Originally posted Winter 2006
Human rights accompaniment report
Emily Dwyer, former Breaking the Silence Intern
As you know, I’m in Guatemala, came here in September to do human rights accompaniment to witnesses testifying in the genocide trials here, though have mostly ended up accompanying human rights defenders who have received some type of death threat and requested an international presence in their home or place of work. It has been great, so I’ve decided to stay until March.
What I have done in this update, is mostly clipped in entries I’ve written while here, some which talk about specific cases I’ve accompanied (though with any detailed info bleeped out, as I pretend to be a secret agent) and some simply to do with what my life’s been like, and then at the end have some more specific information for those of you who might be more interested. Apologies in advance, I haven’t spoken in English in a while, as you’ll notice in my grammar and spelling (sorry Mom!). As always, read as much or as little as you like, but do write…
·· After having spent around 35 hours on the bus that week, between visiting several different people and organizations, and later realizing that I was both emotionally and physically drained, I spent three days accompanying witnesses who are giving testimonies of a massacre they were witness to. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
On the way there, riding for a few hours on the back of a pick up truck, through tiny roads edging along cliffs, seeing beautiful countryside, lush forests, in tropical heat and freezing rain, winding through stretches of lands that are now barren, covered with rock, pebbles where the soil used to be green forest, plundered and later virtually abandoned by foreign mining companies. (For those of you who don’t know, Canadian mining companies are very active in Guatemala, despite the fact that there has been HUGE popular protest against them, causing the death of at least one Guatemalan, and contributing to increased militarization of these areas. If you want more info on this, send me an email and I can send you lots of sources). The massacre here, like in lots of areas, had to do with conflict over land, with repression of people who were trying to defend their rights, and impacted by business interests (mining and other natural resource extraction is a huge source of conflict as it uses so much water, so much land, creates few jobs and contaminates the surrounding area), since the request by these companies for lands that are already hard to acquire made these conflicts even larger.
Later I spent time with these witnesses, who were first meeting to discuss what had happened, and then, one by one, in a Mayan language I do not understand, they retold the events of the day of the massacre. Sometimes starting with shaking voices, sometimes booming and gesturing passionately, you could see the importance of being able to say out loud what had happened to them, their siblings, their parents, twenty-some years ago, often intermittent tears. Some of the others would watch listening, enthusiastically agreeing to certain things, asking for clarification that helped them to remember some of the things they had forgotten to say, some bowing their heads and crying. I think in some ways it was even more powerful not to understand the words being said, instead being brought even more deeply into the emotions felt while relaying their stories.
The following day, individually via a translator, they gave their testimonies to the government official who will be in charge of prosecuting the case. At the end of the day, one of the witnesses said that this experience, of having his story chopped into pieces, dissected, having to answer question after question, sometimes about things that he hadn’t remembered in decades because they were too painful, had been really difficult, felt like someone was using a dagger to more and more deeply open these wounds. And then it was abruptly over. Men and women in their late 50s and 60s who had survived, who over the last few days had shown trembling fear, anxiety, hope, joy for what might come, strength, anger, courage, speaking eloquently to demand justice so that impunity doesn’t repeat itself and the cycle of violence continue, weeping deeply in a language I don’t understand.
This case, like many others, are ones that are coming up outside of the genocide trials. The genocide trials include communities from 5 departments (provinces) in the country, but there are many cases of massacres outside of these areas and many of them have started their own legal cases. Officially, once you ask for an exhumation of a mass grave, the Public Ministry (an office of the government that I’m not sure exists in the same way in Canada) has the responsibility to investigate and pursue legal action against the accused.
·· A woman I was accompanying and sharing a room with prayed out loud every night before we went to bed. One night as I was falling asleep I heard, ‘Thank you God, take care of my children, my house, take care of my accompanier….’ I fell asleep smiling that night. (Bendita sea dios, papallito lindo. Dios todo poderoso, bendiga esta casa, cuida a mis hijos, cuida a mi acompañante…)
·· In November I spent two weeks accompanying with someone else in the highlands for witnesses of the genocide trials.) It’s exciting to be here for awhile, get a taste of what I thought I was coming here to do, get a broader sense of the scope of accompaniment work here, being in a more rural area for a while, not being on my own. I love the rhythm of the countryside, kids around all over the place, the sincerity of rural folk, spending time sitting beside waterfalls and looking out over fields of corn and lush trees, the way women giggle from deep in their stomachs, the kind of communication that happens when you don’t speak a common language, walking for hours through thick mud up and down hills to get to where you’re going.
A few minutes ago all you could hear in the house were the non-stop uncontrollable giggles of the 6 kids just outside the house playing tag, tickling each other. These kids who all smile constantly, talk so patiently and calmly, nicely, who are so great all the time, you can feel love oozing out of them, like with their parents. And it makes me think all the time about whether the people we end up accompanying are for some reason all so wonderful as families, whether something about living through such horrors does something to increase your capacity for love and respect. I was talking with the dad of the family, the person who I’m really there to see, and he was telling me some about his life. He works lots to provide for his family (in the range of 12 hours a day, every day) and then for years has also ended up involved in all sorts of volunteer work. When I am there visiting, for virtually the entire time that he is there working, he is also discussing other urgent matters with a huge array of people who come to see him. I asked him once why everyone came to him for help, and he said because they know that he will support them, give them his time for free. He says he volunteers basically because he, and those he works with, have gotten used to it, but you can tell how much he loves being involved in community work. And it is because he was supporting people in a nearby community who had troubles over land that armed men came with the aim of killing him one day, and how I came to meet him.
·· Some of what I’ve heard about what accompaniment means to the people that I accompany:
- At the end of a meeting where, as is customary here, everyone talks, one of the people there said that they were thankful for the presence of international accompaniment, as, especially in times when they were having doubts about what they were doing, that our presence helped motivate them, gave them more resolve to keep doing what they were doing.
- In another instance, I was told that the presence of an accompanier allows this person I visit to stay in her house. She has received threats and intimidations in the night, but when an accompanier is there with her, nothing like that happens. So, we`re not necessary for her safety, she could stay in other family members’ houses where she would feel safe, but our presence allows her to be safely in her own home, allows her the normalcy of being in her own house.
-During my training, one of the coordinators shared what someone she had been accompanying told her, which struck me for some reason. ‘If they really want to kill me, they are going to do it whether you are here or not. But the fact that you are here means that if they kill me the whole world will know what I died for.’
When I’ve shared this with other people they’ve been confused, ¿And that gives you hope? ¿Doesn’t that mean that your presence here isn’t doing what it is supposed to do, discourage safety threats to the people you’re accompanying? But for me it shows the fact that there are limits to what our presence here can do, there are no guarantees and there are possibilities that in some cases our presence won’t be enough, but that there is always the other element of bringing international eyes to what is happening here.
I think it is a good time, now, to reiterate, mom, that I am safe and fine and not a target of this violence.
So, what all do I think accompaniment means after having spent three months here. In a lot of ways, it simply allows people to breathe a little more easily, to take some of the pressure off, to be able to live a somewhat normal life (though changed obviously by the presence of a gringa in your day to day life), to not be alone, and in some cases I think actually really reduces security risks for people who are trying to work for peace and justice.
For myself, it has allowed me to understand in a deeper way what went on here and how that violent past is still present today. It has given me the opportunity to support struggles in human rights in very different ways, from the vantage point of somehow who is there to support, to be an ear, an eye or human companion, who is in general not going to interfere with processes that are underway. In some ways, it can be hard to be a silent onlooker, to not scream out at what I see as unfair, within communities, within families, but it is also good to keep me in check, to remind me of my position, to remind me that I am actually not part of the struggles here, and while I can thank people for the work that they are doing, for the effect they will have, for the sacrifices they have made and in some way support them by my presence or encouraging words; they don’t need me to help them, there’s a whole history of resistance and struggle here that social movements in Guatemala can use to change things, and while I can have a specific role here as an accompanier, that any more proactive work that I might want to take should be done in Canada (goodness knows, there’s a lot of room in Canadian human rights work for more people!). So I am reminded again, that a large part of why I’m here is to learn more about what’s happening and share it with others when I go back to Canada (as a warning of events you may soon be invited to…).
I may have just walked into hell, having come back to the house of the person I’m accompanying, no one is here, the doors are locked and I don’t have a key. Inside one of the locked rooms a radio is blaring at full deafening blast, normally fine, except its on an evangelical station, the same type of station that said that Hurricane Stan was a punishment from God to sinners, in other words that those who were affected weren’t godly enough, and those who were spared were spared because god knew they were there and praying:
‘The bible says the apocalypse is coming, glory to god, glory to god, glory to god. Some may say that we should celebrate that there are women mayors, women out there working, but no, the bible says that women should obey their husband, it is a sin to go against their wishes, it is a sin to take positions of power if you are a women, say amen, glory to god, glory to god, glory to god’ Those were some of the longest hours I’ve experienced here.
· In my first experience working with another foreigner all the time, I learned to appreciate my work in No Estas Sol@, where I work on my own. My co accompanier “is truly wonderful, she’s smiley, caring, concerned about everyone, and has done an incredible amount of solidarity and social justice work in her home country and around the world, she’s passionate about justice, dedicated to human rights work, to forming real relationships with and showing real care and concern for the people she meets. At the same time, she is driving me crazy.” Today we were walking and she was talking nonstop, either directly into my ear or an inch away from my face. I tried to give her some hints by moving further away from her, but she’d just move closer, so we ended up walking for two hours, veering from one side of the road to the other, me trying to politely give her signals she was invading my personal space, her determined to ignore these signals. I think most of my frustration with my co-accompanier came from not seeing that while we are together and are to some extent seen as a unit, I can create my own space to exercise my own values and leave her to her own space to do the same, once I realized that, things went much more smoothly.
Imagine if you will, one night police coming to your door, taking your spouse away and never seeing him/her again. One of those people being someone who lives down the road from you and continues to live there for the next 20 years. Decades later, obviously still with the great need to find out what happened and (especially as it holds such an important place in Mayan culture) to give your spouse a proper burial. Then you and others request an exhumation, the digging up of mass graves to remove and examine the bones, and the person who is your neighbour starts coming to your house at night, firing off guns trying to intimidate you to stop the process, and then when you report it, the authorities don’t do anything to make these threats stop.
·Its interesting, because of all of the Canadian mining activity in Guatemala I think that I have felt for the first time what it would be like to be an American traveling in most of the world. Seeing people’s irritated or disappointed reactions when they hear that I am Canadian. Ending up in areas where there is mining and finding myself explaining, yes, I’m Canadian, but I don’t support what my government or these businesses are doing here.
I started out here with the hope of entering into a relationship I felt would be more appropriate here, having been here before as a tourist, teacher, development worker and intern, wondering if accompaniment might be a better place for me. And in a lot of ways I think my expectations have been met in that sense. The people who I come to stay with are very aware of why I am here, understand and respect that role and don’t seem to have the expectations that sometimes occur- that I come with tons of money or projects or that I am some kind of expert. It’s not entirely unproblematic, as because I am often only in one place for a little while its hard to develop really strong relationships, hard to have people let you do more than wash a few dishes, so the notion that we Westerners all eat out of cans and don’t know how to do any physical work aren’t really being shattered while I am here, but I’ve learned to be okay with that and trying to do what I can when I am able.
In a few days time it will be the anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords, 9 years later and not much has changed. It is incredible, 36 years of terror and poverty, formally ended in 1996, the peace accords making tons of promises (for land, economic reform, health, dignity and equality…), now almost a decade later and it is hard for someone who didn’t live through those years to see what the difference is now from the time of the war. I’ve asked the question lots of times and heard others doing the same. And the answers are somewhat simple: you don’t see large scale massacres anymore (there were over 600 during those 36 years, which cost the lives of over 200,000 Guatemalans, and displaced another million), if there is a protest it may be repressed but the people who are protesting won’t be slaughtered (though in July 2005, in a protest against the Canadian mining company going into San Marcos Guatemala, the military killed one farmer and injured 16 others), you aren’t forced to be part of a civil patrol (where every able bodied man had to do tours of the area, eyeing for guerrilla activity, under the command of the military, sometimes responsible for the massacres here, killing their neighbours) in your community anymore (but many of the leaders of the civil patrols, with the end of the war, became mayors, so the same structures continue).
But then there’s a lot to say that things haven’t changed all that much, women being killed by the hundreds each year, after being tortured and left out in public places-like what happened during the war. And these, as with most other crime here, are left in impunity, rarely going to trial if they are even investigated. The genocide trials against the high command of Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt have not progressed much since they were opened 5 years ago and are still in the investigation stage. Rios Montt has been in house arrest, but for his responsibility in organizing violent protests in 2003 that cost the life of a journalist and not for the deaths of over 100,000 Guatemalan citizens that he’s being charged with. Apparently, the current minority government who claims to be less corrupt, more democratic than its predecessor, made agreements with the FRG (Frente Republicana de Guatemala, which Rios Montt belongs to, in power between 99 and 2003) trading non-prosecution against them for their support in approving the Central American Free Trade Agreement. The current government, a government of the oligarchy, supported by the major landowners and industries (esp. sugar) of Guatemala are putting in major efforts into gaining international support (especially investment and favourable trade agreements-to show the power of the sugar industry in Guatemala, they managed to get the United States to agree to buy a quota of sugar which it, responding to its own powerful sugar industry, will dump in the ocean so it won’t create competition that its party supporters won’t like). These trade agreements and foreign investments will benefit large industries and bring in revenue (although in many cases not that significant- Glamis Gold a Canadian Company with headquarters in the US doing mining in Sipacapa Guatemala will give 1% of its revenue to the Guatemalan government, and is tax exempt until 2008!, while the communities in the area where it operates (the mining project is happening where lots of people live, not some desolate place in the middle of the desert) virtually unanimously opposed the mining project in a public consultation and stand to receive only loss of lands and water, and a few jobs for a couple of years) while average Guatemalans are surely being brought into a phase of even greater hardship (not helped by the loss of at least ¼ of agricultural lands with the mudslides of Hurricane Stan).
The legacy of the current government is pretty bleak. There have been a much greater number of attacks against human rights defenders than its FRG predecessor (several hundred more to date than the FRG government in its four years in power). There have been a much greater number of expropriations of lands for private industries. The issue of land here is pretty complex, and made more so by the existance of a wide variety of traditional and legal access to lands. Lots of people have lived where they are for a long time and therefore should have some rights to that land –in Canada for example squatters need only live on a piece of land for 7 years to gain legal title, while here after having lived somewhere for several generations you can be kicked off (as is ending up happening in the Finca Pampojila, the owner bulldozed several of the houses that were affected by Hurricane Stan and has now said that he is not going to allow several families to rebuild). Then there are many cases where two titles to the same land exist: normally one held by a small scale producer and another by a neighbouring finca owner, you can imagine who generally wins in cases of contestation. Also, lots of land was forcibly taken away during the civil war, as a booty from war and so while one person might now have title, it actually should belong to a previous owner. Lastly, lots of the ‘occupations’ of land happen as a result of employers not paying their workers for years, or for not paying what is legally required when laying off workers. Often lands are occupied by workers in lieu of the pay they are owed. The courts normally enforce kicking people off lands, but I have yet to hear of it being enforced that employers have to pay before that happens). Finally, the government has been making business deals, especially international trade and investment agreements that attack the poor, while at the same time on the international front putting on a pretty face and talking about human rights and that all of the problems in Guatemala are a result of previous governments.
But then some things have changed, as you can have lights on after 8 pm without being thought to be fraternizing with guerrillas; men can go into communities other than their own without fearing for their lives; wearing a red bandana around your neck doesn’t mean that you’re there to kill people; PACs are disbanded; social organizations exist in the open.
·I love how women put everything into their shirts or bras here (i.e. wallets, money, cell phones, even false teeth while eating).
·This country is so incredibly intense, wonderful, emotionally overpowering that somehow so deeply captures my heart I can’t begin to put into words. The last few weeks have been incredible, emotionally draining, heartening and uplifting all at the same time. I am realizing that what is so hard is hearing in such detail what has happened here, seeing the pain that this still causes, hearing about the fear that people still have of history repeating itself (or more appropriately continuing). At the same time I am trying to remind myself of how huge a deal it is that these processes are happening- people talking, declaring, devoting their lives to a different future.
Sorry to be ending on such a high note!
Take care all of you, looking forward to being in touch again soon,