Saturday, June 28, 2008

Human Rights Accompaniment Report: Katharine Laurie (Part 4) (2008)

It's hard to believe that my time here is winding down. In fact I don't. It seems crazy to be leaving work that I still find interesting, challenging and rewarding. But, as always, there are many factors involved, and it is better to move on before you get sick of something, right?! Given that my last weekly meeting with our team is tomorrow morning, I may have to accept that change is coming.

As it did the first time I left in 2003, I know that Guatemala will haunt me.

On the 29th of May I stood in muggy, steamy, pouring rain in the plaza of Panzós with a few hundred other people, waiting. Situated in the valley of the river Polochic, Panzós has a humid, tropical climate. It is a regional centre on the western edge of Lake Izabal, and as such, was strategic for the transport of goods from the interior of the country out to the Caribbean coast. That said, it consists of but a few streets, and at night it is the deafening hum of insect life and not traffic which intrude upon those at rest.

Many of my companions in the rain held blown up, photocopied pictures of loved ones massacred this same day, in this same place, thirty years before.

That day, hundreds of villagers from surrounding communities had gathered in the central plaza in Panzós. It is unclear whether they were called to a meeting to discuss the contents of a document sent from Guatemala city related to land problems, or if they decided of their own accord to try and meet with the mayor, Walter Overdick, to discuss the untenable land distribution in their communities. Land struggles were (and are) ongoing issues in the region. Over many years, the pattern shows a successive loss of land held communally by Q´eqchi campesinos to large finca owners; to elected officials and their supporters through land grabs; and more recently to transnational corporations.

Many campesinos had been working through the INTA (the National Institute of Agrarian Transformation) to try and get title to their traditional lands, but to the date of the massacre the best anyone had achieved were provisional titles, permission to grow crops on certain lands, or promises. From June 1960 the Canadian International Nickel Company (INCO) and its Guatemalan subsidiary EXMIBAL (Exploraciones y Explotaciones Mineras Izabal) were actors in this land struggle, having bought 410 km² of prime land for its mining operations. These purchases were facilitated by the fact that the military government of the time had shares in the company. By 1981 INCO abandoned the mine, without paying even the ludicrously minimal royalties agreed upon for the nickel it extracted, or creating the1200 jobs it had promised.

Whatever other factors may have been motivating the Guatemalan military, the result was the same. On May 29th 1978, from the rooftops of buildings around the plaza, they opened fire on the villagers. Survivors who lay trapped under bodies tell the story of people fleeing. How they hurled themselves into the river Polochic, where many drowned, or fled into the mountains trying to escape the bullets and soldiers chasing them. The mayor recorded in the official municipal registry that day that at 9:00 in the morning 24 people (names not recorded) were mortally wounded by firearms.

Two blue municipal trucks were loaded up with the corpses later that afternoon, and delivered them to a mass grave where they lay, tangled and twisted, until an exhumation was undertaken by the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) in 1997. In the grave they found the remains of 35 people, but the investigation of the Commission for Historical Clarity (CEH) found that in the massacre of Panzós the military murdered 53 people, and wounded another 47. With the more selective violence and repression of the following years, it is estimated that 310 people in the Panzós area were the victims of forced disappearance and extra judicial execution. Many of these people were community leaders, being silenced so they could not organize against the terribly unjust distribution of land.

¨Cada día, cuando iba a trabajar, me imaginaba que eran los mismos cadáveres que pasaban en el río, aunque sabía que no era posible, era demasiado fuerte darme cuenta que cada remolino traía nuevos muertos¨

¨Each day, when I went to work, I imagined that they were the same corpses passing in the river, even though I knew it wasn't possible, it was too grisly to realize that each whirlpool brought more dead.¨ (Testimony of an engineer who was working on development projects in the area between 1979 and 1981.)

This brings us back to the plaza of May 29th 2008, where widows, orphans, and siblings await justice, photos of their loved ones in hand. The president had confirmed his presence, to offer an apology at this commemorative event. However two days prior the organizers were informed that his wife would attend in his stead. After two long hours of waiting in the muggy rain, I was hoping that whoever showed up had something good to say.

Finally the wet crowd was moved into the municipal meeting hall and told that the presidential helicopter had not been able to land due to the bad weather. The president's wife delivered her message by phone, muffled through the sound system of the large hall. I could barely make out a word and there was no translation provided into locally spoken Q´eqchi. I can only imagine how people felt - the members of three victims´ committees that had helped organize the event, and the hundreds of people who showed up looking for justice, acknowledgment, looking for something.

Your heart can't help but break a little: for those who have waited so long, and continue to wait. Which makes the ongoing resistance all the more impressive: the people who want to talk about what went on, and tell their stories; the people who are part of groups trying to reconstruct the collective memory, speaking their truth of what really happened; the people who are facing threats from the same power structures responsible for the violence in the 70s and 80s, who are trying to bring the truth and the intellectual authors of these crimes to light; and the numerous groups around Panzós who are standing up to the wealthy finca owners and transnational corporations, who are ´occupying´ lands which belonged to their ancestors, looking for a chance to provide for their families and have something to leave for their children. Those responsible for the massacre in Panzós will face trial in a Guatemalan court, but the wheels of justice turn particularly slowly here.

In 2004 INCO sold its mining concessions near Panzós to Vancouver based Skye Resources. Due to the global financial situation they have currently put on hold plans to resume production at the mine. If and when they do re-open the mine, as in other regions of the country, they will pay nothing for the enormous amounts of water they will use, and pollute. Already the local conflict grows: both over which sectors of the community will benefit from the mine (and for how long); and what will happen to the people who are ´occupying´ their ancestral lands, which happen to fall within the mining concessions. In the past year we have already seen violent forced evictions in nearby communities, frightening reminders of the violence and repression the people of this area lived not so long ago.

Panzós is also the home of a friend, who lives directly in front of the cemetery. She has told me about the weekly burials of mothers and their newborn babies, who often could have been saved with basic medical attention. A friend who has seen in communities around Panzós the phenomenon where mothers do not allow themselves to become emotionally attached to their very young children, such is the risk that they will not survive. Half of all Guatemalan children live in a state of chronic malnutrition, a cold statistic that becomes very real in the faces of the children of Panzós, and is yet again, tied so closely to the question of land.

I share these realities I have been privileged to catch glimpses of not to depress, but to convey my deep respect and admiration for all the people I have met here who continue to work so hard, despite these odds. Not only in Panzós, but almost across the country I have been fortunate enough to meet individuals and organizations who are working for change. People with lots of formal education, and people with almost none, people whose faces are lined with experience and wisdom, and people whose youth and creativity make them seem tireless in their struggle.

I won't say that these months haven't included a lot of heaviness for me, but most of what I take with me will be this energy, action, and determination to keep working for the things which are really worth it. Again I have shared just one case, one part of the work we have been supporting. I will be back in Canada next month, and will hope to see many of you over the summer!

In solidarity,
Katharine