My name is Ikal. Now I am 32 years old. In 1982 when the war was at its height, I was 9 years old. One of the things that we have to say about the war, that some called the Conflicto Armado, is that it is a historical event in Guatemala. It’s not only that someone decided to take up arms in the ‘60’s and that after that the contra-insurgents came, it has its historical reasons. In Guatemala during the war, one of the things I see is that racism against the indigenous was present, against us. It’s something that I’d say some got more affected than others, like us, in the north of the country. There are some communities more affected than others. In my community what happened was that several people disappeared. A peasant leader disappeared because at that time our communitarian land wasn’t recognized by INTA (National Institute for Agrarian Transformation), which was the entity that had to provide the titles to the communities so that they could have the support for their land. So, he was in the process of getting a title when he was killed, for obvious reasons, because the interest behind the land were very tied to the politics of the government. There were also some catequists (lay religious leaders) in my community, and 2 or 3 people in charge of community co-ops.
I didn’t understand a lot at the moment because I was 8, 9, 10 years old and it wasn’t until later that I got interested in learning more, I mean the history, by reading reports that have been published like Guatemala Never Again and the Report from the Commission for Historic Clarification. Likewise, I have asked my father what happened and it hasn’t been until now that he’s more open to talk about it since it seems that this history was prohibited because if you talked about it, you were considered to be a guerrilla, an insurgent.
We weren’t directly affected, but indirectly we were because people are afraid to become organized. But not to do bad things, but for their own well being, like to have their public rights protected by the State, which is what all citizens should have. That’s a situation that calls my attention every time I am with my people, in the communities, since there is a lot of fear of getting organized, so we don’t face the State since we still have the fear that they keep repressing us with soldiers. Because during that time the State became the source of repression to its own people. That’s one of the things that the armed conflict has left us and we don’t become organized as citizens and it’s still present (the fear) in this new generation that were very young then and are now 40, 45, or even 35. Very young people, but they are apathetic about giving their opinion.
What I studied at the university, Political Science, I think is very relevant. Because if we don’t understand politics, it’s very easy for us to be manipulated in different ways. They can tell us that the State is this or that and we don’t understand its true dimension, what it is, and what our role as citizens is, as well as the forms of organization that we should have. That’s what has called my attention. Initially, I was going to study Communication Sciences, but I realized that Political Science was more important because of these reasons.
In regards to our children, what my wife and I have thought for our family is to tell them the truth about what happened. This happened for such and such things. I think we shouldn’t be like some Guatemalans that want to hide that history. We don’t want to just tell them that it happened because the guerrilla manipulated the indigenous people and they killed them saying that they were all guerrillas, etc. Things were not that simple. There are more profound things to tell our children so that it doesn’t happen again and that they can, in the future, prevent it from happening again. My idea is to tell them the truth, its causes, not that it was just something simple, and I think that is what will help them in the future and we are committed to do that. That’s my personal idea.
My name is Pancho. I study Communication Sciences. The moment in which the war started for me is at the age of 5. Let’s say the story of life and war for me is from age 5, and it’s not that I knew it at that moment, but through recollections from my parents and grandparents is how I have recovered a little of that story. When I was a child, I didn’t know what was happening.
However, when I was 5, I have a memory that has made me difficult to understand, has made me vulnerable with ups and downs. I didn’t grow up in the same place where I was born and it is very difficult when you’re trying to go back to that place. I didn’t live the war directly, fortunately I was a very young child. But I lost one of my grandparents to the war. The rest is what my parents have told us.
I was a refugee in Mexico for 20 years. All my cultural identity, my basic knowledge, are not Guatemalan, and it’s been very difficult to come to face again my identity, my customs, etc. And that has also fragmented my family. Some, or most of my brothers don’t recognize in Guatemala any other reality besides the one they learned in Mexico; they consider themselves Mexican citizens. Even though they are my brothers, there are still those differences between them and I. I am involved in working with the indigenous people, with that ideology and the Maya way of thinking and culture. However, they ( my brothers) are not. I wouldn’t say that they think like ladinos, but still, they don’t have a knowledge of the Maya culture. Even though it’s sad, they are not guilty of that, as I tell them. They were born and raised with another point of view. They probably never imagined what happened and that’s sad.
What happened at home the day they went to get my grandfather, it’s been told to me by his sons, my uncles, that it was very hard, and that it set a mark also in the whole town because my grandfather was a catequist, a leader, and maybe that was the motive to kidnap him. I recognize, for instance, that in my family all my uncles, my parents, understood it from a different perspective. They were guerrillas up until the moment of peace signing. They always were, but now they don’t even know what they are, they have many problems understanding what they did before, their ideas just block them. For instance, we, the whole family, cannot return to the community, because in that town they see us as guilty for the violence. It has been very difficult.
At the university I’m studying Communication Sciences, and that’s what I like, but I also think it’s important because the media has great capacity to transform realities, or to build them up, and many young people have need to express ourselves, we need to be known. For example, our culture doesn’t make itself known, even though some say we do. But I feel that we need to make ourselves known, so that others learn about us, which is one of the purposes of intercultural exchange that we haven’t been able to achieve.
I have a son, Fernando, and I don’t talk to him about the war yet. However, I think that that reality is going to be chasing him when he goes to the old house, the first house, where I was born and raised. I think he will perceive it there. The conditions in that house are not like the ones we have here, these better ones. Instead, that’s another reality and I think he notices. I think that he can still live or learn it in the reality that we live now, that we are preserving. That’s mostly what I have to tell. Thank you for the opportunity.
I want to add this: My father-in-law disappeared in ’82, exactly on September 13th, when my wife was 8 years old. He was never found. He and his family lived in Comalapa, one of the most affected places. Some military people took him out of a car to some unknown place. His remains still haven’t been found, where he was, where he was killed, and what happened to him. I’m telling you this because the consequences are going to be there for a long time.
My wife suffers from nervous breakdowns because, as one of my classmates said, the Army took the school. And in front of the play space where the boys and girls played basketball, they laid the dead, so that in the town people would see how the people who they called guerrillas were killed. The reports call it “exemplary massacres”, meaning the psychological war. My wife tells me that she saw how those people were laid there as if they were chickens, in the sun, already killed. She has been very affected by it. She has had terrible insomnia and we have to treat her constantly. My mother-in-law has diabetes and sometimes her blood pressure is too high, we have to monitor her sugar levels, and it was caused by that situation. We have those cases, and also broken family relations for long periods. My wife, my mother-in-law, my brothers-in-law never went back to Comalapa because their own grandparents didn’t want to acknowledge them. They told them that they were guerrillas, and they didn’t want to see them because they (the grandparents) were not guerrillas. For about 15 years, they never went back to the town until recently because now we have children and we have been trying to get close to the family in Comalapa. It’s very difficult.
And the other case that I wanted to tell you about is that even if it didn’t affect us directly, it did affect us indirectly because there were the so-called PAC (Civil Self Defense Groups) and we had to organize in groups in the communities. It was mandatory to be on guard and there were duty times (to be on call), for instance, from 6 a.m. until 6 a.m. the following day. They had to be standing there, either with arms if they had them, if not with machetes, to guard against guerrillas or suspicious people going by. That affected my father so much that he suffered a partial facial stroke. His eye became very red, so we also had to treat him, and now he’s not old, he’s only 54, but it was because of that situation, the insomnia, worries because he, my uncles, and my grandfather were on a list that said they were guerrillas. There were about 7, 8, or 10 people on a list that someone from the same community had given to the Army. My father didn’t tell us about his worries, but he looked very worried, and he was sick then for a long time, his stomach, headaches, and very red eyes. I think those are some of the effects that the war caused, and many people are still suffering its consequences, the effects of this horrific conflict.
Since they began doing exhumations in Comalapa, my wife and I have been there when they ask for help, to see if we can find my father-in-law because my wife can’t leave it aside. It’s something she needs to find. She wants to find her father, where he is, and see him even if he is in his bones. This is what they call the “grieving process” in psychology. The unfinished grief, that didn’t have closure, so we have to keep searching for him. She’s now thinking about DNA exams to the bodies that have been found since they have found more than 200 graves from people in hidden graveyards. This is true. I have been there myself doing excavations and it’s horrific to see how the bodies have been thrown into the communal graves, and now they are trying to find them. What I mean to say with this is that it still continues and, unfortunately, the government is not doing any of this. It’s being done by non-governmental organizations, international ones that are helping. But the government doesn’t care about it, and according to the Peace Agreement, the government should guarantee that the victims were helped economically, materially, and psychologically. But the government is not doing it.
What you just said, had you each told each other these things before? Had you heard these stories from one another?
Only when we have opportunity to talk about issues regarding the war in Guatemala, some students comment on the experience, but not all the students, not in a specific meeting we’ve organized. I believe that in the group of students there are many experiences, sad experiences, they’ve had in the past.
Do you think that it would be helpful to have a group meeting for people to share and talk about their experiences during la violencia?
I think it’d be useful because, as I said, in this moment many students are having psychological problems, but we don’t have space to share and I believe that it’s good, it’s important, to open a space to share because the students needs to share with other and to validate each other.
Sometimes people are worried that when they talk about these things it’s very painful and they worry that it might make things worse instead of better. Do you think that it’s better to talk about these things or not?
As my classmate said, during the war it was prohibited, nobody could talk about it. Thanks to God we can do it now. Personally, I would dare to do it for the media because we now live in a country that is changing, improving, and it’d up to us that it continues like that. Before, nobody could talk about it.
But I think what you mean to say is if we talk in regular life. I feel that for me it’s very difficult when I remember the town or the house. My voice always becomes (crying). I travel by bus and I always remember that, I mean…
I think that’s very difficult, you’re right, it’s not easy. I don’t suffer a lot in that way because I didn’t live it directly, only in other ways. But in my wife’s case, she couldn’t talk about it for a long time. When she remembered she couldn’t talk more. Even now I realize some things. I have asked them where the house was in Comalapa, they had a big house, with animals, and I think it is still there. But since they are very sad and nostalgic, they haven’t set foot in that house again. The house is still there, someone took it and they lost everything. But now they don’t want to talk about that house, or go and see if it is there. They don’t want to, because it hurts, suddenly leaving your house, everything, on top of losing your father, or your mother, or whatever, it’s very difficult. That’s why I say that it isn’t just to tell people that they can find their things. No, it requires specialized psychological help, that really comprehends the situation and how the war happened. Because we’ve seen some organizations trying to give psychological support, but they don’t really understand our people, the dimensions of the problem that our people, very poor people, suffered and the psychological help they provide is not what people need. It’s not just to go and say “don’t cry”. It isn’t simply not to cry, but also to understand what happened and feel that pain, like we, the Mayas say, to feel the other’s pain. That’s very difficult.
It’s very difficult to try to understand someone else. I do therapy to myself. I told you about the bus because when I ride it I think of my grandfather. As Ical says, I’m thinking about the house and suddenly I’m just crying. I have gotten used to not be embarrassed of people seeing my tears on the bus because it happens a lot to me. And I may be wrong, but with everything that I do, I’m always thinking “Grandpa, help me”. It’s something that is there despite the fact that I only knew him for 5 years. Many things remind me of him, the house, my father’s house that he could never use again. Sometimes it hurts a lot because the things are still there, but we can’t use them.
There are several things. It’s not that we are making it seems bigger than it is. Like my wife’s family for the armed conflict, they still remember their dog that was very good, but they had to leave him there. And according to the Mayan history, relationships with animals, as the Popol Vuh says, are very important. I see my wife and mother-in-law crying when they mention the dog and they say that because of the armed conflict they had to leave the dog and they don’t know what happened to him. Whatever happened to those poor animals! There is much sadness for the father, but also for the house, the family, the animals. That’s what the government hasn’t even tried to rebuild. Just by trying to understand the situation, it would be a good step forward in this society that was left completely broken, without the same relationships as before. We are very hurt by it. I’m telling you about these cases because I’ve seen them in my wife’s family and I try to be strong and speak a little, but I can’t deny the things that have happened.
I’m the only one that has returned to Santa Cruz del Quiche who lives here permanently. The rest of my family lives in Esquintla . That’s why one doesn’t even know where one is from. My grandma asked me if I had ever gone back to the town, our house, because she heard that there was some furniture there. When she came back to Guatemala in 1998 after being a refugee, the first thing she looked for was her grinding stone. She found it and her burned armoire. Her house was burned, the only thing left were the walls. I think they live in the past, even at the present time, remembering many things. The stones, the pots, the sewing machines, many things that were needed at home, and they still go to look for them in the hope of finding their material things. For instance, in the case of my grandpa who disappeared, for many years his family, my uncles, my father, they never did anything, like exhumation, or research about where he was.It’s only now that they dare to do it. However, they got together to be able to ask if he could be found. I have written things and I still have the desire for revenge, not with violence, but to demonstrate that even when we had to leave, we could not be destroyed. It’s not that I want ugly revenge, but I feel the pain and that’s what the conflict has left us.
Would it be helpful to have a group?
I think that would be good. It would be a small group, not big. With psychologists, sociologists that understand the situation. In the program we have a psychologist or a sociologist. In Guatemala City there are many programs for mental health and I believe that if the program contacts them, it would be possible to organize some small meetings.
Many students, for example, Eliseo, B., they have had experiences. For example, Eliseo when he was a child in Comalapa, my wife told me that she met Eliseo’s sister and parents, who disappeared in Comalapa. But she never knew where they were until one day when she was working near here, she saw Eliseo’s sister, and now that she saw Julio at this program, she asked him if he was the brother of the woman she knew. What I mean to say is that for a long time, we didn’t know about Eliseo because they were all escaping. Eliseo didn’t want to come to Antigua. He is in San Antonio now, because he escaped from Comalapa. The same with my mother-in-law and my wife, they left and went to Villa Nueva. And they changed their traje (indigenous clothing) so that they wouldn’t be killed.
That’s why I think there are several people in the program who have had experiences in the program that need some support, and I have always recommended that we have discussions. I think there are some students that don’t do well not because they don’t want to, but because there are certain psychological issues that affect them and they need support and that should be offered to them.
Do you think that the person who facilitates the group should be a student or a psychologist?
I think that the program should organize it but leaders of the groups should be students.
Thank you. I think that this effort to help the affected in the world is important because, as we say, the sad effects are there in this moment.
I was born in Quiche in 1980, at the worst time during the Civil War, and I didn’t understand a lot of what was happening, but I noticed certain things. In my Mom’s side of the family, many belonged to the guerrilla. They had 2 options, either to die or belong to the guerrilla. So they decided to join the guerrilla and many of them disappeared. Some were killed, others were exiled in Mexico, and others came to the capital. My family left their town, and went to Santa Cruz with my grandparents.
I was about 5 or 6 and didn’t realized everything that was happening. I understood it many years later. But I had an experience that left an impression on me, and left me with many fears. I don’t know why I didn’t tell my parents, maybe because I was afraid. We lived in a place with a lot of milpa (corn fields), houses were separated, and when I was coming back from the store, I saw about 4 military men pointing a gun at a woman who had her baby on her back, about 4 months old. They were asking her where her husband was and she didn’t want to tell them, so they were pushing her from one to the other and they were hurting her. I don’t know what she told them, but they threw her to the ground and shot her from the back, killing the baby and her. That was a horrible experience for me because I was just a little girl and was just defining my character and I grew up with a lot of fears. And these things happened every day since our house was in a main road and the military were constantly passing by, maybe to go to other towns nearby. And at a certain time, we could hear the shootings mainly in the afternoon. I was very frightened but I didn’t tell my mother until I was about 11. Maybe I hid it because I was afraid.
My family helped the guerrilla somehow and I think that was a good deed, because there were many people suffering, many people in the resistance, and that was a way to help our people. For instance, one of my uncles kept many food items that were left at the house. At night many sacks of food, sugar, coffee, corn, were left at the house, he would take them in, and out again in the morning, and it went on, and all of those items went to the guerrilla campsites. Of course, the army didn’t know about it or we would all have been killed. That’s the hardest experience that my family lived, except some others that were directly involved with the guerrilla and they didn’t come back until the peace was signed in 1996. They didn’t know a lot about their families, their children, spouses, whether they were alive or dead, until ’96 when they came back. That’s what I have to say.