Tuesday, August 28, 2007

With a Different Lens

“Silence lost its way when a hand opened the doors to the voice.”
Francisco Morales Santos

For the past month, I've left behind my high-rise office at the UN and moved from my base in the capital to live in a rural town in a the eastern department of Baja Verapaz, Guatemala. Rabinal is a small, primarily Maya-Achi town that thrives on its agricultural output, which includes, most famously, citrus fruits. My time in Guatemala has been largely focused on understanding what is being done for truth and justice at the higher levels of power with a focus on the international community. I moved to Rabinal in order to gain perspective on these issues at a level much closer to those who actually experienced the very genocide for which legal cases and legislation being discussed in the capital hope to address.

Rabinal and its surrounding villages suffered significantly during the armed conflict, and have responded in the post-war context in a most impressive and unique manner. After facing various massacres, militarization, and battery by the famed scorched-earth policy of Rios Montt's regime, Guatemala's UN-sponsored truth commission named Rabinal one of four specific geographic locations where acts of genocide were committed. In response, Rabinal's residents have developed a base of community organization and empowerment, especially surrounding issues of truth, reconciliation, and justice for crimes of the past. Headquartered in Rabinal are two of the strongest human rights organizations in the country, ADIVIMA and ECAP—the former does mostly legal work for the victims of the war, while the latter provides psycho-social accompaniment and support services to address the widespread mental and emotional damage caused by the crimes of the conflict. Rabinal is also home to several of the key witnesses that will testify for the genocide case currently pending in the Spanish National Court. Finally, Rabinal is where the first major payment of reparations to victims of the war was disbursed. The beneficiaries were the victims of the Plan de Sanchez massacre (current Plan de Sanchez basketball court pictured above), whose case went through the Interamerican Court in San Jose, Costa Rica. In addition to monetary recompense, victims received a public apology delivered by Vice President Eduardo Stein, a hallmark measure of reparation that has given rise to an international debate regarding the power (and limitations) of verbal compensation.

My post in Rabinal is with ADIVIMA, the same organization I accompanied on the exhumation in Coban. Led by Pedrina Osario and Carlos Chen, two remarkably inspiring individuals who founded the organization to bring justice and dignity to Maya-Achi victims of the conflict. They are both survivors of a massacre that occurred in a village called Rio Negro, a community of 800 people where the World Bank and other international donors proposed the construction of a mega-dam in the late 1970s. After a few years of negotiation and planning, community resistance to displacement led to violent state repression, and by mid-1982, 447 of the members of Rio Negro were dead after 4 separate massacres. ADIVIMA was started to generate a response to these atrocities. Today, it handles cases, monitors exhumations, provides immediate support to victims of this violence and their families, and is acting as an interested party in the genocide case.

I’m working in the legal department working on cases--gathering testimony, assessing potential application of international law, and researching international precedent that may lend strength to local cases. It has certainly been a different and much-needed perspective on the war and its aftermath, not to mention a significant routine change…I live with Carlos' family in a village called Pacux, which is a resettlement community for victims of the Rio Negro massacre. We have national police that guard the house and a stone wall lined with barbed wire because of the history of threats against Carlos and his family. The community in general is living in an extremely impoverished situation--an injustice hard to fathom when added to the fact that they were violently kicked off their original land for the building of the dam and watched their family members killed by the army. Still, the village pulses with camaraderie and activism; I am continually astounded by the resilience and strength of these people.

I'm closer to the ground in many ways, which doesn't come without its frustrations (such is life in the under-funded threatened nonprofit sector of Guatemala). Overall, it has been incredibly satisfying (and hopefully mutually beneficial) because of the understanding I now have not only for how victims weigh in on the initiatives for which they are ostensibly the principal beneficiaries (i.e. reparations and justice), but also for how they live their daily lives now, in the wake of war.

Downtown Rabinal

Walter and Paulina stop to take in the view of Rabinal on our way back from Plan de Sanchez

Soccer in Plan de Sanchez

Site of Plan de Sanchez massacre--now turned into a memorial for victims. Directly behind me when taking this photo are the clandestine graves where forensic anthropologists discovered 184 bodies buried within a 10 ft square space

Shots from inside Rabinal's cemetary...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Kickin' it with the Girls

"Sometimes we forget what we got; who we are, who we're not. I think we got a chance, to make it right...Keep it loose, child, gotta keep it tight." --Amos Lee

Okay, truth be told I'm a little behind on my posts. But that is not going to stop me from mentioning one of the best parts about being here: visitors. Guatemala, although not Tuscany, is a pretty cool place to tour around, and a few weeks ago, my friends Liz (bff from college) and Sarah (Fulbrighter in Costa Rica) came to visit for a little taste of Guatemala. Anne, a good friend and Fulbrighter here with me in Guatemala met up with us and we spent a week traveling around to the best parts of the country (Tikal excluded, much to the visitors' chagrin, but that's a sore subject).

Sarah, Liz, Anne...catchin' a break on a rooftop cafe

We started in Antigua, which is, to Sarah's disappointment, landlocked (first thing Sarah shouts as we roll into the little colonial town, "Which way to the beach?!"), but fun nonetheless for shopping, wandering, and generally doing nothing but enjoying company, all of which we did like pros. We also made it a habit to stop in at every pharmacy we crossed paths with (and if you know Antigua, you know that means we were stopping every two blocks) since Liz, who had been leading youth delegations in El Salvador the week before, had contracted a mysterious skin condition.

Sarah photo-documents Liz's mystery disease to email to the states for expert medical opinions.

More Antigua shots...

Mingling with the locals

Kids on scaffolding looking photogenic (photo credit: Sarah Lowe)

Anne for la patria...can you tell this girl's been in Guatemala on and off for five years now?

generally enjoying ourselves (photo credit: Anne Kraemer)

I love this photo...very rare to see men in traditional indigenous dress (photo credit: Sarah Lowe)

Liz and Anne chat it up with the candle vendor

Dolled-up entrance-way of an Antigua hotel (photo credit: Liz Hubley)

Equally dolled-up Antigua bus

Anne and I smile for the camera (photo credit: Liz Hubley)

Sarah kicks back

From Antigua we moved on to my favorite, Lake Atitlan, where we met up with some friends for lunch and explored the market in the first town on the lake, Panajachel. We then boarded a lancha (glorified motorized canoes also called chicken boats by certain tactless foreigners) for the best place on the lake, San Marcos.

Market day in Panajachel...

Beautiful Lake Atitlan

Anne in our incredibly cool bathroom at Aaculaax Hotel in San Marcos

Things missing from the photos that should not go unmentioned: obsessive jade shopping, pila hunting, and priceless nights at the hookah bar. Overall it was seriously one of the most fun weeks I've had here, so I have to thank my girls for the visit. It takes a reminder once in a while to realize how important the down time is amidst all our hard work...after all, as we joked (excessively and only half-kidding): it's the Fulbright Dream...gotta live it up.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Exhuming Evidence of Genocide

“The eyes of the buried will close together on the day of justice, or they will never close.” Miguel Angel Asturias, Guatemalan Nobel Laureate for Literature

One of the most important components of transitional justice in post-conflict societies across the globe and especially in Guatemala is the excavation of victims’ remains. Exhumations are conducted all over the country in order to dig up the bones and clothing of victims of the war. They are held at massacre sites, clandestine graves, and locations where individuals fell victim to war-violence. Exhumations are important for many reasons, namely: 1) to obtain evidence for criminal trials; and 2) to provide family members with both information about their loved ones’ deaths and the remains of the bodies for proper burial. Exhuming remains provides an immense amount of information for lawyers and family members regarding the “who,” “when,” “where,” “how,” and even sometimes “by whom” of the massacre or murder in question. In cases that will potentially be brought to court, exhumation sites are treated as crime scenes (for that reason, I couldn't include the actual site in this set of photos).

Guatemala has one of the most progressive exhumation records worldwide due to international support and a coalition of expert forensic anthropologists who have been working since before the Peace Accords to exhume victims' remains. Not only are they an extremely skilled group of individuals, but incredibly courageous—forensic anthropologists, especially lately, are one of the most threatened groups in Guatemala due to their commitment to exposing crimes of the past that have and will continue to implicate powerful individuals. For more on recent threats against these individuals and orgs, see this recent report by NEAR International.

Last week I accompanied two separate exhumations--one in the village of Coyojá outside of Rabinal, a town with a heartbreaking war history and a progressive human rights community; and the other in Sesimaj, a village near Coban, in the cloud-forested region of Alta Verapaz.
I was able to talk to family members at both exhumations—powerful interviews full of hope for the future, discontent with authority, and relief for the potential outcome of uncovering their loved ones’ remains.

The following photos are from the exhumation in Sesimaj, Alta Verapaz...

After hiking through farm and jungle for half an hour, we turned the corner to see this--it was 8am and there were already over 80 people from surrounding communities gathered around the exhumation site waiting for us to arrive.

The crowd grew over the course of the day to over 200 onlookers--members of the community who most likely witnessed the violence, as well as members of nearby villages who came to find out how they could have an exhumation conducted in their own community

The family of the victim whose remains were being exhumed welcomed us into their home and immediately fed us breakfast before we set out for the site. After the dig, we gathered back at the house again for lunch and debriefing as well as prayer sessions and a moment of silence.

The communities were warm and welcoming--their gratitude for the days' work was overwhelming. And the forensic anthropologists are a fun crowd to roll with—young, underpaid, and meticulous with their work, they’re daring, progressive and idealistic. For me, the exhumations were above all refreshing to be involved with—in a field where discussion and legislation surrounding justice, truth, and reparation seem abstract, and patience is a requirement since outcomes are almost always long-term, exhumations are a rewarding, immediate way to give family members tangible closure and some measure of instant peace after decades of waiting and wondering on the fate of their family members.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Quiché in Pictures

"Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt." Susan Sontag

Recently I made what will probably be my last trip up to the war-torn Ixil region in the department of Quiché (for more on the region, see past post, “36-hours in the Ixil Triangle”). Below are photos that speak to the beauty of the place—bright aesthetics and consistent vibrancy that contrast considerably with the darkness of Quiché’s recent history.