Guatemalans share their civil war stories as Ríos Montt's verdict is about to be announced

05/10/13 Lenka Davis
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Update: After this story aired Friday, Ríos Montt was unanimously found guilty on all charges.

In an ongoing trial, former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Ríos Montt is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. A verdict is expected later Friday. He ruled in 1982 and 1983 and is charged with planning a counterinsurgency that killed 1,771 members of the Ixil indigenous group.

WMNF reporter Lenka Davis traveled to Guatemala last month and brings us the stories of victims from one of the bloodiest chapters in the country’s civil war, when hundreds of thousands of people died.

During the trial more than 100 witnesses testified of rape, torture and arson; but the extent of massacres is thought to be even more severe. Vicente Tzul was not a witness at the trial, but his family came close to extermination during the civil war, which targeted mostly rural, indigenous populations. Tzul is a scholar and wished to have his name changed in order to protect his identity.

"I have some memories from the beginning of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s. People running away, leaving their lands, walking on roads, seeing burnt houses and hearing the people tell that some people have been murdered. You are running away when you are a child, going to places that you don’t know, people are shooting on your house and you don’t know why, and your parents are not able to explain to you why they are doing this. You are not involved in either of those two camps, you are not with guerrilla and you are not a soldier. You are in-between. You don’t understand where this is coming from and you don’t even understand the situation you are in, because no one is able to explain it to you, so you are very confused."

Another story from the massacres of the civil war is told by Alvaro Samuel Botan Sen, who was born on a coffee farm, just like his five other siblings. When he was three years old, his family moved from the coffee fields, where they worked for virtually no pay, to a town on Lake Atitlan, called Panajachel. He has three indigenous cultures in his blood: Tz’utujil, Kaqchikel and K’iche’. Sen’s family, like many others, got caught up in the middle of the conflict not wanting to join either the army or the guerrillas.

"That’s how many people disappeared, because if the civil war army comes through your house to ask for food or money: help us, give us some tortillas; if you give them – ok. But the other side is going to be like: Oh, you gave them food so you are a part of the guerrillas. If you do not give them – they are going to be like: oh, you did not give us food so you are a part of the army. So that’s what happened to us."

A lot of indigenous villages were wiped out.

"Yes, especially in Santiago, Chichicastenango they killed a lot of people just for farming the land. Because in that time everybody said: you don’t farm the land, because you are going to feed the guerrillas. You know, the indigenous people, they are supposed to be with the guerrillas. But it wasn’t exactly like that, and in 1981, they murdered this priest in Santiago Atitlan, because he was protecting some indigenous people.

"I asked my grandma what was the beginning of the civil war. She said, what I know, because she lived in a coffee farm all her life, she said the workers, they asked for a raise and they asked for more rights and a land to plant and they said: no, we are just going to kill you before you start a revolution. That’s how everything started. And my mother used to say and my brothers used to say that sometimes you go up in the hills and you are cutting coffee and there, like, oh, you just see all the bunch of guerrillas passing through. You just hide, you just don’t want to talk to them, especially if you are a girl or you are just working on the land."

[Did] they rape you?

"They can do whatever they want, so it is better for you not getting touch with them. Even with the army. Nobody, you know?"

That’s Alvaro Samuel Botan Sen, who I spoke with at the summit of 10,000-foot-high San Pedro Volcano. His paternal grandparents were among the victims of this violent chapter.

"They got kidnapped. I am not sure it was the guerrillas or the army… in those times nobody knew. But my dad told me it was the army, because they thought she was working with the guerrillas."

They just disappeared and you never heard of them?

"Yeah, they just took them: okay, let’s go, come with us and they never…"

Were your parents trying to find them?

"They disappeared, they never came back."

So they weren’t looking for them anymore?

"No, because at that time, there’s many people dying, many people were murdered; many people disappeared, so you just assume that something bad happened to them. So that’s something that’s still in my father’s mind. That’s why he gets sad sometimes."

Back at sea level at the site of an ancient Maya metropolis in the jungle in Uaxactún, a man named Miguel Medina does excavations. He used to work for Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, exhuming bodies in two Guatemalan urban cemeteries: in Antigua and Esquintla. They were looking for the victims of forced disappearances, victims either from the guerrilla or from the army.

"We found many bones. A lot of them. We were excavating in what we call the XX place, which means unidentified persons. These cemeteries have a specific area for the ones that are not identified."

What would you say was the most shocking thing you have noticed about those bodies?

"We could see in some of them gunshot wounds, sharp blunt victims, so we could see some of those on some bones. I guess that was pretty hard to see at the moment. One of them, particularly, I remember, in Esquintla, had a gunshot wound in the head, I don’t remember if it was a he or a she, but there was this skeleton, got a gunshot wound in the head, in the skull and he was in a rare position. He was not lying normally like in a cemetery, but he looked like he was thrown into the hole after he was shot."

The current president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, says many of those victims are the victims of the earthquake in 1976, which would explain why the bodies are unidentified. But Medina says this is only one side of the story.

"What we see and felt is that that is not true, you can see the wounds and the traumas on the bones. You can die from an earthquake because a wall falls down, but that wall would not create a trauma like the ones we found. They are different. Different, you can see even the system they used with sharp or blunt objects. So on one side you have this version and on the other side we have a version that we are watching at the moment. And of course it is not only the material evidence itself, but also the complete context."

Medina pointed out another worrisome finding the Forensic Anthropology Foundation uncovered when it searched the cemetery’s records.

"Every dead person who enters the cemetery has to be registered in this book. So they went to many cemeteries in urban areas (caleseras departamentales), which are the cemeteries, which allow to bury XX or unidentified persons. They read the books and interestingly, between 1980 and 1983, the number, or the average of the XX in the books increases incredibly. When you look in the books, you can see that. In 1970 you have… I don’t know, I am just giving unreal numbers, but, for instance, you have 10 XX in one year, while in 1982, you have more than a 100. Even much more. So the hypothesis that the foundation came up was that all of these people, the victims of forced disappearances were taken: first, they were killed in some place, the killers or the murderers took their identification and then, as a normal process, they took them to the cemetery as XX, unidentified persons."

These years of the civil war are also when Efrain Ríos Montt was in power. Because these victims are unidentified, they will never be able to be included in the trial. In fact, many indigenous people are skeptical of the trial and its outcome. The academic we heard from earlier, Vicente Tzul, says most indigenous people, including him, are afraid to speak and deal with the past.

"People are afraid, because they see that those trials are not leading to any results, and they are also afraid that if they tell something, it will not lead to any change, but they will get killed.

"Two months ago, I was working on an interview with women who were raped during the civil war. They were afraid to speak, because they felt that what happened to them, can repeat again. They did not want to go anywhere, because nobody would listen, nobody would trust them."

Tzul says the real hope for Guatemala does not lie in military trials, but in expanding and funding proper education, and in sharing history, which could be embraced by all people. He says it needs to be more than just the written memories of the indigenous Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú, Guatemalans need to have the knowledge of their collective history. Tzul says this represents a real hope for change.

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