Saturday, June 28, 2008

Human Rights Accompaniment Report: Kartharine Laurie (Part 2) (2008)

Greetings from Guate!

Despite the best of intentions it appears that I have not quite been living up to my ambitions to keep in touch, I will endeavour to do better, starting today!!

Two months into my work with Acoguate and I am wondering if two more will be enough. The Social Forum of the Americas - which will be held in Guatemala from October 7th to 12th - is a draw, as are the opportunities to contribute in a more meaningful way to the project, continue to work on my Spanish, and deepen my understanding of what is actually going on here! It looks like I may be able to stretch out the money (a little really does go a long way here!) but am going to linger with the decision a little longer to be certain.

As most of you know Acoguate provides international accompaniment for human rights defenders: with the goals of dissuading attacks against them; being able to document threats or attacks should they occur; and diffuse the information to networks of people within and outside of the country should their work put them at risk. Over half of the accompaniers in the project work in a handful of rural areas where people suffered the most heavily during the violence of the 36 year armed conflict in Guatemala. A smaller team is based out of the capital, but travels almost continually to different parts of the country following cases where human rights defenders have faced threats due to their participation in various struggles for justice.

I am a part of this second team. The past two months have been packed with trials, workshops, longer stays at peoples homes, and visits to groups engaged in extended struggles. The three ongoing trials we are accompanying cover a massacre of at least 177 people; the forced disappearance of 6 people (in both of these cases the crimes were commited between 1982 and 1984); and the 2005 rape of a Maya K´iche woman by two police officers, while she was in custody for a crime she was later absolved of. In a country so in need of justice for past and current crimes, these cases are precedent setting. They are steps forward, chipping away at the impunity which has protected the perpetrators of unimaginable deeds. Needless to say there has been a lot of high emotion and a lot of learning for me.

I am humbled by the ability of people to keep struggling over years and decades, against what sometimes seem like insurmountable odds. My privilege and perspectives are challenged as people with less formal education, who may have never left their region of the country, startle me with their succinct and apt analysis of why people go hungry in Guatemala and why they are forced to head north. I am learning the persistent value of a laugh, and how to pass the hours and hours that we do waiting and travelling with people - how to initiate the small conversations that sometimes lead to deeper ones, and being comfortable with the silence as well.

Many of you are familiar with the Finca Nueva Linda, where a group of campesinos have been living at the edge of the highway for over 3 years in protest of the forced disappearance of Héctor Reyes, whose crime was joining a union and organizing for the rights of workers in the heavily exploited pacific coast of Guatemala. At a recent visit to the champas - the shacks made of palm leaves that Héctor´s family and supporters live in at the edge of the highway - a long-term actor in the struggle shared the following thoughts with me.

Despite the lack of current movement in the case, he said that they would not give up, that they would not let the impunity of the rich prevail. With utmost sincerity he was thanking me for being there. It was not what I wanted to hear, given my guilt over the fact that they would sleep with lorries of sugar cane whizzing by, while I would be elsewhere in a soft bed. But I share it with you because he felt it was so important to acknowledge and appreciate all the support which allows them to keep struggling. To which I responded that my being there paled incomparably beside his actions and sacrifice for his friend, and of course that there are innumerable people who may not be able to be in Guatemala, but who also care about their struggle and deserve thanks for their support.

If anyone is interested a great documentary (in English, French and Spanish) has been made about the case (just email me), and the website below describes their struggle in words and pictures (if your Spanish isn´t that hot).

Thanks very much for reading this (if you´ve made it this far)! I hope that spring is starting to make inroads up north, and that this finds all of you well and busy with your own struggles.

Fuertes abrazos,