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Guatemala Catholics find the path to a new future confronts sins of the past

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala

Guillermo Meza patiently asked Manuela Toj questions about her husband, Anastasio. Which hand did he use when he picked up a machete? Did he ever break any bones? Which teeth did he still have?

And then, how was Anastasio dressed the day he died?

Using an interpreter to understand K’iche’, Toj’s Mayan language, Meza reconstructed the events of that day in April 1982 when soldiers arrived in her village, Tabil, an hour north of Santa Cruz del Quiché.

Toj described how the soldiers came with a list of names, looking for her husband, a Catholic catechist. They shot him and her 19-year-old son, Juan, while they were hoeing corn in a field. The two were among 17 people assassinated in Tabil that day.

Before long, Meza, a forensic anthropologist with Guatemala’s Catholic church, had several pages of data on his clipboard. He then set off to find the next widow on his list.

Toj wandered down through a corn field to a site where several of Meza’s colleagues were digging up bones. She joined a group of indigenous women clustered at the edge of the pit, looking on as their community’s past was carefully exhumed, allowing buried memories to surface along with the remains.

Remains of three skeletons slowly emerged as evening approached. Meza and several widows began a quiet discussion, standing in the bottom of the pit. From the scraps of rotted clothing and the size of the bones, they tentatively identified two of the skeletons as the remains of Toj’s husband and son.

The digging ended and the villagers knelt in the pit, among the skeletons, which they had covered with flower petals and marked with candles. As Augustín Laynez, a Mayan priest, prayed, Toj began to weep. Rigoberto Pérez, a Catholic priest from nearby Santa Cruz, placed his arm around her shoulders. Later, she prayed in K’iche’, the only language she understands.

Illusions of peace

It has been more than a year since the government and guerrillas signed a piece of paper that said the decades-long war was over in Guatemala, yet in villages like Tabil people still struggle to find healing after 36 years of violence.

Worse yet, although the peace accords brought the disarmament of 3,000 guerrilla combatants last year and a reduction of the army by 15,000 soldiers, the legacy of repression still stalks the highlands.

Three weeks after Toj’s husband and son were dug up in Tabil, four unidentified killers arrived in the village and pumped three rounds into Laynez, the Mayan priest. Laynez had argued in the village for the exhumation and had disagreed with powerful local landowners about property boundaries. His killing was just one more incident that belied illusions that the accords had brought peace.

Despite the reduction in the army and a drop in political killings, increased crime provided President Alvaro Arz with a pretext for reopening several military bases closed just a few months earlier. The military’s budget is up 10 percent this year, despite a requirement in the peace accords that it be reduced by one-third as a percentage of national income by the year 2000.

Edgar Gutiérrez, director of the Catholic church’s Interdiocesan Project to Recover the Historic Memory, said such trends bode poorly for the country’s future. “If we continue to give the army more arms to combat the problem of common crime, and as long as we allow the army to recover their power, we won’t be able to overcome the past,” he said.

Another concern of human rights organizations is the new civilian police created under the peace agreements. Critics worry that too many former soldiers and police are simply being recycled into the new force.

Oscar Recinos, president of Neighborhood Watchers, an anticrime group, said the police academy, which is designed to train a new police force of 20,000 in the next two years, “is like a tortilla factory without quality control.” In the three brief months of training provided to recruits, “they can’t teach honesty or take away the bad habits from anyone,” he said.

Moreover, Christian Tomuschat, a German professor of law and the head of the U.N.-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission, complained in January about a lack of cooperation from the military in figuring out what occurred during the most brutal years of the war. “An army that doesn’t want to talk about its past is cause for fear,” Tomuschat warned.

Tomuschat’s group, commonly known here as the truth commission, has also failed to get the Clinton administration to turn over documents crucial to understanding the roots and evolution of the war.

The commission’s limited mandate -- it was given less than a year to work and cannot “individualize responsibility” for crimes -- has bothered grassroots activists convinced that a rigorous look at the past was key to reconciliation. Such concern prompted the country’s Catholic bishops in 1994 to create the Project to Recover Historic Memory, an alternative truth commission of sorts.

The project began its work by selecting 800 church activists trusted in their communities to serve as “reconciliation animators.” The animators, many themselves survivors of the violence, were trained in interview techniques and then sent home to gather testimonies of survivors like Toj.

In some communities the project could build on what the church had already done to collect testimonies about catechists and religious who’d been murdered. In Cotzal, for example, church leaders began celebrating a “feast of the martyrs” in 1992 by placing 550 crosses on a wall in the sanctuary. Each cross bore the name of an assassinated or disappeared community member.

During the visit of Pope John Paul II to Guatemala in 1996, church leaders presented the pontiff with carefully documented testimonies regarding the political assassinations of 77 Catholic leaders.

The historic memory project was clearly a pastoral response to the need of the people to talk about what had happened, victims and perpetrators alike. Fr. Federico Wübbolt, the parish priest in Cotzal, said one man described how he killed 70 people. The man said it was difficult at first, Wübbolt recalled, but that it became easier with time. “He said he’d killed babies, children. He told me that neither with liquor, nor alcohol, nor with women could he forget what had happened,” Wübbolt said.

Most testimonies, however, came from victims of the violence. The need to release the horror through telling the stories brought hundreds of widows to some parishes the first day the animators began taking testimonies.

The project provoked criticism. It “is a bad idea,” declared Marco Antonio Rodríguez, president of the Evangelical Alliance. “There needs to be a genuine pardon, and that means forgetting. But they want to write it down and remember it instead of forgetting.”

Juan Gerardi, the auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City who oversees the group’s work, argued that pardoning doesn’t mean forgetting. “The person who forgets or who pretends to forget doesn’t do away with what happened. You can’t get rid of it,” he said. “To pardon really means to create new attitudes, to provoke change inside people and between people, not just to palliate the violence and the hurt that remains.”

According to Dennis Smith, a Presbyterian church (USA) mission worker in Guatemala, “The only power that has been left with the violated is the power of choosing whether or not they can forgive. And in order to forgive, they’ve got to be able to put a name and a face on who is responsible in their community.”

Putting a face on the perpetrators was just what military and guerrilla leaders had tried to avoid when they agreed to a weak truth commission. Not surprisingly, they tried to discourage people like Manuela Toj from talking to investigators for the historic memory project.

In Chimaltenango, military officials called together residents in several villages and warned them that talking about the past would only increase the risk that the violence would return. When church leaders protested to the military high command in the capital, the generals denied the incident. The animators had taped the military’s comments, however, and once the recordings were turned over to the high command, the obstruction of interviews in Chimaltenango ceased.

The guerrillas, meanwhile, often encouraged “passive resistance,” Gutiérrez said. “They told their people not to come talk to us. In one area, their instructions were to go and tell everything bad about the army, to not go into the details about what really happened. Talk about the massacres, talk about the early 1980s. And don’t say anything more. But one way or another, we learned of their sins as well, the sins of all.”

The church investigators recorded more than 6,000 testimonies, 70 percent of which are in 17 Mayan languages. Each interview includes details of an average of five assassinations -- a rough total of 30,000 killings. The accounts include more than 600 massacres. The project did not define a massacre under the terms of international law -- the collective killing of three or more people. “We looked for instances where the clear intention was to annihilate an entire community or family,” Gutiérrez said. “If we had used the international norm of three or more, we’d be talking about many more massacres.”

The project’s final report, due out by May, will provide not just a numerical accounting of what happened, but will also examine about 60 “emblematic cases,” particular acts of violence that represent the larger picture of what happened during the war. The report will include 700 pages of analysis, examining the roots of the conflict and how the violence affected different social sectors. Unlike the official truth commission report, the project’s report will indicate who was responsible for what.

‘Dignifying the dead’

The dig in Tabil was the second exhumation by the project’s own team of forensic pathologists. The day after Manuela Toj and her neighbors prayed around the skeletons, the team removed the bones and clothing fragments. They were placed in cardboard boxes and stored in Pérez’s church in Santa Cruz until they could be transported to the team’s lab in the capital.

As team members sorted through the puzzle of bones, Meza’s detailed interviews with survivors helped identify which bones belonged to whom. The team identified all 17 sets of remains before returning them to Tabil, where they were given proper burial. With her husband reburied, and with the church helping her obtain documents, such as a death certificate, that could never be acquired during the war, Manuela Toj could begin to get on with her life in a country at peace.

Exhuming, identifying and reburying the dead is providing survivors an opportunity to properly grieve for their loved ones, a process not allowed during the war. Such “dignifying of the dead” contributes to emotional, psychological and spiritual healing.

Mayans place great importance on communicating with their dead, which they carry out at the gravesite. That’s impossible if their loved one was “disappeared.” To overcome this problem, the project has worked with communities to create “symbolic graveyards,” a site set aside by the community where the dead are named on crosses and their spirits invoked. Community members can go there to celebrate the Day of the Dead or when they need counsel from their ancestors.

The forensic team’s third dig set a new precedent. During three weeks of digging in Chacalté, a village in the north of Quiché, the team uncovered the remains of at least 75 people, mostly women and children. They were victims of a June 1982 massacre carried out by the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, one of four guerrilla groups that waged war against the Guatemalan government.

In more than five years of exhumations in Guatemala, it was the first time that victims of a guerrilla massacre had been unearthed and it sparked a controversy. Guerrilla leaders claimed the civilians had been killed in a crossfire between guerrillas and soldiers, yet the bones told a different tale. The common refrain on the forensic examination sheets filed away in the team’s lab in Guatemala City belied such rewriting of history. Golpes contundentes en craneo y tórax --”blunt blows to head and chest”. The survivors interviewed by Meza and his colleagues reported that guerrillas came in the night and killed most of the victims without firing a shot.

“It’s still a taboo to claim that the guerrillas did something like this,” acknowledges Ronalth Ochaeta, director of the Human Rights Office of the Guatemala archdiocese. “Certainly we can’t make a quantitative comparison with the army, because there’s no comparison. The army did much more. But it’s true that the guerrillas committed barbarities like the army. Someone has to say that. The communities are demanding that we say that.”

Renewing social fabric

As it finishes gathering testimonies and analyzing data, the project has begun working in villages affected by the violence in an effort, according to Ochaeta, “to reconstruct the social fabric of the communities.”

Hundreds of pastoral agents have received training in mental health skills, helping them to accompany survivors in the difficult moments of recovering and reburying their dead and assisting people as they grapple with the everyday tensions of reconciling at the village level. In indigenous areas, this training used Mayan cosmology and practices to help re-establish family and communal relationships.

Project staffers are forming diocesan “Offices of Peace and Reconciliation,” which will help survivors confront a snarl of bureaucratic problems. Widows, for example, can’t remarry until their former husband is declared officially dead, which is impossible if there is no corpse. Nor can they inherit land. So the church is training local paralegal workers and working with the courts to speed up the process.

By insisting that the past be known before the future can be defined, the Catholic church project makes a unique contribution to building peace and reconciliation. It provides both a reference point for national discussions about political responsibility as well as a local structure for forging new relationships based on honestly confronting the violence imposed by the war.