Heidi McKinnon

Heidi McKinnon (Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of Violence in the Verapaces, Maya Achí - ADIVIMA): Heidi holds a BA in anthropology and Spanish from the University of New Mexico and has worked with indigenous communities throughout Latin America since1997. Heidi worked at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in the late 1990s. Heidi researched human rights and sovereignty issues in every region of Latin America as she was developing content for the permanent exhibits at NMAI. Her research led her to ADIVIMA and the Chixoy Dam, which she recommended for inclusion at the Museum.

Waiting for a Storm to Clear

02 Jun

Today is market day in Rabinal and the air is heavy with the promise of rain. A tropical storm marked my arrival yesterday afternoon and has decided to linger. I expect to outlast it by a few months.

While I wait for the relentless bands of rain to pass so that I might get acquainted with my new home, I cannot help but think about time and memory. I am amazed by how differently each of us perceives time, moves through it at our own speed, and how much our sense of time shifts from culture to culture. I am hopeful that my own relationship with time recasts itself to some degree over the summer. Perception and insight are far more dependable travel companions when you live within the sense of time and the pace of life wherever you happen to be.

This summer, I will be depending heavily on their company as I try to understand how the Maya Achí community in Rabinal is recovering from the relentless loss of life and land that they suffered in the 1980s. How does a community heal itself after a prolonged period of trauma and institutionalized violence? For some, the traumas will likely never heal no matter how much time may pass or how many memories they wish would fade. For others, it is the act of remembering itself that offers solace and healing, that heralds resistance and helps to gather strength.

I was reminded of this reading a recent article about Jesús Tecú Osorio, a survivor of the Río Negro massacres. In April 2008, Jesús was the first person to testify before a tribunal in Madrid regarding human rights abuses that occurred during the civil war in Guatemala. He recounted the day in March 1982 when 177 women and children from his the town of Río Negro were shot, stoned and dismembered with machetes because they refused to abandon their lands to make way for the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam. He was ten years old when he witnessed these events.

As Jesús spoke, it was clear to the reporter that time had offered little shelter from his life experience, the pain was so immediate and evident. However, his expression of vulnerability and intense bravery signaled to me a critical moment. Memory is a powerful tool, and by recounting his story that day Jesús momentarily brought to light the silent anguish of an entire community of survivors. There is relief in such an act, as if his words offered a break in the clouds from a decades-long storm that had settled over these mountains and rivers. This was not the first time he had told his story, but it was the first time since the civil war that an international tribunal was able to listen.

The tribunal ended a few weeks ago in Madrid after 29 testimonials from survivors of more than twenty massacres. Following that historic event came yet another this past Wednesday, May 28, 2008, when five former members of a local army patrol were sentenced to 780 years in prison in Salamá, Guatemala for killings they committed in Río Negro on March 13, 1982 when Jesús lost his family. Twenty-six years later, some amount of justice has finally been served. The director of ADIVIMA, Juan de Dios García, stated in the national paper, Prensa Libre, that although this sentence would not bring back their relatives, “at last, after so much time, we can see some resolution.” As I sit hear reviewing the news reports and waiting for the rain to stop, all I can think is, “How many others here are waiting for this storm to clear?”

Posted By Heidi McKinnon

Posted Jun 2nd, 2008


  • Vicki

    June 2, 2008


    I am glad the tropical storm just grazed you there. I hope that the work you are doing will go as well. The storm clouds that most assuredly cover that region can begin to dissipate a bit now that justice has been served, but I don’t know how there can ever be complete healing. The people there were not only displaced from their homes, but also from their heritage. Weren’t the ancient sites of their ancestors’ worship also drowned by the dam? It seems to me that they can never get back what was theirs. I guess the only way they can move is forward. I know that a few of the leaders have taken a stand against the World Bank for its part in supporting such a project, but for there to be healing, the people will have to move toward the future.

  • visitor

    June 3, 2008


    Thank you for this introduction in Guatemalan history. I am sure it it be helpful to many people who aren’t too familiar with the civil war.

  • Heidi

    June 3, 2008


    Thank you for the comments. In regards to the future, the community really is trying to move forward. A partner organization to ADIVIMA called COCAHICH has written an economic development plan that will help support rural farmers and artisans in nearly 30 communities that were effected by the Chixoy Dam. It is still in the planning stage and may get some seed money from the IDB relatively soon. I will be talking about that project in a future blog.

    Take care. HH

  • Ash

    June 6, 2008


    Heidi, Ash AP Peace Fellow here from Lima, Peru. I feel like we will be working on a lot of similar themes, given I am working with EPAF on disappearances in Peru. It´s a shame we didn´t get to talk at the training. I am going to be following your blog closely – I hope there may be some creative ways we can follow/learn from our respective experiences. I just got back from Putis where EPAF just exhumed bodies from the largest mass grave found in Peruvian history. I talked first hand with some of the relatives of the disappeared – and I felt some of the same things you have expressed. Justice, however, is a long way off. Let´s keep in touch!

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