It was our last morning in Guatemala City; after lunch, we piled into the van for Quetzaltenango—a city that is often called by its original Mayan name, Xelaju, or Xela for short—which is about four hours away, to the southwest of Lake Atitlan.
Before leaving, though, we had one last very important visit in the capitol city of Guatemala.
FAMDEGUA (Family Members of Detained and Disappeared Persons)
One thing that is central to understanding Guatemalan history is the concept of someone being “disappeared.” During the 36-year civil war, which ended with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, the Guatemalan army would kidnap people, and their families would never hear whether their loved ones were alive or dead. This became common practice, and the victims are referred to as the “disappeared.” It certainly makes me think twice about using the word casually.
As more people were “disappeared,” their families (usually women, either wives or mothers) would go looking for them in the hospitals and morgues, desperately hoping that some innocuous accident had happened, and not their worst nightmare. Even if their father or son or husband were dead, at least they would have the body; at least they would know. Yet even today, they have no answers.
These women got to know each other as they searched for their missing loved ones, and they got the idea to organize. This is how they came to form FAMDEGUA. As our hostess, Blanca, said, “The love we felt for each other was stronger than our fear of oppression.”
Blanca has 6 missing relatives, including her son, Oscar. He was 22 years old when he was taken away; he worked as a firefighter.
“People of the world know about what happened in Germany,” said Blanca, referring to the Holocaust, “but what was going on in Guatemala was genocide, too. We had over 200,000 murdered, over 45,000 disappeared.”
To give us an idea of the significance of FAMDEGUA’s work, Blanca showed us a video highlighting the village of Las Dos Erres. In 1982, the Guatemalan army massacred the entire village systematically over a period of eighteen hours. The people—including the children—were tortured and thrown into the village well; dirt was thrown in to bury them. Then the Guatemalan army denied any knowledge of what happened. In effect, the entire village was “disappeared” overnight.
FAMDEGUA works to find clandestine graves such as the one at Las Dos Erres, and they take care of all the legal aspects, including taking cases to trial.
The exhumation of this particular mass grave in 2010 is one of FAMDEGUA’s greatest victories; they found the well, and a team of forensic archaeologists from Argentina unearthed all the skeletons. Many bodies were identified and given to the families; many were incomplete, or had no identification. Over 162 sets of bones were put into small coffins; tattered clothing was lovingly folded and stacked into piles; and a funeral procession, carrying all these little coffins, was finally able to lay these people to rest.
The largest obstacle is the absolute impunity with which the perpetrators of these crimes get away with all of it. Due to corruption in the government, even when there is solid evidence against someone and he is arrested, all too often he is somehow released, or only fined a small penalty.
Still, there has been progress, and there have been some victories. While waiting for true justice, FAMDEGUA is dedicated to finding the clandestine graves and laying the questions to rest—though forgiveness and healing are still a long ways off.
To read an article about the Las Dos Erres exhumation, click here.
Through the Mountains
After Blanca shared her stories with us, members of our group had a chance to speak with her. The parents in the group told her of their children, and some shared photos.
But then it was time to say goodbye. We also had to bid farewell to Alejandro, our translator during our all-too-brief stay in Guatemala City. It was hard to do, since we all enjoyed his company so much! But he graciously “friended” us on Facebook, and he also brought CDs of his music for us to take home, so we hope we will stay in touch with our new friend! (You hear that, Ale? We still expect to see you in Minnesota someday!)
We left the capitol city and headed towards Quetzaltenango (aka “Xela”). The road was incredibly twisty for the entire 4-hour drive, back and forth, up and down mountainsides. Even those of us who are not prone to carsickness were feeling a little green by the end of the day!
But the views were fantastic. Lush greenery overhanging the road; patchwork fields draping the rocky slopes; women appearing as bright colored dots down by the riverside, washing clothes; men bent in the fields, laboriously asking the earth to yield enough food for their families; elders, bent forward with straps across their foreheads, supporting loads of firewood larger than they were, hiking up the mountainside; stray dogs trotting along the roadside.
Then we arrived in Quetzaltenango (Xela). It is a colorful gem of a city, with lots of one-way cobblestoned streets. The upscale shops and cafes would appeal to tourists, and I was told that if you’re looking for an immersion experience to learn Spanish, this is the place to go to language school. I filed that particular tidbit in the back of my mind….
After a lovely dinner (where our excited waitstaff took pictures of us with their cell phones to post on Facebook), we headed back to our hotel for a quiet night. At least…some of us did. Kelsey, David, Patrick, and Tim went out for a night on the town! To read about their adventures, click here.
Tomorrow, we’re off to Santa Anita, an indigenous village of former guerillas who grow organic fair-trade coffee and sell it to Peace Coffee!