The Intangible Zone
High on a dusty hill outside Lima, a sign rippled in the wind: “Zona Intangible,” it said. In-tan-gi-blé, in Spanish, but the literal meaning is the same: untouchable. The Untouchable Zone. For a minute, I thought it might mean there were dangerous chemicals buried there, or live electrical wires, or something else it would be very dangerous to touch.
But no: what the sign meant was: don’t try to build your house here.
Just a few hundred yards downhill, we watched a few family groups hacking level spaces in the soft sand. One family had some pre-nailed walls stacked nearby: their future one-room home, at the ready. Another young couple let their two-year-old son take a turn with the shovel.
This is the uphill edge of Manchay, a sprawling community of about 100,000 people on the outskirts of Lima. It is one of many asentamientos humanos, human settlements, that have sprung up around Peru’s capital city, where one out of every three of the country’s 30 million people now live.
On a first visit to Manchay, it is very hard to imagine why anyone would want to live in this place. Most of the roads are unpaved, churning up constant clouds of dust, which coats everything, including the occasional brave flower garden or struggling tree.
And yet: there is another kind of Zona Intangible here.
Manchay was founded by people whose driving desire was to live in peace. Most of them came from a landscape that could not have been more different from this one: the green valleys of the Andes, glittering with glacier-fed streams that watered their fields and pastures. They came from families that had lived in those valleys for hundreds of years. They spoke Quechua or Aymara, not Spanish. Their food, clothing, music, art and traditions bore little resemblance to the coastal, urban culture of Lima. And yet they came, by the thousands, to this bone-dry moonscape, because their mountain world had become a battle zone. In the 1980s, the people of the Andes found themselves caught in the crossfire of violent guerrilla warfare between terrorist groups—most notoriously the MRTA and the Shining Path, who had decided to make the Andean provinces their stronghold—and Peru’s military, who mistakenly assumed the local farmers were all terrorist sympathizers. According to the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 69,280 people, most of them Quechua-speaking civilians, died violently during the conflict.
Those who made it to Manchay considered themselves lucky to be alive. They built houses, by hand, from whatever materials they could find. They persuaded water trucks to climb up from Lima. Gradually, they opened and filled churches, schools, markets, small businesses, a health clinic operating out of a school bus.
They paid a high price to live in this Zona Intangible of peace and safety and hope for the future, and they value these intangibles in a way most of us have never had to.
What this meant for us as visitors was this: once we began to meet and talk to the people of Manchay, we began to see this new, hand-made city with different eyes. The human need for peace may not be something you can hold in your hand, but through the dust and noise and lively commerce of a brand-new city like Manchay, it is palpable. It is visible. And it gave us hope.
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