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Cover story

Lost childhood found

Pacific News Service
Rabinal, Guatemala

Denese Joy Becker, an Iowa mother of two, had begun to worry that the memories she carried were the vivid imaginings of a crazed mind. She had no one she might ask, no one with whom she might compare mental images of an idyllic childhood that deteriorated into unspeakable scenes. In March, with the help of an Internet-savvy cousin, Becker discovered she was a survivor of one of the worst massacres in the history of Guatemala’s 36-year internal war.

Rio Negro, once an eight-hour walk from this town, was the only one of 15 villages that refused to move without proper compensation in the wake of planned flooding to create the Chixoy Dam. The World Bank provided part of the funding for the development project in the 1970s and ’80s,. In February 1982, the able-bodied men of Rio Negro were summoned to a market town and slaughtered by civil patrollers acting as proxies for the army. On March 13, 1982, patrollers from the town and soldiers in uniform fell upon the remaining women, children and elderly in Rio Negro.

The spread of riverside houses and their dozens of families, part of a thousand-year-old Achi Maya culture in the valley, joined the list of 440 Guatemalan villages marked “subversive” and wiped out by the army during its counterinsurgency war against leftist guerrillas. By 1996 when peace accords were signed, some 200,000 had died in the conflict, mostly unarmed Maya Indians, victims of a government campaign of “genocide” according to a U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission report.

“I knew I was a survivor of something, because I remembered things, and I remembered my name -- Dominga Sic Ruiz,” said Becker, who was adopted at age 11 from a Guatemala City orphanage by an Iowa Baptist minister and his wife in 1984. The child became a U.S. citizen the following year. She was raised in Thompson, Iowa, population 670. There, among blonde, blue-eyed children, the Maya Indian girl felt shy and “almost ashamed” of an awful past that she couldn’t share with American kids. Neither she nor anyone she knew followed events in the place she was born. She recalled her village and an area named Rabinal, but over the years, she forgot her native Maya language, Achi, and Spanish.

She had nightmares even in the security of a caring family. She fell in love with Blane Becker, a Kmart department manager six years her senior, during a courtship that began with a blind date and included the prom. Even after they married, the nightmares continued. “Sometimes I thought I was losing it,” she said. As sons Sturling, 7, and Skylar, 4, grew, Becker felt more compelled than ever to return to Guatemala. “I looked at them and realized you have to know yourself well enough to teach them your own personal history, which is part of their background, too,” said Becker. But she was shy and nervous about sharing her desire to reconnect with the past, and anyway, funds were so tight, a trip seemed impossible.

Two years ago, at an annual summer extended family reunion in Michigan, Denese Becker confided the desire -- “even just to know if I was celebrating my birthday on the right day” -- to 41-year-old Mary Purvis, related to Becker’s adoptive father. A Spanish-speaker who spent her own childhood as a missionary’s daughter in a Mexican Indian village, Mary Purvis had become close to her adopted cousin.

Drumming up funds

“Denese would seem stuck-up at the summer family reunions, keeping to herself, feeding her kids,” Purvis recalled. “It finally occurred to me the reunions were hard for her. This was not her real family. We are hugging each other while she’s over there in pain.” Purvis was especially sensitive to Becker’s desire to return because she herself recently had been reunited for the first time with a son she had given up for adoption at birth as a young unmarried teenager. The reunion was, said Purvis, a “healing” experience.

A Mason, Mich., mother who works as a truck broker, Purvis used the tool of her trade -- a home computer -- to research and drum up funds. Beginning last summer, she e-mailed 30 families on the reunion list, asking for $10 dollars a month for a year. She read a book about the Rabinal massacres by an anthropologist on the forensic team that exhumed bodies in 1993 and wrote a three-page letter showing where Denese’s memories coincided with testimony. She searched the Internet for information until she found a Web page for Stefan Schmitt, a founding member of the Guatemala forensic anthropology team who worked at Rio Negro and later in Kosovo, and now teaches at Florida State University. Schmitt corroborated details Becker recalled.

In their hometown of Algona (population 6,015), the Beckers’ pastor at the First Baptist Church heard the story at dinner, asked to read Purvis’ letter and “asked lots of questions,” said Blane Becker. The pastor sent a $1,000 check, and the congregation donated collections for three Sundays.

Blane Becker supported his wife’s planned return “in every way,” but as the date of departure approached he grew apprehensive about his first trip outside the United States. Meanwhile, e-mails about the discovery of an American survivor of Rio Negro -- which occurred during a time when Washington wholeheartedly supported Guatemalan military dictators -- flowed among the community of academics, rights activists and others concerned with U.S. Central America policy. The news interested the Chixoy Dam Reparations Campaign, part of the recent and growing movement against economic policies of the World Bank. Amnesty International decided to send a cameraman. Others wondered if Becker might be a high-profile witness in cases against Romeo Lucas Garcia and Efraín Rios Montt, two of the country’s most brutal military dictators.

Becker, 27, works as a manicurist and recently took a part-time waitress job. At first, she seemed overwhelmed by the expectations swirling around her. She had never heard of these campaigns and cases before planning her return. She has been removed from the politics of the situation. Unlike American activists whose interest often is fueled by anger at the U.S. involvement in Guatemala, Becker’s interest was personal. “I just want to see my family,” she said the day after her arrival in Guatemala City. She hoped to meet relatives who might tell her what she was like as a child. Did anyone have a picture of her father or mother?

She wanted to confirm flashes of memory -- soldiers swimming across a river, soldiers surrounding a church where she played dead among still bodies, perhaps when she was about age 6. That happened, she later discovered, when soldiers protecting the dam project attacked the village briefly in 1979, purportedly to find thieves. One of Denese Becker’s clearest memories was the March day when she was 9 years old, when her mother, Magdalena, was killed.

“It was early in the morning, and my mom was breastfeeding,” Becker recalled. Her father had been slain the month before with 76 other men from Rio Negro in the town of Xococ, and hastily buried there. Days later, a sister was born to her mother in Rio Negro.

‘Soldiers surround us’

Remembering her mother holding the baby, Becker said, “It was very peaceful, very beautiful, and I was sitting next to her. All of a sudden I heard shouting. I looked up and saw soldiers had surrounded us all, and they were grabbing people, dragging people, putting a noose around their necks.” Amid the flying boots, ropes and crying villagers, Denese said her mother told her to grab a cloth typically used by Indian women. “She tied the baby onto my back and turned me around and squared me up and kind of took me by the shoulders, and I looked up at her. ‘Run,’ she said.”

For four months the girl tried to keep herself and the baby alive, eating berries, squeezing berry juice into the baby’s mouth and wrapping her in leaves for warmth. They slept in the crooks of trees “because I was afraid of caves.” When the infant died, Denese -- then called Dominga -- buried her at the base of “a huge tree.” In the next months, as starving survivors -- including an aunt -- found each other in the forests, they passed the girl from one place to another clandestinely and finally to a convent of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul here. After some months, nuns secretly delivered her to the orphanage in the capital.

When Denese and Blane Becker’s rented jeep pulled into Rabinal, set in a tropical mountain zone amid deep quilted valleys green with pines and ferns, some five hours from the capital, Denese’s former community was ready for her. Now displaced, living in small wooden houses in the shadow of a military garrison on the edge of this county seat, they brought loudspeakers, a microphone and marimba tapes into the main square. When Denese stepped into the light they saw a Maya Indian like them whose skin nevertheless showed no sign of a life worked in the sun, a woman of their same small stature yet wearing perfect make-up, with flowing -- not braided -- black tresses, not dressed in a long woven skirt but blue jeans.

Denese Becker was a stranger only for a moment. Someone called her name, “Dominga,” and the crowd broke into crying and keening, with aunts, uncles and cousins presenting themselves in a language she could not understand. “We thought she was dead,” said her father’s 52-year-old sister, Dorotea Iboy Sic, and stroked Denese’s hair. When a hard rain began to fall, the crowd moved under a yellow arched colonnade; Denese, pressed on all sides, touched a woman’s cheek and whispered, “They’re just like me.”

But tensions of that long war have not disappeared, as Denese Becker discovered almost immediately. On the second day in Rabinal, the Beckers, Purvis and a couple of dozen displaced Rio Negro residents walked in a group to a square cement monument to the Rio Negro dead at the border of the civic graveyard. Becker gazed at the names of the 77 women and 106 children, and the confirming, hand-painted rendition of her own memory of that day: villagers joined at the necks by a long rope, at the hands of armed men who would shoot them just over the rise, after raping women and making them dance.

“There’s a verse in the Bible that says God sees what happens and will take his vengeance,” Denese Becker said. Villagers thought differently. “We can’t wait for God. They took the cows of the people, and the widows have nothing. We must fight here and now,” said Carlos Chen, 53, whose wife, a young son and daughter and a sister died at Rio Negro. “There were pregnant women, and those babies never saw light,” said Pedrina Burrero, 36. “You can be their voice.”

American view prevails

For awhile, walking the long, thin single row where the remains of the Rio Negro villagers lay re-buried, Becker shook with tears, her only words, as if in regret, “I didn’t do anything.” But when she heard that a locally well-known oreja (ear in Spanish), or military collaborator, stood at the edge of the crowd, her tears turned to anger. “You’re causing problems here. Leave people alone,” she confronted the shocked man, as villagers melted away.

“I’m just here observing. Will you be staying?” he said.

“I’ll be returning and returning and returning,” Becker said and spat at his feet.

In the following days Becker, who customarily speaks softly and describes herself as “terribly shy,” had to be dissuaded from marching into the military outpost that keeps an eye on the resettled community. She wanted to go to the village of Xococ, to see where her father’s bones might be, but most civil patrollers there who collaborated in the massacres remain free and in charge. She learned the trip would be dangerous without protection from the United Nations human rights observer team and armed police.

One afternoon, after searching through canvas-covered residence ledgers in the municipal office, Becker found the hand-written entry for her father, Rosendo Sic, along with what she was looking for: his picture. Moved and elated, she stood for several minutes stroking the photo and arranged to have it copied to take home. It was, she would say later, the “most important” moment of her journey. “It brought me peace,” she said. But that night Becker became furious. One of the ex-patrollers present at the massacre had demanded of clerks to know her business; another patroller, she discovered, named repeatedly by witnesses in a trial about the massacre but never arrested, is on the city council, a member of the same party as President Alfonso Portillo.

“I’m an adult now and I can do something about it. Seeing the perpetrators everywhere. It just burns me to have them free,” she said.

“She is bringing an American view of the world to this situation,” said Stefan Schmitt, the forensic expert who had traveled to Rabinal to take DNA samples from Becker and relatives to corroborate their blood relationship. “She grew up in a country where she has rights and is aware of them.” Schmitt spoke in a small hospital with pale green walls in need of paint, but a steady clientele served by the Daughters of Charity. Five paternal aunts and uncles sat patiently on a bench under a sepia-toned photo of Elizabeth Ann Seton, waiting to have drops of blood drawn from their fingertips and placed on special paper that preserved the samples without refrigeration.

For the next days the samples would never leave Schmitt’s side, carried in a backpack to maintain a secure chain of evidence. Schmitt said establishing the family ties was a “humanitarian” act, but proof of relationship to victims could also be evidence in a legal proceeding.

Becker’s unexpected appearance as an eye-witness and victimized party -- and the fact that she is an American, with the right to sue in U.S. courts -- has not escaped notice of Guatemalans now attempting to push cases against perpetrators of the violence, some using the model of the case against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

After days of conversation with family members and others, Denese Becker said she had moved from being primarily concerned about finding family “to also seeing I have rights” and “wanting justice.” But she had no intention of soon changing her life in Algona, Iowa. “I’ll appreciate the United States more when I go home. My life is there, my job is there, my other family, my children. America has been good to me.” If she could help make things better for her Guatemalan family, she would. If she could “just get hold of the town of Algona -- getting people there to understand what happened here -- I’d be doing good.”

Meanwhile, during her final days in Rabinal, Denese Becker often slipped into the market in the town square to buy juicy yellow jocote fruit or an orange mango, to eat the rich traditional corn and chicken stew called pinol from a gourd bowl. Sometimes she sifted through the lengths of woven fabric worn by Achi women, holding the fabric to her face, as if to impress upon her mind again the scents of her childhood.

“I had to put myself in the place where these things really happened,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000