“We have to be humane,” said the driver. It was nine o’clock at night, and since six there had been no cars or buses on the plain of Chiaraje. We were the last unnatural disruption of the monotonous highland landscape, abandoned with a failed engine.
I was in serious pain, sitting in the back seat with a swollen leg that would keep me from walking for another two days, hundreds of kilometers between me and the nearest pharmacy. However, after we managed to start the car and get on our way two hours later, we found another party stranded on the dark road. An old car, unheated, with young children inside, about to endure the cold night at 4,200 meters above sea level.
“We have to be humane” said the driver. His brother sitting next to him nodded, and we stopped to help. Ten years earlier, when they were both younger (and probably less upstanding), they had also fought in the Battle of Chiaraje, armed with fabric slingshots called huaracas, and blunt metal melee weapons.
The risk was no less than their very lives; the reward, no more than honor and bragging rights. The pendulum between violence and solidarity swings in mysterious ways.
Our story started that morning. Every January 20th, the villages in Canas province, near Cusco, divide themselves into two camps and fight each other in two consecutive battles. It takes place in the Chiaraje highland, an expanse of green and rocky pasture between the mountains of Orccocca, Londoni and Escurrani, at 4,200 meters of altitude.
Only about an hour separates the two battles. Each side tries to push the other back into their camp, using slings and flails made from rope and metal. And stones, sharp stones, can be found all around the rocky mountain side.
The wounded are common—the dead too, though far less in number. That day in the afternoon, after the second battle, we heard the first rumors that one of the wounded died in a nearby town hospital; the newspapers would confirm the next day. Daniel Huayta Ccoa from Langui district, on my side of the battle. A serious head injury made by a slingshot. Leaves two orphan girls.
But there could’ve been more from what I saw: A man with a bleeding head is driven by his companions, one of them opens his fly and urinates on him to help the wound heal. His hat is already more red than white. That man did not die. A photographer ends up between the crossfire, trying to stumble back, a stone thrown from a huaraca hits his thigh. He can not run, the stones of both sides ringing next to his ears. That man did not die. An old man rides back and forth on the field, ducking his head and missing a stone by mere centimeters. Those centimeters could be the difference between life and death. All of them, without exception, left to the battle freely and joyful.
Later that night in Sicuani, the nearest city, some people have other ideas. “Those highlanders are wild and savage,” some say; others use the word “primitive.” Racism is veiled but clear to any Peruvian accustomed to its subtleties.
“Tough people from remote communities,” says an employee of the pharmacy as I picked some painkillers from the counter, “those people do not value their lives.” Another employee got involved defending the Chiaraje, “It’s tradition,” he says. “It must be preserved”. As usual, the word “tradition” is used like it’s an invincible defense. To my mind it is an effective defense, but also an empty one. With it you can justify acts from the most sublime to the most heinous atrocities. I said none of this out loud. The cashier intervenes: “I hope they ban it soon.”
They seem to ignore that that very morning, a few blocks away, at least a dozen vans were full with urban youth like them, kids who could be playing Dota the day before, who were now discussing the most effective ways to stone and kill each other, the best strategies to gain ground from the other team, and the right way to take down horsemen. I was also in one of those vans.
I’d just bought a construction helmet at the hardware store as I saw some warriors were wearing protective headgear. With some black tape I started to write the word Chapualqo on it (curly dog in Quechua). I do not know why, but my mother used to call me that sometimes when I was a kid.
An old gentleman sat beside me as the van started going uphill. He was about fifty and his skin was chapped by the mountain air. He looked at the writing on my helmet and started talking to me. He told me he’s been coming to the battle every year, since he was a little kid. Sitting next to him was his friend, almost the same age. When the van made the first stop after almost an hour of road both got out of the van, and gave each other a big hug. I could not understand what was being said from behind the window, but it appeared to be words of affection.
From there the combined team of Quehue, Yanoaca, Pampamarca and Tungasuca towns walk uphill and gather around a large antenna on top of the mountain. The old gentleman came back to the van and continued on his way. He is from Langui and runs to the other side. I decided to go with him. His friend and him love each other, but today they try to kill each other. “There are no friends while in battle,” he says.
Although the media tries to highlight only the violent side, the fact is that there are also laughs and celebration. The first thing you see as you arrive is a group of tents that make up a fair on the side of each camp. Here people buy and sell food, beer, alcohol, and coca leaf. There are couples kissing. Whole families with children gather like it was a picnic to watch the battle from afar. There are musicians, songs, and dancing everywhere.
If you hadn’t been here before, you’d never guess that just a few hundred meters away, hordes of men were about to try and stone each other to death. But there is still time. Warriors on each side are waiting for more audience to gather, and the vans and trucks keep arriving to the highland.
It all starts with taunting. Small groups of people spontaneously start moving into the field and shout threats and insults to the other side. Some stones begin to rain, and then more will come. More warriors start marching. Then the horses will come with the riders screaming harangues, trying to bring order to the headless horde. But it will be in vain.
There is no central direction for each strategy. The fight varies according to the emotions of the warriors: if one advances valiantly then others will watch him and follow, and soon the whole group will be running forward like an avalanche. In the same way, if someone runs away in fear, that fear might be contagious and could lead to retreat and defeat. From where I sit I can see the warriors marching. There are elders who look older than sixty, and children who just seem to exceed fifteen years old.
“People go easier on children right?” I ask a young father sitting by my side on the hill. He is holding his five year old boy in one hand. In the other, he grabs one of those long sticks with a rope and solid iron hanging at one end. “Naa, they won’t go easy on anyone,” the father replies, “everyone gets hit alike”. In the distance, the battle had begun.
I said goodbye and ran into the field with the camera on my shoulder and a big bag of coca leaf in my bag.
The large ball of coca leaf in my mouth helped me ignore high altitude fatigue while running back and forth, and I saw that I was not the only one. The bag I had brought was too big for only one person, so I began offering it to anyone on my team who would need some. It was my first time in Chiaraje, so I tried to act cautiously, getting as close as I could, keeping an eye on the stones flying mid air in order to dodge them and watching out from the ones that came bouncing from the ground with unpredictable trajectory.
Whenever I saw the warriors retreat, I would retreat; if I saw them advance, I would advance. Almost an hour later we were winning the first battle. My side pushed them well beyond their lines, back into their camp next to the antenna. Then came the intermission, cane liquor, celebrations and food.
When the second battle came my confidence had increased, and I was ready to make some stupid mistakes.
In the midst of the second battle I started following someone from close range, ignoring his warnings to retreat. We went down a rocky slope. Many in our team took refuge above, and from there they bombarded with stones. From one moment to another, the one whom I was following started running back and then I realized that we were the only two down there. The other side, having seen only two people too far forward for their own good had begun a furious charge to gain ground. We were in the line of fire and stones flew from both directions.
At that moment, while trying to run away and to dodge stones at the same time, I felt a tremendous impact on my leg that took me down. The strike of a short distance huaraca was formidable, and the pain would not let me run anymore. The other side continued his charge, and soon I had them very close.
Being a city guy from the capital on the coast I have always felt detached and nostalgic about my family’s andean heritage, as if it were a part of me that was missing. But I never felt more foreign or relieved than at that moment: lying wounded amid the rocks, I watched a man in his twenties size me up from ten meters’ distance, slowly turning a sling over his head; inexplicably without throwing his stone towards me.
The stranger looked at me with pity and, at the same time, his compassion seemed to close the gates of Peru and my ancestry behind me. His desire to spare me ratified my condition as a stranger in my own country. Before coming here, I’d seen videos recorded from afar from recent years battles, warriors finishing off already fallen opponents on the ground. But to me, he seemed to say, “Go, this is not your battle, you are not invited.”
But others were more… shall we say… hospitable. From above, rocks and stones began to rain down around me, opening holes in the ground. The huaracas have superior power and range, but are not the most accurate weapon. From higher up the slope behind the rocks, others on my team began to cover me with their own fire while I tried to drag my leg up the hill, taking shelter from the stones, trying to catch my breath.
With a dead leg hanging from my body I dragged myself back to the camp. The battle was over for me. I lied down next to a large family of several adult siblings and a mother; We started talking about anything, and since there was no first aid around, we had beers instead.
From this distance the skirmish seemed like a war of ants illuminated by the sunset. Behind us, the field was still packed with cars and people. Half an hour later, our side won the second and last battle of the day. The warriors of Langui, Layo, and Cheqa towns pushed the others back to their lines. There were dances and music all around the field and the alcohol started flowing freely as the warriors tiredly return.
“We can take you to Sicuani,” said one of the brothers who I was drinking with, “you can go back to Cusco city from there.” Their truck was big and there was room for everyone. Ten years ago, they told me, they themselves had been warriors. Slings and ropes and sticks and iron bars.
Meanwhile rumors of the first casualty had already arrived. As is the case every year, no one would take revenge or legal action. Along with the sunlight, the cars also disappear. The people will now return to their villages to celebrate the victory and take care of their wounded. The highland will remain in the dark with no one to perceive the passage of time or the changing seasons.
Little by little we are left alone. The engine is not starting, but I am told it won’t take long. My leg continues to swell around the wound.
There are no cars anymore, we are the only ones left. The sun has already fallen and it’s time to go.
About the author: Cesar Jumpa is a freelance photographer, currently at Lima, Peru. You can find more of his photography and photo essays on Instagram and Medium. A shorter version of this essay was published here.