Saturday, June 28, 2008

Human Right Accompaniment Report: Valerie Croft (Part 1) (2008)

Dear friends and supporters of BTS,

I hope that things are going well for all of you! I heard that the spring weather is finally coming, so I hope that all of you are coming out of our Canadian "hibernation" and enjoying the outdoors.

For the past two months I have been volunteering as part of the community-based accompaniment team in Guatemala with CAIG/Aco-Guate. We accompany genocide survivors and witnesses, in the hope of creating more space within which they can continue their struggle for social justice.

My observations and experiences so far have significantly challenged pre-conceived notions I didn�t even realize I had. Like any good learning experience, it seems that so often I reflect on my experiences with the statement: "oh...I never thought about it that way before..."

In my region of long-term accompaniment we have been fortunate enough to witness the beginning of a precedent-setting trial. For the first time, an army collaborator is being tried for forced disappearance. Several people from Choatalum - a community that we have been accompanying for several years - have launched a case against ex-military comisioner Felipe Cusanero Coj, who is responsible for the forced disappearance of at least six community members between 1982 and 1984. Like so many other men who collaborated with the military during the armed conflict, Felipe is currently in a position of political power. He is currently the mayor of Choatalum.

Being able to accompany witnesses to trial, and being able to listen to their testimonies in front of a judge, the accused, and a courtroom full of people is incredibly powerful. But then to accompany them back home to witness their family life is indescribable - a definite privilege. Through this process I have come to realize several things. It is easy to victimize people here, classifying them only as genocide witnesses. However, it is just as easy to categorize them as the "super hero champion defenders" of human rights. I�ve caught myself doing that several times - allowing my pre-conceived notions of what it means to live with the memories of a genocide, and the daily reality that is still so affected by it, to cloud my willingess to see the complexities involved.

The week before the trial began the lawyers had a meeting with the main witnesses, and I left the meeting feeling quite frustrated. Some of the women were angry, saying they didn�t know if they could find the time to appear in court sometime within the next week to testify.

I greately admired the patience of the lawyers.

Through several conversations with them, I came to realize some of the immense pressures that these women are under because of their decision to testify. Not only do they have to deal with the intense emotions of talking about the forced disappearance of their husband (or son, or daughter, or father, or mother), they also have to deal with the reality that they live in the same community as the perpetrator of these crimes - in one case, on the same street.

Some have husbands who have very fixed ideas on the roles of women, and those ideas definitely do not include being in a courtroom. Others believe that justice lies only in the hands of God, and they see their wives pushing for social justice as an embarassment (at best). There is still a lot of fear and confusion in the community, and some think that the accused has the power to bring back the army. Then, ontop of it all, most of the women have families (many with very small children), and literally they do not have the ability to leave the house much.

Digging a little deeper and becoming aware of all of these pressures completely changed my perspective. Being able to gain slightly more insight into what the "brave survivor" actually means has been an amazing experience. And, realizing that there is still a lot of fear, yet people remain willing to act, is so much more inspiring than if those pressures weren't there.

Accompaniment has been filled with amazing experiences, and I look forward to sharing more with all of you within the next three months.

Thanks again to all of those who have - and continue - to support both myself and other accompaniers. It is always great to hear from people back home.

Take good care.
Un fuerte abrazo,
Valerie Croft