Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Human Rights Accompaniment Report: Olimpia Boido Part 2

Originally Posted by Olimpia Boido August 23, 2006

Dear all,

I hope this letter finds everyone well, enjoying the warm weather wherever you may be. I have just returned from the Ixcán, the northern region of Guatemala where I have been working as a human rights accompanier for the last few months.

Thanks to all for your comments regarding my last letter, where I talked a bit about the work that I am doing here, the region where I have been working, and the legal cases for genocide that we are supporting as international observers. It occurs to me that it might seem strange to some that the accompaniment project focuses much of its work on events that occurred more than a quarter century ago.

In fact, after chatting with a foreign colleague who indicated to me that she did not notice any effects that the war had had in the community where we both work, I thought it would be important to provide a historical context to the work that I am doing. Based on different accounts shared with me, then, I will describe the life of an imaginary Mayan massacre survivor, and the effects of the war on her life. This will provide the context for an update regarding the genocide cases. Lastly, I will briefly go over some ways in which I think interested folks could contribute to the human rights struggle in Guatemala, from their own communities in other countries.

The case of Paula:

Paula is a 28-year-old Mayan woman, a homemaker, mother of four, living in a rural community in the highlands of Guatemala. One night in 1979, when she was only 2 and her family was sound asleep, soldiers stormed in, raided her house, beat her father, and took him away. He was never seen after that night. Later, Paula’s family would hear rumours that her uncle had informed the military that Paula’s dad had been known to talk on occasion with a man suspected of supporting the guerrilla movement that was developing in the area… That alone had been enough for the military to disappear him.

A few years later, in 1982, soldiers stormed into Paula´s community, burning every house, killing farm animals, raping the women, and setting fire to the corn fields –the livelihood of Mayan communities. Some, including Paula and her family, escaped into the mountainside. From their hiding places, they bore witness to the fate of those who stayed behind. Those who did not have time to flee were tortured and locked up in the local church, regardless of their gender or age. The following morning, after feasting on some of the peasants’ farm animals, to the rhythm of a marimba brought out from one of the houses, the army forced those in the church to dig a large hole in the ground. This would become a mass-grave. The soldiers subsequently raped the women again, and shot, choked, and otherwise mutilated the women, men, and children to death. The army then threw all the bodies into the large hole, and covered them up. It is a Mayan belief that a soul will not rest in peace unless it is duly and respectfully buried. Paula´s family walked with others deep into the forest, evading the soldiers and their dogs. They stayed in hiding in the hillsides for 14 months, unable to cook, as the smoke would give away their location to the soldiers in the area. Disease, the limited raw foods to consume, and the lack of shelter from the torrential rains, combined with the insurmountable grief, was unbearable for many. Paula’s mother and one of her siblings passed away after contracting malaria and not having access to medicines. Paula and her surviving siblings were adopted by her grandparents soon after. Upon return to the community, she became responsible for raising her three siblings. She was, however, not able to stop the youngest one from dying from intestinal troubles. She helped bring an income to her family by selling corn cakes and fruit from house to house.

At age 15, she married a man from the community. She began having her own children, and continued to perform odd tasks to help provide an income for her new family. Having no access to productive land, Paula’s husband found work in a maquila in Guatemala City, eight hours away from the community. He can only visit the family once or twice a month, and sends them some of the money he earns. The trauma of her earlier years cause Paula severe migraines and blurred vision, which prevent her from doing much work several days each month. Currently, Paula is 28 years old, she has four children. She does not remember having a father. She witnessed the death of her mother and sister when hiding in the mountains. She lost her youngest sibling to preventable causes. She did not have the opportunity to go to school. She was married off at a young age in an effort to ease the financial strains of her grandparents. She has developed health problems that prevent her from living a fulfilling life. These issues have direct and indirect effects on her life, on the way she interacts with people, the lack of trust in others, her limited opportunities to financially sustain her family, her inability to speak Spanish.

In Guatemala, more than 200,000 individuals were brutally killed and/or disappeared during the war. The number of those directly affected by the war, but who survived it, like Paula, is even greater. It is precisely to bring justice to these events, which happened a quarter of a century ago but are still impacting the population, that indigenous leaders and human rights organizations are carrying the genocide cases forward. I believe that these legal cases are an important manner in which the population is struggling to strengthen its dignity and achieve a greater degree of justice regarding the human rights abuses that were incurred during the war.

Genocide Case Update:

In this context, I want to provide an update on the genocide cases, which I presented in the last letter.

Spanish commission in Guatemala – Led by judge Santiago Pedraz, the commission was in Guatemala for a week in June to begin the investigation regarding the genocide, amongst other crimes. The commission sought to interview those accused of these atrocities, and some of the genocide witnesses. Nevertheless, an appeal to the Guatemalan court by lawyers of the accused blocked these events from happening. On a more positive note, the presence of the commission in the country has led to ample media coverage and public attention brought to the genocide cases.

Issuing of international arrest warrants – Upon return to Spain, judge Pedraz issued international arrest orders for Efrain Rios Montt as well as seven others accused in the genocide case. The order also calls for a freezing of their bank accounts. So far, it does not appear that these orders have been acted upon.

U.S. support for genocide case – On August 1st, twenty representatives of the U.S. Congress signed a letter asking for the full cooperation of the American Department of Justice regarding the requests of judge Pedraz. The news were portrayed in the first page of the well known national daily Prensa Libre.

This letter has been a result of the work of NISGUA (Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala) and concerned individuals and groups in the United States. Solidarity at the Local Level:

It can sometimes be overwhelming and frustrating to consider the brutality and impunity that have existed and/or exist in Guatemala, as in many other countries, and too often with the direct or indirect support of economically stronger countries.

Here are a few ideas on how to show your support and solidarity in the struggle for social justice in Guatemala.

· Awareness –Signing on to committed list-serves or e-mail lists can help one stay informed about developments in Guatemala, and in relation to more powerful countries, which are rarely covered in traditional news. There is a list of web-pages at the end of this message for those who are interested.
· Communication – Through urgent actions, letters expressing concern to government representatives (both at home and in Guatemala), letters to the editor, etc., it is possible to help bring increased attention to the genocide cases in Guatemala at a national and international level.
· Delegations to Guatemala – This can be a motivating way to become more involved and better understand the socio-political realities of the country. Again, the organizations listed at the end of the message often lead delegations.
· Support for Education – According to the daily Prensa Libre, roughly half of the indigenous population in Guatemala is illiterate, while about a quarter of all indigenous children do not have any schooling at all. Providing support for formal education, especially for the most discriminated sectors of the population, can be a valuable tool for social change. I can provide further details to those interested.

I’d like to take this opportunity to let you know that, for my remaining time in accompaniment, I will be working in a different capacity, in the capital. I will be designing an evaluation of the role of accompaniment in the present context, which is considerably different from what it was when the genocide cases, and their accompaniment, started. I hope, once again, that everyone is keeping well.

I thank you all for your support, and look forward to being in better e-mail touch now that I have easier access to computers.

Big hugs to you all,

Michelle Olimpia Boido

PS: If you are interested in checking the websites for some of the organizations, here are the addresses:

Rights Action:
Breaking the Silence:
Peace Brigades:
Acoguate: is an archive of recent media coverage regarding the genocide)