot down many as they came charging in. It was a long battle, but the farmer’s forces managed to win. He did something no Peruvian’s ever done: fighting back. The terrorists gave up and turned the other way, and Toraya was spared. About a dozen of the farmer men died in battle, and after it was over, he dismissed every one of them and left to France and vanished.
But this wasn’t the end of the terrorists for Billy. Some time later, he and his family went visiting another town in the mountains. It was then they found out that the Sendero Luminoso was coming again, and this time they issued a warning. If anyone was found outside, they said, they will get shot. Those that were inside will be spared.
The terrorists warned them and gave them a five minute head start, but it wasn’t easy to evacuate. “Everyone was freaking out,” Billy recounted, “they all lived on a mountaintop. They couldn’t just jump off.” It was mass hysteria. People were pushing and trampling over one another to get into houses, schools, and churches.
There was an uncle in Billy’s family around this time named Juan. He was hiding with them as the terrorists enter the town, when they suddenly heard gunshots everywhere. No one dared to move and speak. When the sounds stopped and died out, Juan went outside to check. Billy and his family never saw him again, with the exception of his aunt, who went down to the city hall below the mountain to find him.
Little did they know, the terrorists were trying to trick them. They were only shooting wildly to bait people out. Those that were unfortunate to be in the open got shot on the spot. When Billy’s aunt went down asked the people where is Juan, they all pointed at a fountain by a church. The fountain was dyed to a deep shade of red. Juan, who was old but had nice hair, had his skull fractured inwards, and had his blood spilt out, flowing to the fountain. It’s still there today, but no one touches it.
As the news of Juan’s death traveled to Billy’s family, everyone then understood that this was real. Everything, the terrorists, the bloodshed, the fighting, they were all real. So they decided to either go into hiding or relocate to somewhere else. Only Billy’s grandfather didn’t believe in the terrorist menace and wished to stay, not wanting to throw away the land his mother worked so hard on and built with her own hands.
Billy’s mother didn’t want to take the risk, so she brought him and all the children to the city of Lima. Soon enough the terrorists came to Toraya again, and this time, without the farmer, they were helpless. They destroyed it completely, tearing everything apart and killed anyone they saw. Everything was destroyed in Toraya. Houses were set on fire, animals were killed, and people were slowly beaten by hand, by bayonet, and by rock. They would tie a person and keep dropping a large boulder at their heads like a guillotine until a nauseating crack was heard.
“It didn’t matter if you were rich, poor, old, or young.” Billy explained grimly. “Everyone was massacred.”
Today Toraya is a ghost town, lead and rebuilt by a former Sendero Luminoso supporter as its mayor. It’s eerily quiet there, and the ones who survived and came back did not greet Billy when he came to visit, even when they recognized him. The war changed them just as how it changed Billy’s friend, the taxi driver.
“They survived, but you wouldn’t really call it surviving, if you’ve seen what they had seen.”
Eventually Sendero Luminoso was defeated during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori. Abielmao Guzman was captured in 2005 by the local city police, and he was put in a cage and displayed across the entire nation. When Billy’s father saw it on TV, he said “it’s over”, followed by a voice in Billy’s head that said the same thing: “It’s over.”
What was shocking to Billy was that he thought Guzman was a mythical figure, a god. There were rumors that he could cure diseases, that bullets couldn’t hurt him. When he saw him in a cage, sitting like an animal, Billy realized that Abielmao Guzman is just a man, a sorry, miserable pile of mortality and lost causes. He was sentenced to prison for life.
Today Billy is a cadet sergeant in JROTC, and is a part of the Academic team. He wants to be a forensic scientist after college, to join the law enforcement.
“Everyone’s got problems, but you have the power to not let that affect you.” Billy said. “You have the power to overcome that. I’ve been through terrorist attacks, I’ve been made of, I’ve been bullied, but I don’t let all that crap to stop me from become a JROTC cadet. I don’t let that stop me from getting good grades. Every Hispanic kid I see uses some excuse like ‘Oh my dad left me’. I’ve been through some tough crap too, but what’s my excuse? Everyday I wake up, and as much as I want to quit and stop trying, I know that I have to keep moving forward, because if you give up, the other guy has the last laugh.”
Billy aspires to join the NYPD or the FBI after he is finished with forensics. After seeing what has happened in Peru, he seeks to prevent people from repeating the things he had seen.