No amount of reading or watching video tape of testimony can sufficiently prepare you to sit face to face with someone who has suffered a terrible trauma and truly witness to their story and their pain. Working at the Guatemala Human Rights Commission exposed me to incredible amounts of information on the Guatemalan conflict and in particular the case of the Rio Negro massacres. However, this did not prepare me to sit face to face with a survivor to listen to her story.
I had the opportunity this week to go with the legal team here at ADIVIMA to gather testimony and prepare a massacre survivor to testify in a case against those responsible for the Rio Negro massacre that occurred on March 13, 1982 just outside of Rabinal. This massacre was the direct result of the building of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam, which was funded by the World Bank and the Inter American Development Bank and carried out by the Guatemalan government and the INDE, a government owned electric company. The indigenous communities that would be affected by the building of the dam were forcibly evicted from their lands without proper compensation or resettlement, and without correct assessment of the damages and necessary reparations. Communities that demanded more fair compensation for their losses, or protested their evictions, were labelled guerrillas and slaughtered in a series of massacres that were later labelled by the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission as acts of genocide.
In the case of the massacre that occurred on March 13, 1982 in Rio Negro, it was a slaughter of over 170 defenceless women and children with no connection to guerrilla activity. The only offence they had committed was living on land that would be submerged by the dam and demanding that they be fully compensated for their losses.
These women and children were awoken at dawn by soldiers and PAC patrol members (a group similar to paramilitaries controlled and directed by the Guatemalan government) entering their houses and were told that they all needed to go to the school for a “meeting.” The men in the community had already left to go to work or to market, and these women and children were left alone to face the soldiers and PAC patrollers. All of them complied with the demands of the soldiers and came to the school. They were then surrounded by the soldiers and PAC patrollers, taken to a remote mountainside, and the violence began.
The woman testifying described in detail the massacre of the women and the children of her small village. She told of the screaming and the blood, the cutting open of pregnant women, the tossing and shooting of small babies, and the killing of her mother before her very eyes. The terror and pain evident on her face made it obvious that although this massacre occurred over 20 years ago that it is still alive and well in her mind, soul, and body today. Everyone was emotionally overwhelmed, and Carlos Chen, a founder of ADIVIMA said, “We have to cry, we have to let it out, or it will stay inside and ruin our souls.” This is exactly what the witness is doing. She is letting her story out to participated in the search for the truth, and hold those responsible for the massacres accountable for their actions.
While the room was heavy with the pain and horror of what human beings are capable of doing to one another, there was also a feeling of survival and hope that pervaded the proceedings. This woman is incredibly brave to agree to testify in this court case. In Guatemala, many witnesses in genocide cases never make it to their court date, or are killed shortly after their testimony. So many of the people that were responsible for these acts are currently still in power in the country, and the truth about the past is not something that they want uncovered.
I was unsure of how I would personally react to hearing her testimony. I am considering a career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner that works specifically with international refugees, victims of genocide, survivors of torture, and other survivors of trauma to provide culturally appropriate counselling and methods of healing. Psychological services are such a great need in a world that is so filled with violence and hatred, and after hearing this woman describe the psychological and physical symptoms that she still suffers from twenty years after the massacre, it further affirmed my desire to work in this field. Rather than being overwhelmed with the horror and pain of the situation, I found that I gained strength from her strength, hope from her hope, and courage from the amazing courage she showed to agree to testify. It is always a temptation as a US citizen with a fairly comfortable life to turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering in the world, and I will admit that I sometimes question my choice to specialize in the study of the effects and aftermath of violent situations. However, meeting this woman and hearing her story only reconfirmed my devotion to the subject and that whatever small amount of pain that I feel in listening to her story and advocating for her cause is nothing compared to what she has endured and triumphed over in her life.
Posted By Abby Weil
Posted Aug 3rd, 2007