Human Rights Accompaniment - Communication and Complexity in Guatemala

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Earlier this week my work partner and I ate breakfast in a house where we had spent the night, located in a rural village in the northern highlands of Guatemala. It was a cold, cloudy morning so it was comforting to be in the kitchen by the concrete wood stove and small cook fire. My partner and I sat at a little wooden table along side with the man that we visit, a witness in a genocide case. The man's wife prepared tortillas and her mother rested near the fire. Those of us at the table started chatting about the town. My partner and I learned that it was settled by the man’s grandfather, a Mayan K'iche' who was fleeing the army's compulsory service back in the early 1900’s. The man also told us how the town was founded by his father and explained the origins of the name that the community leaders chose to give it. The conversation went on to look at the changes that the town underwent during the internal armed conflict in the 80's - how all the houses were burnt and the residents forced to flee to the mountains. When the community members returned, years later, they found that the army and the government had already given away much of their land to other settlers. Like many of the people who I visit in the village, the man talked about where his house used to be before the conflict, as he was unable to return to the same plot. We ate breakfast as we listened: spaghetti with onions, tomatoes, oil, and spices, accompanied by corn tortillas and coffee. When the meal ended we thanked our hosts in their language, K'iche', “Maltiox,” and then excused ourselves to visit another family in the village. Situations like this one are an important part of my daily life and have taught me a lot about the people that I'm working with and the Ixil Region.

A lot of my work consists of visiting activists and witnesses who are seeking justice through genocide cases against the military high commanders who were in power during the internal armed conflict. Some of the people that I visit have been receiving accompaniers in their homes for over a decade as members of the Asociación por la Justicia y la Reconciliacion (Asociation for Justice and Reconciliation – AJR). The AJR is one of the plaintiffs in the genocide case against former dictator Efrain Ríos Montt (82-83) and his military high command. The case is focused in the Ixil region and is currently tied up in technical legal barriers that have been placed by the defense to stall for time and potentially forestall public debate and a sentence of the current 4 accused generals. These blocks are just a few of the many that prosecutors have faced over the 11 years since they first tried to obtain warrants for the capture of the commanders. Other witnesses that we have recently begun to visit are not members of the AJR and some are involved in other cases. The visits that I make with my partner help to show that no matter how slow and drawn out the court processes may be, the AJR's fight for justice is important to the international community and that the witnesses are not alone in their struggle. With these witnesses, a lot of my work is about checking up on people, keeping tabs on the health of their families, building and maintaining trust, providing moral support, and learning about their daily lives.

So what does this type of solidarity work mean in practice? On the most basic level, I stay in houses, take meals with families, and make house calls, hoping that each visit serves as a reminder of the support and interest of hundreds of people internationally. Communication can often be very challenging and sometimes what I know about a person is very limited. Ixil is the primary language of the vast majority of the people I visit, many of whom, mainly women and the elderly, speak little or no Spanish. Sometimes relatives help to translate, but in some homes a typical visit consists of us drinking coffee or atol (a hot drink made from ground corn or other grains) and smiling a lot, with occasional gestures or simple statements. With people who speak a bit of Spanish, we sometimes trade words, “dog” for “tx'i'” and “hand” for “k'ab”. When I can talk to people with more ease, the conversation is likely to focus on the crops they are growing, their animals, their health, and events in the village, although some of the people I visit like to talk about news and politics or advances in the cases. Around meal times conversation often turns to food. “Is there corn in your country?” “Do people there eat [corn] tortillas?” In rural parts of the region, very few meals are served without tortillas or tamales and corn is the main crop of practically every family.

When I tell people that I'm from the United States, quite often I receive more interest than my Swedish or Canadian partners. Many people that I visit have family members in the United States and some have already made the trip and returned. We talk about the dangers of crossing the border or jobs in the US and how they compare to Guatemala. Families with relatives in the States usually show signs of the remittances that they have received. Their houses might have a concrete floor, rather than a dirt one, or a television. My time in the region has shown me the causes of a lot of the migration to the states and has given me a context for some of the roughly 300,000 undocumented Guatemalans living in the United States. In one community, a severe lack of land, in part because it is amassed in the hands of a local plantation and hydroelectric dam company, means that many people in the community have made or have attempted the trip. In a community on the other side of the region, the teenage granddaughter of one couple that I visit wants to travel to the US to work. Her grandmother typically undertakes a several hour walk to the market in order to save the 10 Q ($1.30) that the trip costs in bus. The minimum daily agricultural wage in the country is 63.70 Q ($8), but campesinos that work their own land often earn less and budgets are tight. A few weeks ago I visited a family of four, headed by a single mother. Her oldest child, a young man of 14, had just returned from a month of work at a plantation in the north of the region. He told me that he wasn't planning on going back to the plantation, but wanted to go to the United States soon to look for work. Yet while many Ixiles decide to travel to the US, only a few of the people that I've talked to have family members who have decided to stay abroad. Most spend several years working in the States and then return to their homes and families. During the internal armed conflict, the displacement and disruption of communities were used as a weapon of war and genocide. With the conflict now over, they have taken another form for many Ixiles who are faced with mounting pressure at home due to racism, militarization, and limited land and economic opportunities. My perspective on immigration in the United States has been greatly shaped by the people that I've met and the conversations that I've had over the past few months and I think it will continue to be reformed as I continue my work here.

The sites of the conversations I have with the people I accompany vary. I frequently talk with people in their homes and kitchens, gazing at cook fires during the pauses in conversation. Some people take me to their fields where I help to harvest crops or learn about different wild plants and their uses. In the house I might shell beans, pull grains of corn off of the cob, wrap corn “dough” in leaves for tamales, or try my hand at making tortillas. As the months have passed I've learned more about the daily tasks that people undertake and the work in the fields and have watched as the tasks change with the passage of the seasons.

Yet while the situation in many villages may appear tranquil, perhaps one of the most amazing realities of the Ixil region is that perpetrators and victims of crimes that occurred during the internal armed conflict continue to live side by side in the same communities, and often the lines between the two identities are blurry. Beginning in the 1980s the government established armed and unarmed Self-Defense Civil Patrols (PACs), comprised of civilians with the stated purpose of fighting against the insurgency. While the army claimed that participation was voluntary, in practice it was often coerced. During the height of the conflict an estimated 1,300,000 Guatemalan males between the ages of 15 and 60, served in the PACs, which represented 20% of the country's population at the time. Women, children, and the elderly were also recruited to help the army, often acting as orejas, or informants. As a result, members of the community were frequently set against their own neighbors or people from nearby communities. For example, one woman who I visit still lives in the same town as the man she believes disappeared her niece. Another woman and her family receive threats and verbal abuse, including shouts of “¡Guerrillera!,” from one man from the same town every time they pass each other in the street. And while the PACs were formally demobilized after the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, in some places the PACs remain organized or active in some capacity, whether is by seeking payment for their service or because they are interested in mobilizing against gangs and crime. While members of the PACs were often trained and instructed to kill, rape, and torture, many are also themselves victims or relatives of victims who suffered war crimes. The blurry lines and the dual identities of victims and perpetrators complicate what justice and reconciliation might end up looking like in practice.

By Chrissy Raudonis, a human rights accompanier with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA).

Image credit: Graham Hunt

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