In December 1983, I returned to Peru after a two-year absence to conduct anthropological research in a small, isolated farming village high in the Andes. I had been living and working in Peru on and off for more than 10 years, had learned Quechua, the language of the descendants of the Incas and (I thought) become familiar with Peruvian culture and society. Yet nothing prepared me for the changes that had occurred in Peru with the emergence of the Maoist- inspired "Shining Path," one of the world's most mysterious guerrilla movements.

Sendero Luminoso, as the guerrilla group is called, kills rural people who do not readily acquiesce in its presence, while security forces roam the countryside torturing and murdering suspected Senderistas and their alleged supporters. The Quechua-speaking Indians, who live off the land as small agriculturalists, have been most vulnerable.

But the impact of the Shining Path is felt far beyond the rural areas where it has been most active. The capital city of Lima has also been transformed by the Senderistas' rebellion. I was stunned to find soldiers and police with sub-machine guns on Lima's every street corner facing the congested sidewalks. Arrests, explosions and blackouts have become commonplace. At night, taxi drivers follow complex detours through the darkened streets to avoid the many barricades set up around police and military installations. The city's tension is palpable, all because of the activities of this small, strange band of determined revolutionaries.

The Shining Path's emphasis on secrecy, its organization into independent cells, its small membership (estimated at 1,500-2,000 ) and its violent tactics have made it difficult to obtain more than a rough sketch of its origins and objectives. The armed forces, now operating in zones declared under martial law, prevent extensive investigation, especially in rural areas.

Nevertheless, in the year that I spent in the remote countryside, I was able to piece together a general picture of this fanatically secretive movement that has succeeded in disrupting Peruvian society and spreading fear to the cities and countryside.

One conclusion is inescapable: Shining Path is unlike any of the other resistance organizations fighting in Central and South America today.

Senderista ideology, a curious blend of contemporary revolutionary philosophy and strangely distorted notions of Peru's Inca past, has contributed to the guerrillas' impenetrable, mystical image -- and perhaps to the fear they inspire. Some have suggested comparisons with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Others have compared them to the 1950s Mau-Mau movement in Kenya because of the atrocities they commit against members of their own ethnic group and economic class and their distortion of indigenous ritual and culture.

Its members proclaim themselves legitimate revolutionary representatives of the people of Peru, uniquely combining the ideologies of Lenin and Mao with that of Jose Carlos Mari,ategui, an influential Peruvian socialist and philosopher of the early 20th century.

Maritegui was dedicated to forging a national political platform based on indigenous Peruvian needs and beliefs. He passionately set down his ideas in "Seven Essays About the Peruvian Reality," a classic that all schoolchildren are required to read. The Shining Path took its name from a statement Mari,ategui made: "Marxism-Leninism will open the shining path to revolution."

But Mari,ategui himself almost certainly would be surprised by the Shining Path's interpretation of his writings. Unlike his efforts to promote coherent development by advocating agrarian reform and equal rights for Indians in all spheres of social life, the Shining Path has offered no constructive alternative to the present regime.

It invokes Maoist ideology and displays as its emblem the hammer and sickle. But its ruthlessly destructive tactics and total rejection of any ties to the modern economy has led the Chinese Communist Party to publicly disavow the movement. And Shining Path, in turn, has accused other Latin American guerrillas of being traitors to real revolution.

Not long after we arrived in Peru, my husband (a sociologist) and I traveled to Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital, then rode for six hours in an overloaded truck that strained to reach my research site overlooking the Apurimac Valley at 12,000 feet above sea level. At the entrance to the village on the north stretched a flat, high, strangely barren plateau of almost 2,000 acres. Surrounding adobe huts and thatched or brick-shingled roofs were intensively cultivated slopes, rising from the valley below.

The village, like many others in the Andes, lacked electricity, running water and other modern conveniences. During the six-month rainy season, the only dirt and gravel road becomes impassable.

Because I spoke Quechua, the native language, I hoped my assimilation into the community would not be too difficult. On previous trips into the mountains I had found villagers open and welcoming. This was fortunate since my research -- investigating changes in the agricultural practices of Andean peasants -- required considerable contact with local people. But on this trip, I was overly optimistic.

Though we were still far from Shining Path's main area of activity, few villagers, larger land owners, storekeepers or high-ranking district and police authorities accepted my presence easily. I discovered that, for them, the barren plateau belonging to the local agricultural cooperative, once a flourishing wheat, potato and corn-growing area, was now a symbol of tragedy and disaffection with outsiders.

One night 2 1/2 years ago, the cooperative's sole tractor had been blown up. Three suspected saboteurs -- two young men and a young woman -- were caught within hours as they tried to make their escape down the Inca road. They confessed to being part of a group of six Shining Path members involved.

The destruction of the tractor contributed to problems that already were becoming apparent. A long- time victim of corruption and mismanagement by government officials, the coop was now incapacitated by the loss of the tractor, without which it could not cultivate the huge stretches of land.

No one in the village could tell me exactly why the Shining Path had singled out this cooperative. Many believed it was in retaliation for the coop's economic success, which some said had exacerbated economic tensions between coop members and poorer villagers with less land and no tractor. Villagers often told me that coop members had "walked too proudly and thought too much of themselves."

Actions of the Senderistas in other areas provide evidence of their antagonism to modern technology, which they believe encourages the well-being of some peasants but not of others. Though members of the coop can no longer boast of the economic power they once had, villagers continue to resent the coop's control over large tracts of land. Nonetheless, coop members and villagers alike are fearful now of the Shining Path.

As our experience suggests, the repercussions of Peru's war, still confined physically to the central highlands, has reached even the most remote of peasant communities in the Andes. In the year I spent at my research site, I was gradually considered trustworthy and unthreatening. But an unspoken barrier of suspicion now exists between peasants and strangers.

Shortly after our arrival, my husband and I walked to Cuzco by way of the Inca road, a strenuous hike made more difficult by the rough terrain and rains. Halfway there, we were blocked by a raging flash flood. After finally crossing it, we stopped in a small village for food and shelter at the local store. The village authorities suddenly surrounded us and asked to see our documents.

Instead of graciously returning them, they asked more and more questions and appeared completely unconvinced by our answers. Realizing that we might be in real trouble, I shouted at them in Quechua for their lack of traditional hospitality, grabbed our documents and, together with my husband, broke the ring they had made around us and ran off.

We learned later that the people of this small village had caught the three suspected Senderistas who had blown up the cooperative's tractor. They may have thought that we, too, were Shining Path members.

Shortly before our departure, a similar encounter with a less fortunate ending took place near the village where we had been living. Farmers working in their fields accosted three Peruvians and asked for their documents. When one of the strangers pulled a knife, the farmers killed him and wounded the second while the third escaped.

Such incidents suggest that peasants do not wish to ally themselves with the Shining Path. The actions of both the security forces and the guerrillas have made the peasants ill-disposed toward any outside intervention.

Shining Path first came to the world's attention five years ago when eight journalists were murdered while attempting to gather information about the death of seven students in a remote village of Ayacucho Province in the central highlands. An investigation turned up evidence that the Peruvian military had been encouraging peasants to attack outsiders and that the peasants may have believed the journalists were then members o what was then a little-known guerrilla group called Sendero Luminoso. But in the trial proceedings, evidence also came to light revealing the direct complicity of Peruvian police and military forces in the massacre.

Some attribute Shining Path's success to its cutthroat tactics. It has also been helped by the Peruvian government. Government officials believe that the Shining Path is a popular movement enjoying widespread peasant support, and have sought to combat it through generalized military repression. The frequent murder and torture of peasants by security forces operating with little supervision in the 13 provinces put under martial law in December 1982 has led some peasants to seek the Shining Path's protection. While lamenting mass graves and cases of disappearance and brutal torture, the government argues publicly that tough measures are necessary to preserve Peru's fragile democracy.

Since 1980, according to Interior Minister Luis Percovich, an estimated 1,500 persons have disappeared and over 4,000 have died in the course of the guerrilla war between Shining Path and security forces. Of those who have disappeared, Amnesty International claims 1,000 were first seized by security forces.

Peru's social and economic problems help to explain the Shining Path's success.

Clearly contributing to the current tensions is the country's ethnic diversity and the long-standing frictions between indigenous rural groups and the urban-based, Spanish-speaking populace. While the peasantry -- Quecha-speaking and other Indians -- make up a majority of Peru's population, political and ecomomic power belongs mainly to mestizos, people of mixed European and Indian blood who speak Spanish, wear Western dress and have obtained an education. It is primarily to the non-mestizo hat Shining Path is appealing.

In 1980, Fernando Belaunde was elected to the presidency amid hopes that he would establish a genuine democratic regime after 12 years of military dictatorship. Yet his policies, far from solving Peru's pressing economic problems, may actually have aggravated them.

In the year that I spent in rural areas of Peru, it was clear that land tenure disputes, stagnation in agricultural production, lack of credit facilities, poor marketing systems, regional inequalities and massive migration to the cities have made life more difficult for peasants.

Belaunde's dream that Peru would become an integrated nation, united by extensive roads and ambitious infrastructural projects, has foundered as Peru fails to attract investment in national industries, unemployment continues to mount, the gap between rich and poor increases and basic services remain centralized in Lima. This situation has been exacerbated by world economic recession and droughts and floods.

These injustices of Peruvian society and the deterioration of the economy form thebackground against which the Shining Path acts. The peasants have been demanding solutions to these problems since independence in 1824 and have received little or no response. Now the Shining Path guerrillas have abandoned the road to practical and constructive solutions. Instead, they support a violent rupture with modern society. Participating in the market economy, wearing modern dress, speaking Spanish, professing Catholicism, taking part in national elections and acquiring basic services (such as electricity) are all considered heretical by the Senderistas.

Their first objective, according to one of their few captured documents quoted in the weekly magazine Caretas, is to destroy all institutions and symbols of modern society. Whereas the guerrilla movements of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador have constructed political platforms demanding higher wages, better health care, education and agrarian reform, the Shining Path has been silent.

The Senderistas' spiritual and intellectual mentor, Abimael Guzman, now called Comrade Gonzalo, was formerly a philosophy professor at the University of Huamanga in Ayacucho. A few of the Shining Path's leaders have studied and traveled abroad. Many of its youthful recruits, both male and female, between the ages of 14 and 26, were indoctrinated by Shining Path members who served as rural school teachers.

Once indoctrinated, they are sent to work in areas where they are not well-known. Their leaders' experience and understanding of modern Peruvian society serve them well. The timing, technical sophistication and symbolic impact of their attacks on electrical installations and administrative centers, together with the suddenness of their operations, sometimes coordinated across wide areas, suggest extensive knowledge of urban and rural society.

Their appeal, however, is distinctly anti-modern. By wearing native peasant dress, and openly denouncing injustices against peasants, they play upon symbols of Inca resistance to the Spanish Conquest over 450 years ago.

The Quechua peasants have a long tradition of participation in messianic movements in which they take drastic measures in order to return to their vision of an ancient, primordial (and idealized) social order. These measures are often violent. The vitality of the Quechua people's religious and social practices and rituals has persisted since pre-Columbian times and contributes to the continuing appeal of these movements for the indigenous population. In many instances, the ritualistic and religious trappings of the movements are just a thinly veiled cloak for more serious and widespread political discontent and rebellion.

The peasants are disillusioned and frustrated with the present economic order -- some sufficiently so to join Shining Path. However, as I learned from extensive talks with Peruvian intellectuals and politicians, and from the reactions of workers and farmers, the Senderistas use ideological persuasion and violence to make peasants renounce any ties to the market economy. Whether they have made any converts among mestizos is still an open question.

For growing numbers of peasants, over 50 percent of their income comes from selling their products in the marketplace. Thus, despite many peasants' desire for the coming of a new age that would respect their dignity and fulfill their needs, they are reluctant to comply with the Shining Path's demands. Many of them do so only out of fear.

One of the Shining Path's violent measures has been to kill peasants who will not follow its orders.

The impact of the Shining Path on the village where I lived was mild compared to the full-scale havoc militarized zones have suffered. There, peasants have been fleeing in the hundreds to Lima to avoid the violence in their communities. In the wake of this exodus, they leave behind their land and family members and take up residence in refugee camps with no assurance of finding housing or employment. For them, the indiscriminate manipulation of entire peasant communities by security forces has been just as horrifying as the tactics the Shining Path uses against them.

Security forces prefer to let peasants bear the brunt of attacks by the Shining Path. The target of Shining Path raids are often villages that the security forces have visited and organized ill-equipped civil defense groups.

The guerrillas enter these villages late at night and disappear at dawn into the mountains, sometimes after forcing people out of their homes and holding public trials and executions of village officials -- figures who have been despised and feared by Andean people since the Spanish Conquest.

Sometimes the victims are Indians working for the central government; sometimes they are mestizos who have large land holdings or own stores. If villagers do not agree with the proceeedings, the Shining Path harangues, threatens and sometimes kills them.

The guerrillas have limited arms but have obtained dynamite, knives and guns in raids. Bodies have been found covered from head to toe with knife slashes -- characteristic of Shining Path. For their part, the security forces have consistently thwarted judicial proceedings in which peasant witnesses have implicated the military in killings of innocent civilians.

Thus, the peasants have constituted the majority of the dead on the battlefield and have suffered the worst of the economic consequences in the confrontation between the military and Shining Path.

The security forces' counterproductive counterinsurgency campaign has frequently encouraged further attacks. Sometimes these are vengeance attacks on peasants whom the Shining Path assumes are police informers because they offered food or housing to the military; sometimes, they are initiated by the military against peasants who refused to cooperate with them. Often, men and women and children are rounded up by soldiers following incidents such as blackouts and labeled as subversives. Many of the "disappeared" in one way or another may have previously expressed discontent with Peru's political and economic conditions, but no proof exists that they are linked to the Shinining Path or any kind of guerrilla activity.

The Shining Path's internal weaknesses and its lack of well-rooted popular support have gone largely unrecognized by the Belaunde government. The Shining Path controls zones by imposing terror, not by acquiring grass roots support.

This allows it to operate almost anywhere, obtaining food and shelter by force. Government officials who take for granted that the Shining Path is a popularly-based movement consider all peasants as suspect terrorists. The resulting death and destruction of the peasant economy by the military is more far- reaching than anything that Shining Path alone could achieve.

Many in Peru are trying to construct an alternative path without naively and uncritically arming themselves against the Shining Path or welcoming them as a popular movement. Opposition political candidate of the leftist coalition front (Izquierda Unida), Alfonso Barrantes, and the popular left of center candidate, Alan Garcia, are both concerned with halting violations of human rights and improving economic conditions of the peasants who constitute over 40 percent of Peru's population.

More and more Peruvians recognize that the Shining Path is not a popular movement, and that the solutions to their country's problems do not lie in an idealized pre-modern past; neither do they lie in the brutal massacres, torture and terrorism perpetrated by security forces.

Instead, Peru needs constructive and long-term solutions, focusing on the growth of peasant political organizations, a better deal in the world economy and redistribution of national income.

With rare exceptions, Peru's governments have favored the very powerful and wealthy. A scholar once spoke to me of Peru as a nation where "even the rocks weep." Now, as the Shining Path and government officals try to pin blame on each other, the peasants, who are the foundation of the country, are not only weeping. They are also being manipulated, impoverished and killed.