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Historical Headway: Let the Tragic Truth Be Told

Click here for a slide show of images from the New York Times report
Historical Clarification: the act of making history clear, weeding out lies, finding truth and letting it be known.

Guatemala's internal conflict officially ended with the peace accords - the guerrillas and the army agreed to stop fighting. Part of the agreement called for the appointment of a Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) who would interview people and examine records from all over the country. From the information gathered, the commission would write a report that would become the "official" history of Guatemala's recent bloody past. The REHMI project that I wrote about last week had a similar goal. They wrote a report titled "Guatemala, Never Again." Although the commission report is the "official" history, much less time was taken in the research.

Today is New Years Day in the Mayan Calendar. Today is also the day that this report, "Memory of Silence," was released. Everyone hoped the truth would be told. Everyone feared that the Commission for Historical Clarification would cave in to the pressure, and the truth would be lost. Young and old, men and women, indigenous and ladino came from all over the country, as well as concerned people from all over the world, to be here for this historic event.

Abeja's Vocabulary Lesson!

REPARATIONS: payment to correct something done wrong, often relating to war crimes.

IMPUNITY: without the risk or fear of punishment.

COUNTER-INSURGENCY: the state of combating those who are acting against a government or political power.

GENOCIDE: the systematic killing of a population, such as a race, or local group.

Last night, we went to the Parque Central, the Main Plaza of Guatemala City. There looms the Palacio National, the seat of the Government and the Cathedral where the names of thousands of victims of the massacres and tortures are carved in stone to stand as a reminder. The peace accords were signed here in 1996 and an eternal flame burns in front of the giant Guatemalan flag to commemorate the event.

Hundreds of people gathered to hold vigil - a vigil for truth, for the memory of their loved ones. Several banners called for reparations for those most affected by the war and another for an end to the impunity. The CONAVIGUA youth carried a banner that said "Por la Paz - No al Militarismo" ("For Peace, No to Militarism"). There were also dozens of posters, some with newspaper articles about the massacres and the historic court cases going on now against the military, and some filled with photographs of the mass graves that have been found containing the "disappeared." They are currently being uncovered and the bodies identified and buried respectfully. It was a sign that the truth will be told, whether or not the CEH tells it. There were reporters from all over the world, asking questions and taking pictures (for once, I wasn't the only one with a weird accent and a camera!). Rigoberta Menchú came, as did people from all the organizations working in Guatemala to end human rights abuses.

A Marimba band played, and a sacredote and comedrona came and performed a Mayan ritual. I don't know what they were asking of the ancestors in their ritual since I don't speak Quiche, but it was fascinating nonetheless and added to this momentous event in Guatemalan history. Languages and colors of traditional Mayans wove around me and around the fire of the ritual, weaving a thick fabric of memory, of stories never to be forgotten.

The plan was to stay all night, but cold and rain drove us back to the CONAVIGUA offices. This morning, though, we were off early and marching to the Cultural Center of Miguel Angel Asturias, where the Commission was going to present its report.. It was chaotic and festive, yet with a heavy undertone. What "truth" will be told? Ten thousand people, music, posters, banners, firecrackers and reporters milled around out front. I can't believe that we all fit inside, but somehow we did, with only a few dozen people left without seats.

The huge concert hall felt electrified. Carrying the weight of horrible memories, everyone affected by the war wanted to feel acknowledged and to be heard. Several times, the opening remarks were interrupted by the crowd chanting, "Justicia, Justicia!" or other demands. What if people didn't think the report was accurate? Would there be a riot? Would the war start all over again? The responsibility entrusted to the three commission members, the responsibility of telling the story of an entire country, was enormous.

Finally, the time came to present the general information contained in the report. The government's role in the human rights abuses and the impunity of the military was acknowledged. The military officers were cited as the "intellectual authors" of much of these abuses (in other words, they ordered the actions, it wasn't just rouge soldiers acting independently). They were also blamed for committing acts of genocide against the indigenous Mayan people. The U.S. government, the C.I.A., and North American multinational corporations were named as accomplices and supporters of the ultra right-wing military regimes responsible for the "counter-insurgency" human rights abuses. After each of these statements, the crowd stood and chanted "Assassinos! Assassinos!" ("Murderers! Murderers!").

The report went on to state how the repression changed and evolved, what areas were most affected and what factors played important roles in the conflict. It was acknowledged that 32 of the 669 massacres were committed by the guerillas and the rest by the government. 53% of the massacres occurred in one region: Quiche. The committee found that over 200,000 people were murdered or disappeared during the war. I was stunned by the report. So, it seemed, were many other people. I spoke with lots of people afterwards - campesinos, students, organizers - and they all seemed surprised and thankful that this report had been so honest and thorough.

It seems doubtful that this report will have any immediate political effect. Still, I think it was important that the government officially recognized the human rights abuses in Guatemala's history. The victims of the war feel acknowledged. Now that their history is being documented, the healing of the country can begin.


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