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Survivors, victims return to Guatamalan villages

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Cuarto Pueblo, Guatemala

Petrona Perez Jimenez last saw her husband, her daughter, her son-in-law and her two small grandchildren on March 14, 1982, the day the army came to Cuarto Pueblo. That was the day, Perez said, that life changed forever.

Seeking refuge from the army first "under the jungle leaves" and then in the Mexican regions of Yucatan and Chiapas, Perez was one of an estimated 1 million Guatemalans violently displaced from their homes during 36 years of a civil war characterized by one of the most brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in the history of Latin America.

The civil struggle had its beginnings in a CIA-engineered coup in 1954 that overthrew the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz and installed the first in a series of brutal military dictators.

The story of Perez, her exile and return, is a somber counterweight to the recent celebrations of official peace (see NCR Jan. 10). Her story represents the challenge of reconciliation facing Guatemalans whose lives were upended by the deep hatreds and vicious human rights abuses of the civil war.

Almost 15 years have passed since Perez first fled with 10 of her 12 surviving children. That decade and a half might as well be a lifetime: When Perez returned recently to her homeland, she said she felt like a stranger who had to begin life again. Perez and hundreds of her fellow villagers from Cuarto Pueblo came home Dec. 7 to bury the remains of family members and friends massacred by the army in 1982.

"It's as if it all just happened all over again," said Perez, 55, who speaks the Mayan language Jakalteka. She joined the people of her village to hear a 10-minute recital of many of the names of the estimated 350 victims killed in the 1982 slaughter. The villagers then carried 12 mahogany boxes of broken bones and 44 nylon bags of human ashes to their final resting place, a large, communal, cement block tomb painted bright blue.

The remains were part of more than 2,000 pounds of bone fragments and 4,000 pounds of human ashes exhumed last year by the Guatemalan Anthropological Forensic Team from 40 sites surrounding Cuarto Pueblo. Although it was impossible to identify individuals from the remains, forensic analysis found evidence of victims as old as 82 and as young as 2 months. To remember their loved ones, participants in the December procession carried hundreds of handmade wooden crosses bearing the names of the dead.

Perez laid down five crosses: those of her husband, Andres Diaz Ramirez, 44; her daughter, Balbina Diaz Perez, 20; her son-in-law, Alonzio Ramirez Vargas, 22; her granddaughter Angelina RamirezDiaz, 2; and her grandson, Andres RamirezDiaz, 1.

"It is sad, yes, but God is great, and maybe now we can begin to put it behind us," she said. Perez joins an estimated 35,000 Guatemalan refugees who have returned to their villages since 1986. More than half of the displaced arrived in organized, large-scale returns following a January 1993 agreement between the refugees and the Guatemalan government.

Another 30,000 registered refugees remain in Mexico. Thousands of other citizens displaced by war are scattered inside and outside the country. The vast majority of the displaced are campesinos from various Mayan ethnic groups.

Theirs is the tale of an unarmed peasantry caught between revolution and counterinsurgency, of a culture adapting and surviving against overwhelming odds.

It is a story that begins and ends with the land.

Cuarto Pueblo, a microcosm of the conflict, was colonized in the 1960s by land-hungry peasants from the largely indigenous highlands. It is one of a handful of agricultural cooperatives founded in the Ixcan jungle of northern Guatemala under the guidance of Maryknoll priests. Among them was Fr. William Woods, who was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1976 and whose name was included on a list of 77 murdered or disappeared priests, catechists and religious handed to the pope during his trip here last year with a request that they be canonized.

On March 14, 1982, Cuarto Pueblo was literally wiped off the map when the army swept through the rain forest in a scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign. Survivors fled into the jungle or over the Mexican border two hours away on foot.

The land eventually called them back, even before the war ended. In April 1994, taking great risks, the first refugees returned to Cuarto Pueblo. The village, which has no road, electricity or telephone, is slowly experiencing a rebirth as the people salvage their homes and clear their land once again.

This process of reconstruction is assisted by lessons learned during exile: In Mexico, volunteers and missionaries taught many refugees to read and write. Forced from their homes, the refugees also learned about politics and grassroots organization. Many of these communities, despite the turmoil they have endured, emerged from refuge with international support, with effective organization and with a sense they can build a future of justice for themselves and their progeny.

Perez and the other villagers who knelt on the floor of Cuarto Pueblo's new Catholic church in December, praying before a row of plain boxes filled with bones, said they were closing one chapter of life and opening another.

In a country where carrying a Bible was once considered a subversive act, this public reburial represented a powerful political statement. It also reflected the political and psychological narrative of a country that has just concluded the final phase of a beleaguered peace process, opening political and social spaces for reconciliation and reform.

"We want peace," said Marselino Lopez Balam, a catechist who spent 14 years in hiding in the jungle as part of the Communities of Population in Resistance. "But we also want the government to help us, because they themselves saw fit to commit this great massacre."

Part of the healing process will come through remembering the tragedy, through seeking penance from the perpetrators. So, during the Cuarto Pueblo ceremony, widows, orphans and grieving parents stood before television cameras and visiting authorities to narrate from memory the events of March 14, 1982.

It was a Sunday, witnesses recalled -- market day in Cuarto Pueblo. Hundreds of villagers left early for the central plaza to buy and sell wares, to trade gossip and to attend church. Sometime after 10 a.m., they remembered, a helicopter flew over, and then some 600 soldiers entered on foot and surrounded the village, firing on fleeing townspeople.

The army divided those who did not die in the first round of fire into groups -- men, women, children, elderly. Soldiers tortured them and executed them over the next few days, mutilating them with machetes, beating them with blocks, shooting them and burning them alive. Virtually all the bodies were burned at least once and later covered with lime.

"Sons of guerrillas," the soldiers called their child victims, attempting to justify the infanticide. The women were forced to cook and carry water for the soldiers who later stripped off their clothes, made them dance, then gang raped many of them.

The army remained at least five days after the killing, torching bodies and buildings, slaughtering livestock and ransacking stores and houses. This scenario was not particular to Cuarto Pueblo: It was repeated in more than 440 villages across Guatemala. Witnesses laid blame squarely on the military regime in power at the time.

"I never saw any other army except the government's army," recalled Sebastiana, a woman whose husband, mother and son were killed. Until recently, this public, collective recollection of the military's brutality would have brought threats, even death to the villagers. Even today, despite the celebratory ambience surrounding the signing of the peace accords, it represents an exercise in courage. But fears were assuaged somewhat by the moral support of survivors of similar massacres who came from the Baja Verapaz and Chimaltenango provinces. They stood beside the Cuarto Pueblo villagers in solidarity, confirming the commonality of their experiences -- a united voice breaking the silence and fear that has long muzzled these traumatized communities.

Even more solidarity will be required, however, as Cuarto Pueblo's survivors seek the prosecution of government and military officials who oversaw the height of state terror in the early 1980s. In addition to legal sanctions, the villagers are seeking $18 million in recompense for the destruction of property including a clinic, a cardamom seed dryer and crops.

From their beginning the Ixcan cooperatives like Cuarto Pueblo have been accompanied by the Catholic church. First, they were guided by Maryknoller Woods, later by Guatemalan anthropologist Fr. Ricardo Falla, a Jesuit who lived in hiding with the Communities of Population in Resistance and wrote two books of testimonies about the Ixcan. Today, Fr. Paco, a Jesuit from Spain, is on hand to help the people remember their dead and celebrate life.

"They wanted to finish Cuarto Pueblo, to burn it to the ground," he said during the December ceremony. "But today we are even more than we were then."

On the eve of the reburial of Cuarto Pueblo's martyrs, Paco baptized 18 children, bringing the number to more than 300 baptized yearly since the people of Cuarto Pueblo began to return home.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997