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Latin America Abeja Dispatch

GUATEMALA: Never Again

Check out this update's Making a Difference to see what you can do to help the people who suffered during the Civil War!

The Facts: Monseñor Juan Gerardi was asked to head a project to collect and record information about the Civil War in Guatemala so people would not forget what happened. He and those working with the project interviewed thousands of people who reported grave violations of human rights of individuals and entire indigenous communities.

The Murder: Two days after Monseñor Gerardi's report was released to the public, he was found dead with what appeared to be stab wounds.

The Government's Explanation: Monseñor Gerardi had been bitten to death by his roommate's dog, "Baloo," when Monseñor Gerardi walked in on the roommate having homosexual relations with another man.

What?...

Both the history of Monseñor Gerardi and the report, as well as what the report found, are critical for people to be aware of if we are not to repeat history, either here in Guatemala or elsewhere:

War Drawing
click here to see children's drawings of war
In October 1994, two years before the signing of the peace accords here in Guatemala, the Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala (ODHA, the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishop of Guatemala) announced the Proyecto de Recuperacion de la Memoria Historica (the Project of Recuperating the Historical Memory, or the REMHI project). The project, headed up by Monseñor Juan Gerardi, was to write a history of the war by taking testimony from the people in the countryside.

Even before the end of the violence, the clergy risked their lives by visiting communities all over Guatemala, interviewing thousands of people, recording the stories of the most disenfranchised campesinos from the furthest villages. They researched the political, military, and social events of Guatemala's past and present, and presented them to the world on 24 April, 1998, in the "Informe Guatemala Nunca Más" (the "Guatemala, Never Again Report").

The report weaves together a detailed history of what was occurring Guatemala with actual statements by people who lived through it. It spells out clearly the role of the government, the military, the police, the guerillas, the Church, the United States, and the campesinos. It calls for remembrance, but also for more concrete changes, such as punishment for those who committed the crimes, and reparations (money or other things that would help)for the people, especially children, who were the most affected by the violence.

One of the first pages states "The basis for presenting this information is to preserve the historical memory about the political violence, the grave violations of human rights of individuals and indigenous communities during these 36 years of fraternal fighting that produced unlimited social polarization...It is an ethical and moral demand that never again in Guatemala will the actions of the recent past reoccur in the future."

Two days after this powerful work was released, Monseñor Gerardi was found stabbed to death in his home. Speculation began flying as to who was responsible for this assassination, and suddenly, the "Guatemala, Nunca Más" report took the back burner in the media and in the consciousness of Guatemala.

War Images
Click here for images of children and war on the UNICEF website
A forensic anthropologist (someone who studies dead bodies to figure out how they lived and died) who specializes in the bones of people long dead was called in. He claimed that the wounds suffered by Gerardi were actually dog bites. Going on this information, the police arrested a poor man named Father Orantes, a priest who lived with Gerardi, and his dog Baloo. They reasoned that Gerardi had come home and found Orantes and another man in the act of homosexual love, and that Orantes sicced his dog on Gerardi so that he wouldn't be found out.

Few people in the country actually believed that this is what happened, even before two forensics specialists in murder cases from the United States came and proclaimed that the wounds were definitely not dog bites. Nonetheless, over six months later, an old and very ill Orantes and his dog Baloo remain in prison. (Note that reform of the judicial system and the police are part of the constitutional reforms that are pending - can you guess why?...)

Rigoberta Menchu, before doing our live webcast, was in the United States doing a speaking tour regarding this historic report. The assassination of Gerardi cannot overshadow the importance of "Guatemala, Nunca Más." Copies of it are hard to obtain, as they got snatched up as soon as they were released. The Peace Accords call for a Commission for Historical Illumination (Comision para Esclarecimiento Historico), whose mandate is to do something similar to what the REHMI project did. They are in the process of creating their report. We will see what comes of it.

The importance of remembering the past cannot be understated. Guatemala, Never Again.

Abeja

 
 

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