Reverberating Stories of Genocide in Guatemala

Just days ago, we traveled for many hours to visit our partners in the Indigenous Ixil community of Cotzal. The Guatemalan countryside is so beautiful with its volcanic mountains and blue skies, that it’s hard to imagine that you are driving through the site of a genocide. That’s how the United Nations characterized the mass killings of Indigenous Guatemalans by US-backed government forces in the early 1980’s. Official hostilities ended in 1996 when peace accords were signed, but I could see clearly that the war is ongoing.

The women welcomed us into the cramped, dark meeting space that they had created by pushing aside the few pieces of furniture in the one-room home of Katarina Zambrano, with its dirt floor and tin roof. Katarina is the local president of our sister organization, Muixil. About 30 women were crowded there, to welcome us with hot chocolate and shy smiles. These were the women who have been raising chickens provided by MADRE. They were eager to tell us how much the project has meant to them. But first they introduced themselves. And all of their stories began with the genocide.

"My name is Rosa," said one young woman with a little girl on her lap, "and my parents were executed when I was five." Rosa told us about crawling out from the hiding space where her mother had placed her when she saw the soldiers coming. She told us about sitting with her parents' dead bodies waiting for someone to come. But so many in her village had been killed that no one came for two days. Finally, her uncle arrived, and they hid in the mountains, eating grass to ward off their hunger. They came to Cotzal after wandering for a long time, and she grew up here, but this, she says, is not her land.

Another woman spoke. "My name is Magda, and my parents were executed when I was nine." One by one the women introduced themselves this way and told their stories of massacres, displacement, hunger, fear.  "We are victims," they told us. "We are survivors."

I glanced at the many children in the room with us. I had an impulse to shield them from the stories, an impulse born of having the option to shield my own children from horror. But these girls and boys have heard the stories many times. Their orphaned mothers' stories reverberate endlessly because, as the women told us, nothing has been done to enable the stories to end. Poverty is still crushing for these families, and hunger is still a fact of life. The search for disappeared relatives continues. These women have very few possessions; some don't have shoes. But they have a fierce determination to make their children's lives better than their own.

"I survived the massacre," Rosa told us. "But because of the war I never went to school for even one day. My biggest hope now is that my daughter will finish school. I have the chickens from MADRE now and that means better food for my daughter. We get a little money from the eggs each week. I put it in my secret place and I use it to buy pencils and books for her. I know her life will be better."

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