July 06, 2001

Bravery of Memory: A Few Defy Authority to Unearth Guatemala's Past

By Mary Jo McConahay

EDITOR'S NOTE: The President of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo met with President Bush in Washington on July 5. He represents a country that has been marked by a tragic civil war, a tragedy some Guatemalans are trying to reveal fully so that the nation can reach some kind of peace.

RABINAL, GUATEMALA — Like a field planted with hidden mines, memories of violence lie just below the surface of daily life in this country where 200,000 were killed in a war that lasted 36 years.

A handful of Guatemalans want those memories brought into the light. They insist that this is the only way the country can move forward.

It is a radical idea in a nation where a powerful army still denies mass killings and a former dictator is the country's strongest political figure.

In this mountain town some 100 miles north of the capital, hundreds of faces stare from neat rows on the walls of two rooms in a converted house. This is the work of survivors who searched for victims' identity photos in leather-bound ledgers of the municipal archives.

Identifying captions are simple:

"Iginia Chen Ixpata, Rio Negro, in life a housewife, illiterate, and innocent."

"Feliciano Osorio Chen, Xococ, in life a farmer."

"Rodolfo Ixtapa Chen, owed nothing — the (military) commissioners called him, and killed him."

Because only those over l8 must have identity cards, there are no pictures of children. So only the names of many of the 107 youngsters and infants killed by the army and paramilitary at nearby Rio Negro in l982 are listed near their mothers' pictures.

Juana Lopez Ruiz, now a factory worker from Guatemala City, said, "When I was growing up, I cried, `Mother, who is my father?' and she said, `maybe one day you'll see a photo of him.' I always remembered his voice, but not his face. Now I see he looks just like my sister, Maria Pilar."

Widows with deeply lined skin light candles or place a sprig of pine near pictures of the youthful men who were their husbands. Clemente Us-cap Teletor, 27, removed the photos of his grandfather, killed by guerrillas, and father, Secundino Uscap Chen, killed by the army, and held them both for a few moments before replacing them.

The rural poor rarely have family photos, and during the violence it was dangerous to have any photos of the dead, so most who come here are seeing images of loved ones for the first time.

Seven such places are plan-ned to "rescue the dignity" of survivors and console them, said Maria Dolores Itzep, researcher for a local legal aid office. Survivors may feel guilt for failing to pull one more child from a house, or for hiding — protecting others —while a grandfather called for help.

These grassroots efforts effort seem to be racing against time to validate local histories before memories fade and people die. They also face a strong movement to impose an official history — the army maintains the dead were often responsible for their own deaths because they sympathized with leftist guerrillas.

There is also a strong desire to forget. In Guatemala City, less affected by the war than the countryside, some residents still believe the bodies exhumed from killing sites are victims of the l976 earthquake, or active combatants. It is an attitude which makes survivors feel ashamed.

The UN-sponsored Truth Commission on Guatemala said acts of genocide were state policy, and recommended commemoration of the dead, overwhelmingly non-combatants. But the government, headed since last year by President Alfonso Portillo, has not acted on the suggestion.

"There must be places to demonstrate the innocence of the victims, to rescue their dignity, and show they were not guilty of anything," said Fernando Moscoso, who directs a project to create a network of community centers offering details of the recent past.

Moscoso, an archaeologist, was a founder of the renowned forensic anthropology team that now exhumes some 50 mass graves a year in the country. He was inspired by a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, "But ours had to be different....t was Guatemalans against Guatemalans, a genocide against the Maya, recent in time."

These are "history centers for peace," not museusm,insists Moscoso, 42 They will serve for research and oral history, and educate often-isolated communities that, at times, "a particular massacre was part of state policy."

The Truth Commission and the Catholic Church documented thousands of atrocities involving non- combatants, some 90 percent by government forces. But there is a wide gap between those reports and the information available in the countryside.

About 50 percent of all Guatemalans are illiterate. In thousands of rural communities, only a few adult Maya can read. Children do not learn about the war in school — last year the Congress, presided over by Efrain Rios Montt, dictator during the time of some of the worst massacres, voted not to include that history in the course of studies.

And with paramilitary patrol structures — "the eyes and ears of the army," as the army once described them — intact, many villages remain tense.

"In rural communities victim and victimizers live side by side," said Oscar Chavaria, legal advisor at a leading rights group. "It is not clear what reconciliation is. But what is clear is that it does not consist in olvido, in forgetting."

Moscoso insists that capturing history cannot wait. "Later may be too late. Over the years people forget details, people die." Meanwhile the army and guerrillas "are probably destroying evidence."

So those who would save memory are writing in public places.

On gold-colored columns in the center of the capital, the names of hundreds of assassinated, tortured and missing are now etched, in plain view of the country's main cathedral, national palace, army offices and a busy commercial corridor.

In a rural graveyard reserved for Indians, in full sight of an army garrison, names are carved into three boxy monuments for local villages erased in l982.

Before a church in the colonial city of Antigua lies a stone marked with the name of a priest killed by the army when he accompanied a young guerrilla looking for amnesty.

Here in Rabinal, a group for widows and survivors runs the center, supported by Belgian, Canadian and American volunteers, and Rights Action — a non-profit development organization.

Carlos Chen, 55, has spent "hundreds" of hours working on displays in the Rabinal rooms. "During the violence my wife always told me, `you will survive this to tell what happened,'" he says.

Mary Jo McConahay lived in Central America for 13 years.

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