Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Human Rights Accompaniment Report: Olimbia Part 1

Originally Posted Summer 2006

Accompanying in Guatemala

I hope this message finds you all well. It has been two months since I arrived in Guatemala, and I have just finished my first month as a human rights international accompanier in the Ixcan, an area of Guatemala that borders with Chiapas, Mexico.

Unlike Rabinal, where I was working last year, the Ixcan offers the extreme (in my opinion) amounts of heat and humidity and lush vegetation that one may perhaps imagine judging from the tourist brochures of Central America that sprout everywhere during North American winters.

I have been working in this picture perfect environment, where deforestation practices have not yet become apparent, and must say that I am thoroughly enjoying the vastness of the vegetation, the abundant water, and the fact that I haven’t had to think about long sleeve clothes much at all.

Along with my accompaniment partner, we are accompanying the community of Santa Maria Tzeja as well as five smaller communities in the area of San Jose Rio Negro, along the Chixoy river. All of these communities were affected by the Scorched Earth campaign carried out by the military government of the early 1980´s. This campaign sought to decimate the Mayan population, supposedly because of its involvement supporting the guerrilla movement. It translated as the brutal massacres and torture of hundreds of rural Mayan communities, including men and women, young and old. All of these communities are struggling to recover from these events, and it is within that context that I am working as a human rights accompanier in the genocide cases that denounce those very massacres.

In this message, I provide a bit of an overview regarding the communities where we are working. Within that context, I explain what it is that we do as accompaniers in the communities. I end the message with a brief overview of the genocide cases that our work here seeks to support.

Please feel free to share this letter with anyone that may be interested ?

Santa Maria Tzeja

A large number of those who live in Santa Maria Tzeja are returned refugees who had fled to Mexico during the Scorched Earth campaign, after the massacre that took place in that community. Not all of the massacre survivors who used to live in Santa Maria Tzeja fled to Mexico, however. Part of its inhabitants returned to the community after being displaced internally, living in hiding in the jungle and in other communities for months and/or years during part of the 1980’s.

Santa Maria Tzeja appears to me to be highly organized, with committees set up to administer and look after programs and institutions such as a cooperative, the local schools, a drinking water project, and two women’s organizations, amongst numerous others. Everyone speaks fluent Spanish (especially those who fled to Mexico, where that was the main language of communication). Most people also speak Kiche, the local Mayan language.

Thanks to a scholarship system, many youth are able to pursue studies in high school, and some of them are also attending university, an unavailable option to most in Guatemala. In return for the scholarship, recipients provide a year of voluntary service in various forms that are deemed to strengthen the community and/or region (for example, as teachers in local or surrounding schools).

The communities of San Jose Rio Negro

The five communities in San Jose Rio Negro that we also visit are in a much more isolated setting than Santa Maria Tzeja. There are no roads that enter any of these communities, requiring walks of varying lengths to arrive at the various destinations. In order to provide regular visits to massacre witnesses and supporters there, we do a trek where we visit, share meals, and spend the night with the witnesses of each community. The trek lasts a little under a week, once every three or four weeks.

The San Jose Rio Negro communities are mostly monolingual in Qeqchi (one of the 22 Mayan languages), while some of the men speak Spanish to varying degrees. The levels of poverty are much more severely pronounced than in Santa Maria Tzeja, and education levels are low, particularly for the women. Illiteracy is widespread, particularly amongst middle-aged folks.Accompanying in the IxcanIn these varied settings, our responsibilities as accompaniers remain the same, but our interactions with the community sometimes vary widely.

In Santa Maria Tzeja, where language barriers are not an issue for me, our interactions with the community are based on conversations varying in topics from daily routines and plants that grow in the region, to the immigration laws being discussed in the States and the development of the genocide cases in Guatemala. In this community, we share meals with various families that support the genocide case, but have our own rooms to sleep in and to relax, very close to the centre of town.

Living in a Maya Achi community in Rabinal last year, I came to really value the idea of sharing in daily routines whenever possible, as a way to break the ice and establish relationships with the families we visit. As much as we can, we try to help out with whatever is going on, whether it be getting water, picking the corn out of the cob that is later used to make tortillas, etc. There are times, however, when our visits occur during ‘down time,’ or a witness might feel uncomfortable with the idea of having accompaniers ‘work.’ In those cases, we mostly relax and chat about whatever may be going on at the time.

In San Jose Rio Negro, where the blatant language barriers are quite inevitable, part of our interactions are based on manual activities. Crocheting has proven a big hit. We have spent a big chunk of our time crocheting alongside Qeqchi women. Some of them have shown interest in my Argentinean crocheting techniques.

In turn, I am learning to crochet some of the patterns widely used in making the tops that women wear around the area. In one community, we will also be learning to bead necklaces following the pattern used in the region. I am definitely glad to have some manual skills to exchange with women here, and it looks like folks are also eager to share their skills with us ?. Slowly but surely, my Qeqchi is coming along. I have attended two weeks of language training in the capital, and spent numerous evenings memorizing useful words and phrases. The mere fact that Andrea, my co-worker, and I are beginning to string sentences together is in itself a source of conversation (and amusement) for the families we visit. But don’t get me wrong, there are also plenty of opportunities to stare blankly into the eyes of our interlocutors (and vice-versa), with no clue as to what has been said!

Even then, with our evident challenges in communication, I managed to get myself into one of those inevitable awkward moments, where the privilege and cushiness of the lifestyle that I lead become evident. In this case, we were saying our goodbyes upon leaving the last community that we were visiting in the trek, when a neighbour from the community dropped by with her three children, aged from 2 to about 10. She, like most people we met in the trek, asked us the various questions that we became used to understanding and answering:

What is your name? Were are you from? How long are you staying? How old are you?

When I told her that I was 28, she seemed thoroughly surprised. People often seem surprised by the idea that I am ‘so’ old and have not married nor had children. Moms with young kids are often much younger than me.“I’m quite old, aren’t I?” I responded, noticing her surprise to my answer.“But you look so young!,” commented the neighbour. Now it was me who was looking at her in surprise.“Look at me, I’m only 26, and I already look so old.”The woman that we were visiting agreed with her neighbour’s comment.“You have no children, do you?” She asked“No, I don’t.” I responded.

The two women exchanged looks.I’m not sure what exactly the looks that they exchanged were about. I know that the thoughts going through my head were just how much privilege I have in being able to chose if, when, and how many children I have, what I want to do with my life, and just what kind of life are we both leading that will make me look so much younger than my counterpart, who is two years younger than me and looks so much older? I found that to be quite a symbolic interaction that captures the differences in lifestyle entitled to each of us, based on our country of residence, ethnic identity, physical appearance… I often catch myself thinking back to that conversation.

When not visiting the witnesses and case supporters in their own communities, we often find ourselves accompanying them in trips to meetings in various locations throughout the country. We also provide accompaniment in many of those meetings, which concern the genocide cases.

As I stated in a previous message, I see the purposes of human rights international accompaniment as being three-fold:

• to strengthen the sphere of action of human rights activists by providing moral support and an increased sense of security to them and their families
• to observe and report on human rights developments and/or issues as needed
• to strengthen and foster awareness outside of Guatemala regarding human rights issues in the country

In my particular setting, my role as an accompanier relates specifically to the genocide cases that are currently held. In fact, we mostly accompany individuals and families who are testifying in the genocide cases. In some cases, we also visit individuals who are strongly involved in the case, but for various reasons are not testifying. Because of new developments in these cases, I thought I would close this message with a brief overview and update on these developments. I trust that this update will also further contextualize my work as an accompanier.

Guatemalan Genocide Cases

What happened?

In 2000 and 2001, two separate cases for genocide were filed against Romeo Lucas Garcia, Efrain Rios Montt and several other members of the military that served the two leaders. These two army figures were heads of the Guatemalan State during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when most of the hundreds of massacres inflicted on the Mayan rural population of Guatemala took place.

Who is involved?

The cases were filed by a non-governmental organization called the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), composed of more than one hundred massacre witnesses and witness supporters from five regions in the country. The AJR is legally supported by a Guatemalan legal aid organization, the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH).

What is happening now?

Since 2000, the cases have moved painstakingly slowly, and are currently in the investigative stages, which means that evidence is being gathered to prove that a genocide did occur. The very limited developments have led numerous witnesses to experience much frustration regarding the possibility of the cases moving forward and justice being reached.

Spanish Case on Guatemalan Genocide

What happened?

In 1999 Rigoberta Menchu (1992 Nobel Peace Price laureate), with the support of various human rights organizations, filed a case within the Spanish legal system for genocide and other crimes. The case was filed against Lucas Garcia, Rios Montt, and six other men who worked in the governments of these two leaders.

Why in Spain?

The case that the Spanish court initiated against Pinochet in 1998, for human rights violations during his time in office in Chile, served as a precedent for the filing of the current case. The case also relies on the notion of universal jurisdiction, which entitles any Nation-State to process crimes against humanity, even if these crimes did not directly affect citizens of the Nation-State carrying the case.

What is happening now?

Throughout the last two years, the Spanish court has sought and obtained permission from Guatemalan authorities to get testimonies regarding the crimes to be processed. From June to July 2006, a Spanish investigative commission will be working in Guatemala to gather evidence for the case. The commission will be interviewing massacre witnesses as well as Efrain Rios Montt. The Spanish court also has access to the data that has already been gathered for the Guatemalan court case by CALDH. All parties involved in pushing the Guatemalan and Spanish cases forward are collaborating (by sharing information, etc.) in order to benefit all involved.

These recent developments, specifically regarding the arrival of the Spanish commission, have granted a renewed sense of hope and excitement to all seeking to move the cases forward. There is also an increased concern for the safety of witnesses and other parties supporting the case, which have led to the tightening of security measures, including an increase in accompaniment presence throughout the country. It is thus with quite a hopeful note that I am ending this message today. I hope that the next update in a few weeks will concern substantial advancements in the genocide cases. In the meantime I hope that everyone is keeping well, and I remain very interested in further discussing these topics, or any other comments that you may have regarding this message.

Michelle Olimpia