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Full story in Guatemala is bishops' goal


In Guatemala, the Catholic church has set out on a brave, risky and perhaps impossible quest. Alone among various churches, it has begun to recover the history of 35 years of civil war during which 150,000 died and 45,000 disappeared. The bishops have invited survivors or witnesses to tell their stories in confidence to pastoral agents. Their testimonies will be synthesized and interpreted, according to a statement released by the bishops, with the goal of finding ways "to repair the damage and assure that such a tragedy does not happen again."

Because the armed forces are against the process, it will take courage for witnesses to come forward. A visiting Guatemalan priest said that many will hold back for fear of retaliation. Then also, in many of the 662 villages totally destroyed by the army (that figure has recently been revised upward from 442 by the Guatemalan military), the entire population was killed.

The bishops went ahead because the truth commission, called for by the peace accords, is so limited it has little chance of success. It will not be allowed to identify those responsible for specific human rights violations. Despite the risk of retaliation by the military, the bishops (again in their statement) believe it is the only way "to conquer fear, break the silence and revalidate the experiences of the victims."

Maryknoll Sr. Bernice Kita, who works in El Quiche diocese, said people need to speak out to recover their physical and mental health. Moreover, as Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu said recently at a reception given in her honor at the United Nations, many Guatemalans think there can be no real peace until the victims are addressed.

Conquering their fear and breaking the silence is also the quest of two American women. Ursuline Sr. Dianna Ortiz, a missioner raped and tortured in Guatemala, has sought the identity of the American agent who directed her torturers. Jennifer Harbury -- a Connecticut lawyer whose husband, a rebel commander, was captured and killed by the Guatemalan military -- seeks her own truth about Central Intelligence Agency involvement in her husband's death.

Learning the truth of what is taught at the School of the Americas, which has trained many of Latin America's worst human rights violators, has been the quest of a small group of activists who call themselves the School of the Americas Watch. Clearly there is a need for a recovery of the full story of United States' involvement in Central America's civil wars in the last half of this century.

Many disturbing fragments of that history have come to light: the CIA-engineered overthrow of legitimate governments; the installation and support of military regimes that massacred civilians; the complicity of military officers on the CIA payroll in Guatemala in the murder or torture of Americans; and the training of military personnel in the School of the Americas in the use of torture, execution, blackmail and the arrest of relatives.

As The New York Times pointed out, such practices defy the professed goals of American foreign policy and foreign military training programs. They also violate the U.S. Army's own rules of procedure. More than that, however, they do violence to what America stands for in the world.

These bits and pieces of that dark history raise many questions: Who was responsible? Who wrote the lesson plans for instruction in torture? Who gave approval and what, if any, were the consequences for those who violated professed policy and rules of procedure? The main reason for finding out the answer to these questions is the same as in Guatemala: to ensure that this does not happen again.

Yet it would be far too optimistic to expect most Americans to demand such truths. Central America is too far removed from their everyday concerns. Perhaps, too, we are too inured to violence; we live in a culture that seems to glorify it.

Still, there may be a way to awaken the public at a time of rampant xenophobia. It should not be difficult to see the link between policies and practices that condone terror and massacre and the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled to the United States in the 1980s. Then perhaps the public would see that the only way to stop the tide of immigration is to create in Central America and elsewhere the conditions under which people can live free of terror.

Yet a history recovery process in the United States would be much more difficult than in Guatemala. For one thing, it is much easier for a small group of Guatemalan bishops, though poor in resources, to launch their project. Here the problem is one of bigness.

It is difficult for big institutions to act, whether these be the National Conference of Catholic Bishops or the leaders of other religious denominations. There are too many people to organize, too many competing interests. As a result, the quest for truth has to be carried forward by a small group of activists with little corporate support.

So long as there are few voices crying out for the truth, big government will find it easy to ignore them. With its obsession for secrecy, big government will continue to hide the acts and identities of those who framed, approved and implemented the hidden policies and practices that taught or condoned torture and other human rights violations.

Moises Sandoval is editor of Revista Maryknoll, a Spanish-English mission magazine, and editor at large of Maryknoll magazine.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 1997