“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.