Since Tuesday was one of the most packed days of the trip, Samee and I did not originally write about everything that we did on that day. If you look back at our post, we focused in depth mostly on the anthropological lab and our visit with the military. However, looking back on the trip, our other experiences on that day were incredibly significant to our overall experience, and I wanted to make sure that we published at least a little bit about these other experiences.The first place we visited after the military’s presentation was to a secret police archive that was only recently discovered in 2005. The documents were piled so high they were seen through the windows of the building. Out of the 80 million documents in the archive, there are 8 million that have been worked on and 5 million that have been digitalized. It was exciting to learn about how the archives are being preserved in order to gain retrospective insight into the conflict, especially as evidence of crimes that were committed. Researchers have started with records from the years ’75-’85 when the worst human rights violations have been committed. It was really an incredible source and an incredible opportunity to see it.Also during lunch, we heard from an activist named Mario who worked with the human rights organization, GAM. All around on the walls of the building were pictures of Guatemalans who had been disappeared by the military. He emphasized that these people were still gone and that what happened during the war still is impacting all of Guatemalan society today. He told us about the different tactics that the government used to make it seem like those people were still alive and criticized them for ignoring and denying the past. Both here and at the anthropology lab, it was emphasized that these organizations are still receiving threats today for the work that they do.The last event we fit in at the end of the day was a visit at a cafe with Jose Garzon, a foreign service officer for the past twenty years. He considered himself an expert in democracy, but not in Guatemala. His work in each country lasts only a few years at a time. He emphasized that he is a facilitator working with diplomats primarily from the central government in the country to implement democracy. In general, I think we as a group were frustrated by this focus after having seen the complete devastation that confronts the Lake Atitlan community. Personally, I believe that basically sustainable living conditions are a prerequisite for a stable democracy, and that the best way that the United States can help in other regions is by having a primary focus on humanitarian aid. While diplomacy and encouraging democracy on a governmental level is important, we witnessed the poverty among the country’s indigenous first hand and were generally frustrated that Jose Garzon did not seem to be very aware of this or to be giving it the significance that we thought it deserved in his work. We had some heated conversations about this during the trip and I would invite others to comment on their ideas in the blog, since there were some very strong ones.
Our week in Guatemala is over. It has been an unreal journey, and speaking for ourselves, the most difficult experience we’ve ever gone through. It was full of emotions in positive and negative aspects, but they were undoubtedly extreme in every case. We leave today uncertain. What is enough to do for a people who have been perpetually excluded, repressed and massacred for 36 years, and then silenced? Can anyone do enough? How do you repair a nation that has since the European invasion been unflinchingly racist, exclusionary, and constructed around an inequality and separation of class and privilege that has continued without respite through the present day? What can we actually do, as students, as part of the future of the United States, as witnesses to the horrors of this land? We leave with heavy hearts, laden with visions of the pain of widows, victims of natural disasters, and disadvantaged youth. Yet our hearts are also heavy with the hope that springs from these disenfranchised, as they will not be repelled by the past in pursuing a greater life for themselves as a community. The passion and action of men like Manuel Reanda, Jorge Morales Toj, and Mario Polanco show that these people are not waiting for outside help, because it has never come, and will never replace their own experience and dedication.
The problems in this country afflict every level of society. They destroy individuals, families, and communities. The institutional disregard for the majority of Guatemalans is beyond imaginable. The impunity of the military as an institution in regards to its role in the genocide that occurred here is sickening. The cycle of corrupt, elite-controlled governance at the national level acts as a great wall for any legal attempts for social change, justice, and healing. This injustice extends beyond the borders of this nation, with the blood of hundreds of thousands of innocents on the unchecked hands of the American government. The blatant denial of the truth by all responsible is the greatest insult to the survivors and the slaughtered. The greatest injustice is the inescapability of this horror by innocent, poor, disregarded individuals.
One of these individuals is don Andres. At age 82, he was digging for his two daughters and grandson who were brutally strangled with ropes by the military in July of 1982. As the hollow sound of the pick axe pounding the black soil increased and the remnant of green cloth emerged, he broke down sobbing, and so did we. The pain that don Andres demonstrated in that moment was the outpouring of 25 years of grief. For 25 years, he was unsure of where his two daughters. Given this country’s history, he was sure they were dead. The same goes for his 9 month old grandchild. This life that would have been 25 years long today, years longer than ours, was not allowed to begin. As we exhumed the bodies of all three, our hearts bled for don Andres. But after stepping back, we realized that his is not an isolated case. There are 500,000 don Andreses.
Don Andres’ family was one of many destroyed by the conflict. Jorge Morales Toj, an indigenous rights activist, told us his personal story of how he was confronted with his Uncle Balthazar’s tortured, slaughtered corpse at age 8, the same age that his youngest son is today. From there, he was forced to flee his hometown while his father stayed behind. After fleeing, his family was further split as the children lived in different houses to avoid discovery. Jorge never saw his father again as he was killed before he could flee. While he retold his painful story, Jorge’s eyes welled as he recalled the destruction of his family in front of his two sons and young daughter.
Jorge has now dedicated his life to fighting for indigenous rights. The gulf between the ladino and indigenous populations in Guatemala remains wide and constant. The economic disparity in this country is historic. There have been no efforts toward economic integration of indigenous people. The economic power in Guatemala was seamlessly transferred from European invaders to their elite ladino descendants. The only exception to this rule of birthright dominance is foreign investment. Elite ladino and foreign capitalists have always seen Guatemala’s society, government and military as tools to maximize their own economic interests with no regard for the indigenous population of the country. We saw this first hand, having spent the weekend in Santiago among a community of which 97% lives in extreme poverty on the same lake as the Campero Chicken magnate family’s estate worth 35 million quetzals. Don Andres makes less in a year than the cost of a dinner for a family of four at a steakhouse we dined at in Guatemala City.
The ladino economic elites surrounding us in that restaurant are responsible for the inequalities that persist. They have controlled the government, which has in turn controlled the military for decades. Both institutions continually deny their roles in the brutal massacres that occurred throughout the highlands of Guatemala, and in doing so deny the very existence of those who still suffer the pain and trauma of their experiences today. The democracy in Guatemala is a total farce, because the scarcity and isolation of wealth (often in criminal or exploitative business) of the country results in political control being fully in the hands of wealthy kingmakers. Without the financial support of these self interested elites, no politician can run and win a national election campaign to change the country’s status quo. Further hurdles to change include corruption at all levels of government, institutional self interest and theft, and the shadows of intimidation and violence that continue to hang over the politics of Guatemala.
The violence that haunted this country for so long was perpetrated by the military. In response to the vast inequalities that plagued the country, a guerrilla force began a war to try to take power from what they saw as their oppressive, non-representative government. The military response was thunderous. They set up barracks in rural indigenous towns, and began terrorizing the communities they invaded. In Comalapa, the military barracks we congregated at yesterday doubled as the military’s body dump. 217 bodies were found at the barracks, along with tales of rapes and torture. Many of those buried at the Comalapa barracks were difficult to identify because they were kidnapped from other areas, brought there, and killed. The Guatemalan military saw its actions as part of a war being waged to protect their state, and treated the indigenous communities the guerrillas fought to represent (though were not affiliated with) far worse than a hated enemy. The inhumane policies of the military included forced disappearances (a strategy devised by Adolf Hitler, and taught to the military by their American backers), meticulous documentation of their targets, and a total disregard for the families’ need for closure. The military blames its role in the armed conflict on its duty to protect the state, which was under siege by guerillas. American anti-Communist zeal made the combat more ideologically polarized and less forgiving towards innocent bystanders. Despite these excuses, the degree of inhumanity needs to be acknowledged and addressed by the institution.
The policies of the Guatemalan military were directly taught and funded by the U.S. because of its specific interests in the region. Anti-Communist sentiments spread fear throughout the world, leading to the skewed understanding of Guatemala’s internal issues as a fight between Communism and capitalism. This myth was perpetuated by American capitalist interests in Guatemala, especially in the case of the United Fruit Company (today Chiquita Bananas), which had a great deal of influence within the government. On the 5th of May 1985, eleven years before the Guatemalan Peace Accords were signed, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood at the Bergen-Belsen death camp in Germany proclaiming the following: “All these children of God, under bleak and lifeless mounds, the plainness of which does not even hint at the unspeakable acts that created them. Here they lie, never to hope, never to pray, never to live, never to heal, never to laugh, never to cry…. And then, rising above all this cruelty, out of this tragic and nightmarish time, beyond the anguish, the pain and suffering, and for all time, we can and must pledge: never again.” Yet during this time, Reagan knowingly funded the Guatemalan military’s inhumane campaign against the indigenous people.
As Americans, we should be ashamed and feel obligated to heal the great nation of Guatemala. We should feel obligated to invest in the future of the indigenous and disenfranchised of Guatemala. We should reject the empty words of Ronald Reagan and instead heed the pleas of Jorge Morales Toj: “We all have the responsibility to ensure what happened in Guatemala does not happen elsewhere. In war, everyone loses. Only when we understand this can we live in peace in harmony.”
This morning we returned to Jilotepeque to meet Don Andres and assist the exhumation process. Previously, we had planned to spend the entire day at an indigenous rights festival in Comalapa. However, the class decided it was more important to return to visit don Andres and show our support for him.
When we arrived, he greeted us with tears in his eyes. Giving each of us a big hug, he told us that he had been unable to sleep the night before. Throughout the morning, we learned more about the lives of the daughters and grandchild of Don Andres that were ended abruptly by the uniformed perpetrators.
One night, over 20 years ago, members of the Guatemalan army intruded into the house of Don Andres’s oldest daughter. She was 26 back then and had been married for a year and a half and had an 8 month old baby. On that night, her 13 year old sister had visited and was staying overnight as well. The intruders killed the two daughters and the grandchild by choking them with a rope.
Their bodies were found and buried by the husband. Since then, her husband has disappeared and Don Andres strongly believes that it was the army that kidnapped and murdered him as well.
This was not the end of Don Andres’s misery. Two of his sons were later kidnapped and are now presumably dead. Don Andres’s youngest daughter does not even remember what her two older sisters and brothers looked like.
Although Don Andres was able to find the remains of his two daughters, the fate and whereabouts of his two kidnapped sons are yet unknown and this continues to hurt this 82 year old man everyday. Our class decided to donate portion of the fund we have raised from the Haverford community to assist Don Andres.
On our way to festival site in Comalapa, we passed by a cemetery. The wall of the cemetery was decorated with murals depicting the hardships that the Guatemalan indigenous population had to endure; ranging from the “internal armed conflict” to the recent earthquake.
We arrived at the gathering site for the indigenous rights/commemoration festival. The gathering site was a former military base in which 216 bodies were exhumed. This site was where the largest number of bodies was found and because many of the victims were from other parts of the country, it was very difficult to identify them through traditional methods which relied solely on personal testaments. As a result, DNA testing has been incorporated into the exhumation process and today, it has become far easier to identify the victims.
At our arrival, we were welcomed by both the Comalapa town council and CONAVIGUA, the widows association of Guatemala. Despite the horrific tragedy that struck them, the widows of Comalapa organized themselves into a support group and provided both moral and physical support to its members. They have also actively engaged the national government to recognize and compensate for the atrocities that were committed during the “internal armed conflict”
After members of CONAVIGUA sang us songs dedicated to their loved ones lost during the “internal armed conflict” we were presented with T-shirts by Heidi Jutson HC’06 and workers of “Just Apparel” a project dedicated to changing the labor conditions of Guatemala by providing fair wages to its workers.
The final segment of the day was the musical and artistic performance by the indigenous community. Artists from various communities both celebrated the rights of the indigenous population as well as commemorated the appalling losses they suffered during the period of the armed conflict.
March 13, 2008
Andy and Kate
After such a long day yesterday in the capital, everyone was very happy to have the morning off today. Everyone slept in and most went shopping for handicrafts in Antigua, while others stayed in with breakfast and a book. At around noon, we all headed onto the bus to go see an exhumation that FAFG (the forensic anthropologists that we visited yesterday) was doing today. Exhumations are very important for the reconciliation and healing process, as it allows victims to give a final and dignified goodbye, while revealing a truth that is often still being silenced.
When we got to the site, some students were surprised, as the only thing that suggested that this was a crime scene was the two cops some yards off. Instead, the exhumation was being conducted openly by anthropologists and community members, with many neighbors periodically stopping by.
Very soon upon arrival we were introduced to Don Andres, an elderly man looking for the two daughters and one grandchild that he lost in 1982. Informed by neighbors that his family might be here, he contacted FAFG to start the exhumation process. He received us very warmly and invited us to pick up a pick axe and a hoe to look for his family.
Many students joined in the exhumation process, digging holes over a meter deep, always looking for soil disturbances, such changes in soil color and consistency; these qualities that can, even 26 years later, indicate a grave. After much digging, there was some excitement—an area of looser, lighted soil had been found.
At that point the hired workers from the community began to do the vast majority of the digging. With Haverford Students jumping in to clear our the hole of the soft dirt before the workers began picking at it again. At the time that this was going on everyone began to gather around the hole that had been started by Haverford Students and had now become the space where everyone gathered expectantly to find the bodies of Don Andres’ family members.
The workers continued to touch the soil every once and a while and it continued to stay soft in the hole that we had uncovered. After many minutes of us gathering around that hole, they found it. Aqui esta! What they had found was the clothing of one of the victims with her corpse underneath. It was difficult for all of us to be gathered around and to know that we had found the bodies of Don Andres’ family which had been brutally killed by the Military over twenty-five years ago.
When Don Andres approached the grave and saw the clothing he could not hold back his tears. Tears for his two daughters, and a granddaughter killed at the age of four months. Innocent victims of an armed conflict that created almost 500,000 Don Andres’s and left innocent people dead, innocent people who had no ties to the insurgency, but happened to be of the indigenous race and were therefore annihilated.
Don Andres had been carrying the pain that he expressed today for twenty five years, and for the first time in twenty five years he was able to see the tangible evidence of his children. With that context in mind we have a glimpse as to why his reaction to seeing a tiny piece of fabric resulted in sobs of sadness. Don Andres received support that day from everyone gathered around that grave, but as soon as the evidence was found because of the time the grave had to be sealed and work would begin again on the following morning. As the grave was sealed off by the members of the forensic lab we finally got a sense of what it meant for all of us to be there.
Anita approached Don Andres and with a hug that we have often seen her give to the young children of the communities around Satiago Atitlan he continued to sob in her arms, and then this small elderly man looked up at Anita and asked her if we were coming back tomorrow. She looked at him and asked if he would like us to come, and without hesitation he answered yes. It seems remarkable that Don Andres and his family would be so willing to have us join in, in such a painful and personal experience, but the way we conducted ourselves as people that day and the help that we provided him in his time of grief provided the environment for us to be invited back.
As we were leaving the grave site a few of us approached the anthropologists and their remarks were very interesting. They talked about the labs, the first being the traditional forensic lab that we had been in yesterday, and the second being the lab that we had been in today. They said that the latter tugs at all of your emotions, and puts into a setting that one can understand all of the people that the armed conflict in Guatemala continues to affect. It is this kind of event that finally provides family members with closure, but there continue to be thousands and thousands that either haven’t found their family members, or have no idea what was done to them, and they have to continue to live on.
Michael and Fabrizio
March 12, 2008
For me, one of the most moving experiences today was visiting FAFG, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala. One of the Haverford graduates that has been accompanying us on the trip, Jen Trowbridge ’04, works in the lab. She introduced us to the other anthropologists and we got to see the different skeletal remains that the lab is currently working on. Basically, the bodies that they exhume are at the request of families who have not yet found the bodies of their loved ones who had been disappeared. The anthropologists dig to exhume the remains of these people in order to give closure to the crimes that were committed and so that the victims’ families to honor the death. Seeing the bones that had been exhumed and having the anthropologists show us where and how the victims had been macheted really had an impact on me. I didn’t want to touch the bones. The death and atrocities felt very close. They were mostly working with the skeletons of children and Anita pointed out very powerfully that this was really evidence of the genocide. The fetus remains that we saw were not child soldiers. The body of the pregnant woman was found in a ditch with several other women. There was one skeleton in particular that they believed was of a twenty-six year old woman. They showed us where her murderers had tried to decapitate her and how the blows must have been very hard because it broke through the toughest part of the skull. Part of the back of her head had fallen off. In the moment, I was shocked by the proximity of the violence. It is difficult for me to imagine what motivates such ruthless violence. After some distance and reflection, I was led to think more about this question, especially in the context of the other experiences that we have had throughout the trip and especially today, for example, the presentation that we were given by the military earlier in the morning. I thought a lot about the complete and utter desperation caused by years of inequality and stolen opportunities that created a culture that normalized violence during the civil war. In this context, it became clearer to me that there are different levels of responsibility for the violence- the people who are physically perpetrating it and those who create the circumstances that naturalize the perpetration of violence. Thinking about this, it was particularly devastating to hear the lines of the military institution that played down accusations of racism and denied the necessity of looking at the institutions’ past responsibility in the conflict. Throughout the whole trip, we have all had many conversations about the continuing disparities. One of the guerrillas we talked to over the weekend told us that he felt like they had lost the war because there were still elites who owned all the land while the majority of people have close to nothing. Seeing this continuing disparity on an institutional level during the military presentation was both saddening and frustrating. I think throughout the trip we have become more and more aware of the obstacles confronting this country in moving past the conflict. The amount of stimulation my mind received today is going to require many weeks of processing. Its been one of the most emotionally challenging days of my life. We began by going to Guatemala City to the Ministry of Defense. The trip was long and early. We were invited in to a large conference room. Their were several army officers and commanders that they claimed were diverse in rank, and experience. Some were generals, others were colonels, others were privates. Some came from before the war and others came in to the army after it. There weren’t any indigenous soldiers present at least from what I could see. So much for diversity. They gave us a few presentations. There was one on the conflict and another on reconciliation. The word genocide never came up once. There idea of reconciliation was forgetting the past and moving forward. Fabrizio asked about the role of racism in the conflict. He asked: how could the process of reconciliation occur with out addressing the racism in Guatemala against the Guatemalan people, the Mayan people? How could reconciliation happen with the power in the hands of so few? They replied that the racism was was exaggerated, that racism came from the Mayan populations towards each other, that racism doesn’t really exist. They sounded like Haverford students talking about race. I remembered the Mayan women, the widows we met yesterday. I asked a question on behalf of them. “Part of reconciliation is rebuilding trust. Yesterday we met a group of Mayan women who all lost their husbands, many lost their children at the hands of the Army. These women were not part of the Mayan elite, they were thankful to us for giving them a few pieces of clothing. They cannot escape their past because it haunts them everyday of their lives. What has the army done and what does it plan to do to rebuild that trust?” Answer: more bs. They danced around the question even more. They talked about how everyone suffered during the war and not just the Mayans. They talked about how the key to reconciliation was development. They talked about development a lot. They talked about Mayans joining the Army and making general. Their answer was basically that Mayans should join the army. I wondered to myself, the entire time they were answering, whether they actually believed what they said. They all stood up straight and spoke loudly and aggressively when they answered. They might have seemed confidant in their answers if I wasn’t so cynical at this point. To me it seemed they were over compensating with the way they spoke, with their power point presentation on the conflict and on reconciliation. I don’t know if I was more angry at their answers or amused at their efforts to avoid actually answering the questions. They just refused to acknowledge their actions. They refused to acknowledge their murders, their kidnappings, their genocide. How can this country move on with so little acknowledgment, with so little dignity left? I will add more later about our visit to the human rights activist we met.
Samee and Ilana
March 11, 2008
This morning felt like a transitional morning for us students of Haverford-Guate 2008. After one last night under the clear sky of rural Guatemala we were up early to leave Santiago De Atitlan. After four days of traveling together we had our routine down and had all of our gear packed onto the boats in no time. These trim boats are much smaller and quicker than their larger counterparts we used on our first crossing of lake Atitlan; instead of a relaxed, panoramic view from the roof we experienced the thrill of being right on the water, watching it rush by just like our few short days in Santiago. The sky was perfectly clear and the view of the surrounding mountains simply astounding. But leaving this little town we came to know so well seemed unreal. The connection we experienced in Santiago was exactly what we had come here for, and parting with that sense of community felt counterintuitive. Our itinerary for the day was brief: a cultural day at Iximche, lunch at the ruins, and a free afternoon to relax and reflect in Antigua. Yet in the end it was by no means merely transitional, but rather a powerful beginning to a new chapter of our trip. Upon arriving at the other side of lake Anita struck up a conversation with some local police officers that soon became a lesson in field research. We learned about the Guatemalan Police in class, how after the 1996 peace accords they had been given responsibility for domestic security in an effort to diminish the role of the military. General Viagran had told us about the complexities involved in the transfer of power to what he saw as an ineffective organization, but talking with the local police chief gave us a new perspective on these difficulties. He proudly asserted his unit’s control over the local situation and emphasized their efforts to protect all classes of people, yet was eager to tell us about their lack of equipment and support: “It’s easy to come and see all the riches of Guatemala,” he told us, “but we, the Guatemalan Police, are poor.” There are only 8 officers in the region, and while they try to pool resources with neighboring departments it’s not always enough. He said that people like himself are not corrupt because they don’t have access to any money in the first place, but that the officials higher up who approve the budget can do what they want with it. Within a few hours we arrived at Iximche and it was absolutely gorgeous – exactly what you would expect from such a sacred place. Gentle paths of well-trodden grass meandered through the ruins. Yet despite the worn down rock the ruins still stood with a solid sense of place, and each individual tree stood out in its own uniqueness. At the end of the bluff lay a circle of stone in front of an ancient alter. Members of the widow’s association were waiting for us along with don Juan, a Mayan spiritual guide. Don Juan explained to us the nature of the ritual we were about to participate in. The red candles represented red corn, the blood of one’s ancestors, and the heat of the sun. The black represented black corn, the night, and one’s hair, all of which are part of one’s self and one’s body. White represents white corn and the air of clouds, and the yellow was for life and the yellow corn of every day sustenance. He spoke of the three spirits that reside in each of us: one in our head, one in our chest, and one in our feet. We went around in a circle multiple times, putting incense, candles, and water in the fire. Flames came together and drew apart and don Juan explained the significance and was quick to point out the connections with other religions.We went back to the busses to share a modest lunch of tortillas and cheese with the widows, and what followed was by far the hardest to describe of the days events. Our conversation began with a more general discussion about the widow’s association and the types of experiences these women have been through. Yet before long it delved into a much deeper sharing of personal stories that became one of the most touching moments of our trip so far. One woman spoke publicly of her husband’s forced disappearance for the first time in over twenty years. Her grief was so strong that she could barely get the words out through the tears – a grief that she told us killed two of her children who couldn’t understand why their father never came back. This is a woman who had to run into the mountains every time she suspected either the army or the guerillas, sometimes so quickly that she couldn’t even bring along food for her children. The amount these people have had to suffer was simply overwhelming. In a way, then, it was a transitional day. We’ve taken a step back from our intimate involvement with Santiago to personally explore the deep, lasting wounds of the armed conflict in Guatemala. This connection with the widows, too, is exactly what we came here for. In a way we’re here just to listen and to truly hear and absorb these experiences. It became clear to us today that while we may sometimes feel helpless in the wake of all of this violence, poverty, and hardship, our presence can indeed give a small sense of empowerment. On the bus ride back to Antigua we reflected on another emotional day. “I’ve been through this for a decade now” Anita told us, referring to the collection of survivor’s testimonies, “and I couldn’t even take it this afternoon.” Later she told us that the most moving moment for her was not the stories themselves or the obvious pain the widows felt, but the fact that as she looked around the park both Mayans and Americans were crying and that everyone was deeply touched by these moments.
Ahmad and Evan
Monday, March 10, 2008
It is tough to begin this blog as the day has been one of most intense days as of yet. We hope we are able to reduce such a day into words for you all.
The day began bright and early with a tour of the local organic coffee cooperative. Not unexpectedly, our pickup trucks, the local form of transportation, were nearly an hour and half late. (Amazingly, it may be difficult to go back to Quaker time after Guatemala time!) At the cooperative, 16 members, showed us around, leading us through each stage of coffee production – from seeding to fermentation to sampling fresh coffee. They are very much dedicated to the organic farming philosophy, as it is in concordance with Mayan traditions of working in harmony with the land; environmental protection concerns; and efforts to increase profits selling abroad. They are socially as well as environmentally conscience. Both men and women work here. The pay is Q40 per day ($5.33 per day). The established minimum wage by the government is Q42. But you cannot blame the cooperative for paying its workers Q2 below minimum wage. Other farms pay Q20. And considering that the cooperative is selling 100lbs of coffee for $20 to middlemen—i.e. 20 cents per pound—it is clear there is very little choice in the matter. Recalling a 1lb bag of Starbucks coffee costs $15 sure makes the mind whirl.
We piled back into our trucks and took off to visit a battleground of the armed internal conflict. We wove up the mountain, past small coffee fincas, noxious trash dumps, before we met the fragrance of flowers. We pulled up to a spectacular scenic view that overlooked Santiago de Atitlan, the lake, and the surrounding mountains and volcanoes. We settled down in a grassy area around a picnic bench after getting our fill of the view. It was then that we discovered that this gorgeous and peaceful spot was not a sidestop on our way to the battleground. We were AT the battleground. There were no plaques, no statues, no graves. There was nothing to give away this spot’s past until our guide—an ex-guerrilla who fought here, hid here, lost companeros here—began to speak. As he began to talk about his life as a guerrilla, we were better introduced to the history of this site and of Guatemala as a country. Pedro, who had to change his name to Andres during the war to protect himself, spoke of those comrades who “used to live as family.” In his native language, Tzutujil, Pedro recounted memories of training and his comrades, but also told us about the realities of living as a former guerrilla now. Pedro was not welcomed back to his community as a hero and does not feel any pride for what he did. Although he cannot find work, Pedro thanks God he is alive and that he can eat, “not much, but something.” To hear this man speak so frankly about his experience and to see the struggle he encounters daily to survive was humbling. To watch him touch his belly and speak of hunger was profoundly overwhelming, especially after our breakfast of fresh fruit and eggs. And suddenly he was done speaking and we were sitting overlooking the natural beauty of Guatemala, reflecting upon what we had just heard and seen. And then before we knew it, we were wooshing down the road in the back of our taxi-trucks off to our hotel for lunch.
Later, Jorge talked to us about his time as a guerrilla. He spoke of his first lesson in injustice, given to him by his uncle: “(My uncle) took the tortilla like it was the earth. This small piece feeds 7 million indigenous. And this great portion, feeds less than a hundred families. This is injustice, he told me.” On May 9, 1981, Jorge’s uncle was disappeared. On the tenth, Jorge was walking to school, and found a body along the side of the road. It was his uncle. His eyes were gouged, his tongue cut, his arms bound – the message was clear – don’t talk, don’t look, don’t act. Jorge was 9 years old when he found him.
Jorge witnessed the kidnapping of another uncle. In his words, death followed him everywhere. He decided to join the guerillas, because if he was going to die, he wanted to die struggling. In his words, “The people who have hugged death, death has hugged them, you have a different view of life….you must live life intensely, struggle for what you want. I continue to see injustice, inequality, racism, so I continue to struggle, this is why I continue to fight.” He sees himself as a pacifist now. He continues to struggle, but struggle non-violently. He believes firmly that no one wins in war, we all lose. You can see results just from looking around Guatemala. He doesn’t not regret his time as a guerrilla, he had no choice. But now he struggles politically “Every human being has a responsibility to life. If we were all conscious to defend life there wouldn’t be death, there wouldn’t be destruction.”
From Jorge’s talk, we went to play soccer with some folks in the local youth group followed by a BBQ with the mayor, the youth group, and Jorge’s family. It was a surreal transition, but it made sense too. This is what Guatemala is like — So much intensity and sadness intimately bound to so much hope and life. The result is a vivid and human purpose. The result is a gift that I know we will carry with us forever.
We know this is a rather long and difficult entry. We hope we did the day justice.
Jane and Becky
Today has been an incredible day. We woke up this morning a bit earlier than we all wanted to and met in the lobby for a tasty American breakfast, then boarded a pickup truck that took us as far away from America as most of us had ever been.
We drove a mile up the road to a refugee camp in the Panabaj canton, set up for the victims of the mudslide that occurred during Hurricane Stan in 2005. Before we arrived, we were warned that the conditions we would see would shock us. It will be like Darfur, Heidi told us, without the Janjaweed. We were sad to find that she was right.
We split into groups of three or four students, each with one Spanish to English translator and one Tzutuhil to Spanish translator, and visited the homes of seven women who survived the mudslide. Placed into hastily-built wood and corrugated tin homes soon after the disaster, these women were starting to lose faith that the next year would bring them safer and permanent homes.
Lucy, Evan, and Laura (HC ’02) went to visit Concepcion, who lost many family members in the mudslide. She explained how it felt to lose her sister, daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, and soon began to cry. It was a very beautiful and emotional visit. Concepcion helped us to see that these people will never cease to remember the devastation brought about by Stan. Even today, the sound of the wind and rain on their corrugated tin roofs brings back all of the fear and pain that Stan instilled. As she explained, “The children are afraid of the rain. They climb into their beds and hide when the rain comes.”
As we waited for the trucks that would take us to our next visit, we learned about the reconstruction process from Chico, the President of the Board of Managers of ADECCAP. He explained that of the five areas affected by mudslides in 2005, three had indigenous names that cautioned of their susceptibility to these devastating natural disasters. The name for this area, he explained, meant “land of rocks,” a reference to the stones carried down from the heights of nearby volcanoes by torrential rains. The town could not rebuild on the same dangerous site again, so they instead asked their Mayan elders where to build.
Chukmuk, the elders told them, “the top of the stairs.” The site of the first Tzutuhil settlement and one of the most important Mayan archeological sites in Guatemala, Chok muk is in little danger of mudslides. We went to Chukmuk and were presented with the plan for “reconstruction with transformation” that calls for the construction of over 700 adequate, respectable homes to replace those taken by Stan. Construction was already in progress, with families contributing the labor to build their new community. The new homes represented a new life for those who lost everything more than two years ago.
After a satisfying Guatemalan-style lunch and a quick repose, we set out for town to explore the role of religion in local life. Our first stop was a Catholic church built in 1547, one of the oldest in Latin America. The church was the site of the assassination of the beloved “Padre de Santiago Atitlan,” Father Stanley Francisco Rother. After years of devoted service to the community, he was killed for his objection to forced conscription into the Guatemalan army. His service to the indigenous community was indicative of the role the Catholic Church in fending for the victims of the civil conflict, and his contributions are still commemorated today.
We then walked through town to see the shrine of Judas Iscariot. Upon arrival, we learned that this was a tourist destination, and they were charging us not only for entry, but to take pictures as well. Anita decided this was exploitative of religious traditions, and we opted not to see the shrine. Instead we went to the shrine of Santiago, the patron saint of Atitlan. Our visit helped us explore the blending of indigenous and Christian faiths.
Next we hopped back in the pickup truck (all 23 of us) and stopped by the hotel to pick up donations for the school in Panabaj. Awaiting us were many of the cutest children we’ve ever seen. We quickly began to hand out beanie babies and sweatshirts to the children, and then listened to their teacher explain that they used to have four teachers, and now only had one. It was clear that this school is in need of further support. We then went outside to play “pato pato gonso” with the children. Many of the boys played soccer, while the rest laughed and chased each other around. Before long, this degenerated into the little girls attacking and tickling the Haverford women. These kids were irresistible, but unfortunately we had to leave in order to be on time for our visit to ADECCAP.
We visited the site of the Ijatz-La Semilla Project, a community center that includes a handicraft cooperative. ADECCAP, which stands for the the Association for the communal development of Panabaj, raises money to provide community eduction and training based on the Mayan Tzutujil culture. We again heard from Chico and then had the chance to purchase handicrafts from the women who made them. Most of the proceeds from the sales go directly to the women, and a small percentage goes back to ADECCAP to fund community projects.
Satisfied with a truly educational and exhausting day, we returned to the hotel for a spaghetti dinner an evening of recuperation. Who would have thought college students would go to bed before midnight during Spring Break? Well, we are… buenas noches!
-Nick Lotito and Lucy Cutler
Hello everyone! We’re sorry that this is a little late but internet has been on and off.
This morning we had breakfast at 7:30 on the patio of Hotel Uxlabil in Antigua. We had a wonderful home-cooked meal of organic fruit, eggs, bread, and coffee. The patio is an open air courtyard with a fountain, bright flowers, and birds chirping. We then loaded the bus and headed off for Santiago de Atitlan.
Due to road work, we were delayed on our way to Santiago and spent half an hour in Tecpan, an area between Antigua and our destination. We took an impromptu walk down a nearby dirt road past men plowing a field. Laura and Jen, two Haverford alums accompanying us on our trip, started a conversation with Renee, a member of the community and a participant in a local house building project. Renee explained that many houses on the hillside were destroyed in a mudslide caused by rain from Hurricane Stan in October 2005. With money from the government, the community is now preparing plots of land on which to build houses for 107 families whose homes were destroyed in the disaster. The survivors of the mudslide are currently living in nearby shantytowns. This was our first experience with community development at a grassroots level so far on our trip.
Once the road opened again, we continued to the docks at Panjachel where we met Heidi, another Haverford alum, who currently lives in Santiago. We then went to El Bistro for a lunch of spaghetti. After lunch, we departed by boat for Santiago de Atitlan. On the hour long boat ride across Lake Atitlan we talked to Lucia, Jorge’s mother-in-law, about her experiences as a Mayan woman. We also took many pictures of the beautiful view from the boat.
We arrived in Santiago de Atitlan and were greeted by a group of local children. Together we then embarked on our first of many rides in the back of a Guatemalan pick-up truck. All 23 of us squeezed into the back of the pickup and stood holding on to a wooden bar running the length of the back while the driver maneuvered the truck through the streets and traffic of Santiago. Later we joked that the class was capped at 19 in order that everyone would be able to fit in the back.
The truck took us to the office of Manuel, the mayor of Santiago, who greeted us to the municipality. Anita explained Manuel’s role as more of the “godfather” than the mayor. In addition to working for the betterment of the community, he addresses the concerns of community members who line up outside of his office to ask him questions and raise issues. It was an honor to be welcomed to the community in his office. In our conversations with Manuel, we discussed the importance of local government and some of the problems they face, such as domestic violence and sanitation issues, like trash collection. Before checking in at the hotel, local children preformed songs for us.
After checking in at the hotel, we walked to the Peace Park, which commemorates the thirteen civilians killed in the 1990 massacre. Manuel spoke to us about the history of the military occupation in Atitlan during the civil war. He discussed the events leading up to the massacre, explaining that after a local woman was raped, many community members went to the military barracks with the hope of starting a peaceful dialogue with military leaders about their actions in Santiago. The military opened fire on the civilians, killing thirteen and wounding many others. Two children were among the dead. Manuel explained that the community of Atitlan has been hit twice: first by the civil war and then by Hurricane Stan.
After finishing our conversation at the Peace Park, we walked farther into the village and saw the damage from a mudslide caused by Hurricane Stan in 2005. Hundreds of people were killed and many homes were destroyed. Despite the fact that it has been over two years since the mudslide, little has been done to alleviate the suffering, physical and psychological, of the victims. Gaspar, the current second advisor to the mayor and former village teacher, educated us on both the events and effects of the mudslide on the village. You can still see the level the mud had reached by the marks it left on the sides of buildings. In addition, many displaced by the mudslide are still, two years later, living in tent shelters, that offer little protection from the upcoming rainy season. We took a detour and walked up a street of houses. Though Manuel had told us that 97% of the people in Santiago live in extreme poverty (less than $1 US per day) we were not prepared for the living conditions we were confronted with. Though we would like to convey to you the poverty we saw, we feel that words would not do justice. Additionally, amongst the homes of the villagers sits the USAID-funded courthouse. One of the things that we found particularly shocking was that while the population of the community lives in conditions of extreme poverty and without adequate housing, USAID built the community a new courthouse, which is now empty and unused.
We headed back to the hotel for an amazing dinner before attending our last event of the day, a presentation at Atitlan’s radio station. At the radio station, we were given a presentation by a youth group which highlighted the events of the military occupation. It was particularly interesting that we were given such a presentation in the radio station. Atitlan is quite revolutionary because, as articulated in the video and by Manuel at Peace Park, after the massacre, the community literally kicked out the military from the area. In addition, they are one of the only municipalities with a radio station that they control. Both the radio station and youth presentation reflected the importance of self-representation in the community as well as the importance of honoring past generations. After the youth group sang us two songs, Manuel and many members of the local government spoke with us. Manuel presented us with the government plan which included, among other things, increased health facilities, economic development, education, and gender equality.
After a long and busy day, we returned, by way of pickup truck, back to our hotel. For all the worried parents, we are all healthy and having a great time. Adios!
Holly Simpson and Rebecca Kuperberg
Hey everyone! Thanks for checking out our blog! Believe it or not, this is actually a class – we are History/Political Science 233, co-taught by Anita Isaacs and Alex Kitroeff. They have brought us to Guatemala, where we will spend the next eight days traveling and studying its history. We hope to bring you a taste of what we’re experiencing here in Guatemala; we will be updating the blog every night, so please check back daily!
We know some of our fellow students are probably pretty stressed out about your exams right now, so we wanted to send you all a therapeutic image. Imagine yourselves in a beautiful, tropical garden, surrounded by chirping birds and listening to a gentle fountain. Oh wait – we just described our current surroundings. Sorry to make you jealous!
We’re currently enjoying lovely weather in the beautiful, colorful city of Antigua. We left Haverford at 5:45 AM and arrived this afternoon in Guatemala City, which we saw only briefly as we drove to Antigua. After checking into the hotel, we had a little time to explore the city; some of us went to the market close by with our guides Jenn and Laura, Haverford grads who have worked extensively in Guatemala with Anita in the past. Then we met up for dinner at Frida’s, a Mexican restaurant. At dinner, Anita and Alex introduced us to their close friend Jorge Morales, and his family. Jorge is a Mayan survivor of Guatemala’s civil war who is currently working on his law degree. He has devoted his life to justice and Guatemala’s future. He told us a little about the current state of Guatemalan political affairs, as well as about the country’s history of discrimination and inequality. These powerful words will stay with us throughout our week here, as we try to confront the problems facing Guatemala and think about how they can be tackled.
Most of us are exhausted from waking up so early, so we’re having a quiet night tonight. Tomorrow we’re waking up early to travel to Santiago de Atitlan, where we will spend the next three days of our trip.
Buenas noches from Antigua, Guatemala,
Becca Varon ’10 and Luke McKinstry ‘10