I met her in 2003 when she was giving her testimony to a social anthropologist, a psychologist and an Ixil-Spanish translator. Well under five - feet tall, she told the story of how she was gang-raped by soldiers of the Guatemalan army in her village just outside of the town of the Nebaj, El Quiche - the department where over two thirds of the massacres took place and the chosen region to demonstrate that yes, a systematic genocidal attack on un-armed populations took place.
I would see Doña Teresa (name changed) for the next several years through my time participating in the human rights accompaniment project, ACOGUATE, of which BTS is a long-standing and pivotal member. ACOGUATE has been accompanying the witnesses of the genocide cases since 2000 during their countless trips to give their testimony to the Attorney General's office in their local municipalities and their monthly and sometimes weekly trips to the capital to move forward with the endless administration of the genocide case. At every bi-annual gathering Doña Teresa was present. Even when there was no translation at the events she participated in, she listened intently and asked others to fill her in. Siempre presente en la lucha - always present in the struggle.
"You didn't kill the seed. We are rebellion" - slogan from the Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice, against Forgetting and Silence (H.I.J.O.S.)
In 2007, her eldest son became a member of the board of directors of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), the group of witnesses that Doña Teresa is a member of. The AJR is taking the 1982-1983 military high command to trial for the destruction of entire communities, the murder of families, the torture - including rape - of children and women and other crimes against humanity that they witnessed, lived through and survived.
Many sons and daughters of the community members who lived through the height of the Lucas Garcia, Rios Montt and Mejia Victores regimes often do not believe the stories of the violence. They are taught the ‘official history’ in public schools that states that violence did not occur against civil populations and that the army was merely protecting the Guatemalan nation from the threat of communist insurgents.
I remember being amazed that Doña Teresa, who was always so quiet, was indeed educating her children about the past, refusing to remain silent. She did this in ways that I had not yet learned and no doubt cannot fully understand because of language, cultural and geographical barriers and because we have lived different pasts. The important and courageous work of women such as Doña Teresa, which often goes undocumented and unrecognized, has played an important part in what happened yesterday, on January 26th, 2012.
Rios Montt will be tried for genocide
Some people said this day would never come. That justice for the crimes of the past - crimes against humanity - would never be served. That impunity, corruption and lack of political will would prevent the national genocide case against Efrain Rios Montt and his high military command from moving forward. Political analysts and experts would often tell us in their presentations on the socio-political context that the probability of Rios Montt sitting across a court room from the members of the AJR was next to nil. I always felt conflicted and confused when these 'experts' would tell us this because I would think of the ongoing commitment of the AJR members who continue to struggle daily despite the tremendous obstacles they face. I would think about how the first members of the board of directors of the AJR had aged and grown tired but yet never failed to speak out, to come to meetings, unless they were too sick to travel or were already overcommitted with family and community responsibilities. I would wonder how someone could say that justice was not possible when countless AJR members from some of the most marginalized families would continue to take great risks in their lives to travel to the capital, far from their communities and families, to hear the latest information on the progress of the genocide cases.
Following these conversations with experts, I would often ask various people from the AJR what their take on the situation was. And their response was always - ALWAYS the same: they would talk about the importance of talking about the past. They would highlight the necessity of continuing the struggle for justice. And they would say some variation of the following: "Pues si, vamos a seguir luchando hasta que haya justicia. O vamos a morir intentando." – “Well, yes. We are going to continue to struggle until justice is served. Or we will die trying."
So yesterday, when I arrived at the steps leading up to the Guatemalan court house and saw the crowd of mostly indigenous community members from the AJR waiting for the historic declaration of Rios Montt, I was reminded of the importance of holding on to hope and the possibility for change.
Rios Montt chose to remain silent instead of giving his formal declaration. But this did not matter. In her concluding remarks, Patricia Flores, the presiding judge, outlined the “horrendous” atrocities that took place under the clear knowledge and chain of command of Efrain Rios Montt. She made it clear that as official head of the army, it was highly probable that he knew that these massacres, rapes and forced disappearances were taking place and indeed, may have ordered them. She argued that he must have known about and authorized the military plans designed to partially destroy the Ixil population. And in that tiny court room, with the AJR on the other side awaiting his formal declaration, Rios Montt had nothing to say. He chose to evoke his right to silence. But the silence had already been broken.
At 8pm, the courageous judge concluded that there was enough convincing evidence to link Efrain Rios Montt to charges of genocide and crimes against humanity and that he would be placed under house arrest until the first hearings. She stated that he will not be allowed to communicate with the other high military officials linked to his case and will have to sign in with the court every day to confirm that he has not tried to flee. He will have police surveillance around his home 24 hours a day.
The crowd outside the courtroom, which had dwindled as community members had to return in buses to their distant communities, began to fill up again as members of various human rights and social justice groups flooded in, after hearing the news on the radio and television. The air was jubilant and warm as AJR members who have been in this struggle for 30 years called their families in five different regions of the country and their supporters who have worked along-side them embraced and cried and cheered. People have been working so hard these past twelve years so tears of exhaustion, happiness and residual sadness for their memory of what they lost and what they have survived, flooded the area.
I didn't believe the judge’s decision until I looked over at Doña Teresa. She was smiling the biggest smile I had ever seen - without covering her mouth with her hand or her shawl. I watched her talk with her fellow community members and share in the joy and triumph of the historic moment. Don Jose (name changed) hugged me and said "thank you for all the accompaniment these past years" while Don Miguel (name changed) said, "Ya estuvo. Lo logramos! Ahora, le toca Otto Perez Molina – There you have it. We did it! Now, it’s Otto Perez Molina’s turn." Perez Molina is the new president of Guatemala with a well-known and documented military track record, including his time in the Ixil region and his alleged participation in forced disappearances and massacres.
So the struggle does not end with this victory. Rios Montt's lawyers will no doubt continue with the same tactics that they have used over the past twelve years to stall future hearings. They will no doubt file several court injunctions that will keep him out of the courts and in the confines of his private home-turned jail cell. As complicated as the concept of 'justice' is, it is a necessary step for countless communities to continue to heal and to work toward peace.
Within just under two weeks of taking power, the new Perez Molina government has already increased military presence throughout the country and rejoined police and military personnel in combined patrols that roam the streets. In his inaugural speech, he made it clear that his administration was more interested in moving forward into the global economy than confronting the past.
These next four years will be important for us, as BTS members, to keep our eyes on Guatemala. The long-term relationships that we have built and that we continue to develop are essential to garnering a better understanding of what it means to struggle and to be in solidarity. No expert can teach us that. We have to learn through believing and through hoping. Through daring to be close to the pain, the anger, the hope and the love.
Photos: All photos taken by Caren Weisbart on Jan. 26, 2012 in front of the Corte de Justicia in Guatemala City, Guatemala