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Kimberly Kern

CCGAP Human Rights Accompanier

 

Kim sent us this message in December 2007, from Guatemala City where she is working as an organizational accompanier.

Dear friends, family, allies and supporters,

Time is a strange concept. Some days I feel like it’s been a very long since I’ve seen any of you… I miss home… and I miss the regularities of life in the States and a culture that I can relate to. Other days, I feel
that time is going by way too fast and I make myself stop and appreciate the unique privilege I have to learn about and experience a different culture. Lately I have been between these two worlds, trying to prepare myself for when I leave Guatemala in March… looking for jobs in the States and other places… knowing that I will be attending weddings of my good friends when I return to Austin in the spring.

These last two months have been very busy, considering I also took a quick trip to the states to give a deposition for a class action law suit against the City of New York. In 2004, I was arbitrarily and illegally arrested at the Republican National Convention (along with 3,000 other people) and am fighting for the City of New York to admit that the police acted preemptively and irresponsibly. While I was there, I thought a lot about the stark differences between the Guatemalan and US legal systems.

Looking at the justice system (and prison industry) in the States, it is clearly corrupted by racism and the newly popular “private prison industry” is making money off mostly low-income, minority groups who find themselves in trouble and cannot afford legal representation. It is fair to say that in both countries, if you have money and power you are basically immune from the justice system. But in Guatemala, large plantation owners, multi-national mining companies, the National Electric Company and ex-dictators guilty of genocide not only have immunity from the law, they are protected by it.

In Guatemala, if a crime is committed and the victim wants justice, he/she must file a complaint at the Public Prosecutors´ office. Their job is to then investigate the crime, find evidence, detain the criminal and serve as an attorney for the victim in the judicial system. Most crimes including assault, theft, armed robbery, carjacking, rape, kidnapping and murder are never investigated nor are the guilty punished. Worse, is the fact that massacres and crimes against humanity, both which fill this nation’s history and continue to happen today, go unpunished because of a weak an inefficient system.

Nearly everyday in Guatemala City a woman is raped and murdered and her body is dumped along side an abandoned road. It has become so common that there is a word for this very deed: “femicide” (the killing of woman). Rape is also a common crime that simply goes unpunished because the Public
Prosecutor does not investigate these crimes. A very brave woman, Doña Juana, who was raped by policemen while incarcerated (a common occurrence as well forced prostitution within the jails), is the first woman to successfully file a complaint against her perpetrators. She and her family have been threatened because she refuses to remain silent as so many other Guatemalan women do and is currently receiving international accompaniment. Her case has been investigated and her trial is set to
begin in February, 2008.

There are numerous cases that show the discrepancy between justice for the powerful and justice for the poor.

Ex #1 Finca Nueva Linda:

In September 2003, Héctor Reyes, a union leader and administrator on the Nueva Linda plantation and a member of the Landless Maya Workers Union (STMST), mysteriously disappeared near the port of Champerico, on the south coast of Guatemala. The plantation owner his head of security were later identified by the police as the main suspects to the disappearance. The following month, hundreds of workers from the Nueva Linda plantation and the surrounding area occupied the farm to protest against the lack of investigations into the disappearance. Eight months later, on August 31, 2004, they were violently evicted by military force, ending in a bloody massacre with 12 people dead. Four years after the abduction of Héctor Reyes, his fate and the circumstances in which he went missing are still
unknown. His family members and community supporters continue to occupy a small stretch of land alongside the road outside the plantation and will remain there until the body of Hector Reyes is found and reparations are granted.

After the massacre, complaints were filed with the Public Prosecutor. No investigations were ever made in relation to the massacre or the disappearance of Hector Reyes. Since the family has been protesting on the side of the road, they have received threats and intimidations by the plantation security. Yet, a leader of the Justice for Nueva Linda Movement has a case against HIM for trespassing, filed by the plantation owner. It seems that a case of trespassing is more valid in the judicial system than a massacre of innocent people.

Ex #2 Marlin mine and San Miguel Ixtuahacán:

In 2002 Goldcorp (Montana Explaradora), a Canadian mining company, acquired the Marlin mine in the Department of San Marcos, Guatemala. It is an open-pit mine which uses cyanide to extract the gold, which is later released into the public water supply.

The initiation of this mine was significantly flawed in many ways including failing to provide a community consultation process; allegations of forced land sales through intimidation; the mine's unregulated use of municipal water; fear and a lack of personal security in the project area;
disregarded for environmental standards; and the absence of clear development benefits for the affected villages. In January of 2002, the Guatemalan government sent military to forcibly disperse thousands of
protestors that had blocked the roadway of Goldcorp mining equipment in Los Encuentros, Sololá for over a month. This incident left one villager dead and several others wounded. Since then, community members have been openly organizing and protesting the mine and its effects on the communities of San Marcos and they have received threats in relation to their work.

With the help of the national and international community, several complaints have been filed against the Marlin mine. Investigations have been made but no cases have gone to trial concerning the negligence of the mining operations. Yet, there is currently a trial in motion against seven
Mayan farmers who were among a group of 28 villagers who on January 10, 2007 approached Goldcorp seeking dialogue in relation to damages suffered by the Marlin mine. According to the farmers, the company rejected dialogue, insulted them and security guards attacked them, attempting to kidnap one person and firing gunshots.

Mine company security officers have a history of violence and intimidation against people in resistance of the mine. Though the January 10, 2007 attack by security officers occurred in front of numerous witnesses, it has not been prosecuted. Following the response, over 600 villagers peacefully blocked the road into the mine, a protest which lasted 12 days. The seven farmers are currently on trial because two security guards were hurt during this event.

“This trial exemplifies Goldcorps’ disregard for the lives and wellbeing of the communities affected by the operations of its “Marlin” mine, and the biased manner with which the Guatemalan justice system persecutes social movements, while maintaining impunity for human rights abuses committed by economically powerful actors,” says Right’s Action.

Ex #3 INDE and the Chixoy Dam:

Between 1980 and 1982 some 376 people, mostly women and children from a village named Rio Negro, were brutally murdered in a series of massacres while resisting displacement and the construction of the Chixoy dam. This project funded by the World Bank and constructed and operated by INDE, the
National Guatemalan Electric Company, is said to be the worst financial disaster in Guatemalan history and INDE officials are said to have skimmed money off the top for their own pockets.

The Witness for Peace report states that, 'the Rio Negro victims died because they blocked the "progress" of the Chixoy Project.' Many villagers believe INDE encouraged the violence so that their officials could pocket compensation payments due to the villagers. 'I'll tell you the real reason
for the violence', one survivor said, 'they wanted our land for their cursed reservoir and dam, and we were in the way.' A member of a Guatemalan human rights group says: 'The Chixoy Dam was built with the blood of the inhabitants of Rio Negro.'

Also according to Witness for Peace, “Chixoy was not only a human rights disaster. Construction was beset with geological problems which – together with corruption - caused the dam's total cost to soar to some $1.2 billion, 521 per cent higher than forecast in 1974. The dam began official operation in 1983, but after only five months had to be shut down for repairs. It did not restart operation for two years. Since then it has been plagued with technical problems and a shortage of water in its reservoir.”

30 years later, the community of Rio Negro and 27 other affected communities are still seeking reparations for lose of their land, loved ones, culture and history.

Ex #4 Genocide Case Update:

Have you heard? After the national elections in September, Ríos Montt (and his daughter Zury who is married to a US Congressman) was elected to the Guatemalan Congress and is highly expected to be named President of Congress. In my opinion, this is the most outrageous example of complete
impunity in the Guatemalan justice system. Or, simply the lack of political will of the Public Prosecutor to do his job and find the necessary evidence to find Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against
humanity. The other problem with this case is that there is no limit to the appeals the defense (Montt) is able to make against evidence of the prosecution.

For example, the secret military archives, namely “Plan Sofia,” are documents that prove Ríos Montt and his high military command were responsible for massacres committed during the early 80’s and are
currently under consideration by the courts to be declassified for the prosecution. There have been several public viewings in the court system about this these documents and we all wait patiently for a decision to be made. Now that Montt has a seat on the Congress, he is likely to be immune from any criminal charges for another four years, according to the national laws.

The Spanish Genocide Case is also a slow-going process. In Jan, 2007, extradition and arrest warrants were made against Ríos Montt, but the Guatemalan government has ignored these international appeals. Good news: although Montt sits on the Congress, he is not immune from international law, so he can still be tried in an international court when the Spanish Case moves forward. This is what we are all working and waiting for.

More information:

Finca Nueva Linda:
http://www.peuples-solidaires.org/article_texte.php3?id_article=115

San Miguel Ixtuahacán and URGENT ACTION:
http://www.rightsaction.org/Templates/urgent_actions_index.htm

Chixoy dam: http://www.centerforpoliticalecology.org/chixoy.html

Genocide Case and URGENT ACTION:
http://www.nisgua.org/themes_campaigns/index.asp?id=3026

Thanks for all you do,
kimika


Kim wrote us again this month, August 2007

Dear friends, family, allies and supporters,

As you know, for the past six months I have been working as a human rights accompanier for witnesses in the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) in Guatemala. My time living in the beautiful countryside of the Ixcán is ending very soon. I have decided, based on the current political situation in Guatemala and the upcoming elections, to continue working with NISGUA. Since the beginning of 2000, threats and
direct attacks have increased against Guatemalan labor unions, indigenous groups, exhumation teams, and other organizations working for justice and human rights. I will be working with a team based in Guatemala City which responds to short-term requests for accompaniment by organizations and individuals.

I have and continue to appreciate all of your support from the US and around the world. I feel privileged to have such and amazing network of people in my life who respond to important action alerts and also inspire me through the incredible work that many of you are doing in your own communities. I am excited to report that members of NISGUA personally delivered 1,200 letters to the Attorney General last week, signed by grassroots activists from 23 countries around the world to demand that the Guatemalan government move forward with the genocide cases. These are the letters that y’all signed and I’d like to thank you for helping to make this action a success. To read about the meeting with NISGUA and the Attorney General, see this link: http://www.nisgua.org/news_analysis/index.asp?id=2977

I am always eager to receive e-mails and snail mail. I will continue this work at least until February, so y’all will be receiving these updates from me for the next six months.
Again, here is my address in Guatemala:
3 Calle 3-48B Zona 2, Guatemala, Guatemala. Thanks for reading!

PLAN SOFIA: THE CAT IS OUT OF THE BAG:

This month, the national genocide case against Rios Montt and his high command had an exciting move forward.

“Plan Sofia,” is an old military document that outlines the plans for the eradication of indigenous communities in the Quiché region of Guatemala in the years 1981-82. It reveals that Ríos Montt signed the orders for the massacres of the towns of El Quetzal, Huehuetenango and Chicamán, Quiché. More than 300 died in El Quetzal, and 92 people died in Chicamán. After these documents were leaked to the public in March, Rios Montt´s lawyers filed a motion in April arguing to keep them classified so they could not
be used as evidence in the case.

"The documents detailing Plan Sofia clearly illustrate an explicit chain of command, with Rios Montt at its head, through which orders of mass extermination were communicated at the height of the conflict" said Catherine Norris, an organizer with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) in Washington D.C.

On July 16th, many co-workers and I, attended a public hearing of the genocide case, solicited by the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR). Arguments were heard from the legal representatives of the AJR and the lawyer representing the Ministry of Defense, who argued that the 25-year old documents should be kept secret for national security purposes. During the hearing, the judge asked lawyer for the Ministry of Defense, "If the acts were committed in 1982, why do they continue to be classified as state secrets?”

On July 19th, the First Court of Appeals in Guatemala denied the motion filed by Ríos Montt and said that archived military documents must be submitted as evidence in the national genocide case against him. According to the judge, the argument that “Plan Sofia” is a state secret is invalid because releasing them would not compromise the current security of the state and the crimes have already been committed.

Honestly, this news came as a shock to many of us. The level of impunity in the government and disorganization in the judicial system is a sad reality in Guatemala. There are no legal limits to appeals filed against these cases, which makes the judicial process very slow and long. But, with these documents in the hands of the prosecution, the case is more likely to be successful in the end. With this turn of events, the members
of the AJR have been re-inspired to keep fighting for justice.

THE COMMUNITIES OF SAN JOSE RIO NEGRO (SJRN):

In addition to living and working in Santa Maria Tzejá (SMT), every 3-4 weeks my partner and I embark on a hike to visit survivors and witnesses of the AJR who live in five different Q’eqchi’ communities. This excursion is an incredible opportunity to observe the spectacular rolling hills and extraordinary views of the Ixcán, full of trees and miles upon miles of cornfields, set on steep slopes. The rainy season is beginning here and traveling through the mud is also always an adventure. We have the good fortune to visit and spend time with families and communities whose lives and stories are so different from SMT. For example, in contrast to living with one hundred families in SMT, these tiny villages consist of 20-30 families each.

Since the communities of SJRN have little exposure to outsiders, they have fewer resources and their homes and lifestyles are much more humble. The survivors of the SJRN massacre and their communities did not flee to Mexico during the conflict; rather they were internally displaced. Community members hid in the mountains or were resettled in model villages. The homes are smaller, the communities less organized and
education is not a priority like it is in SMT. Many young men and some of the younger children who have had the opportunity to attend elementary or middle school are able to speak Spanish, but most of the women only speak the native language, Q’eqchi’. This makes them very different from the returnee communities of the Ixcán, which are often multi-lingual with many Spanish-speaking members and an acceptance of the accompaniers’ presence as a fact of the Return Accords. This language barrier has been an enormous challenge and many daily interactions between the women and me
are through broken Q’eqchi and sign language…. lots of smiling and nodding as well.

When I first arrived, I studied two weeks of Q’eqchi’ and have since learned more from the families that we visit. It is interesting to compare this language with the one spoken in SMT, K’iche’, because many words are the same, or similar. I feel the most out of my element when we are visiting these communities, but I have also enjoyed the opportunity to step completely out of my comfort zone and challenge myself to try to communicate. Even though I mostly receive smirks and laughter when I struggle to speak Q’eqchi’, I know that the families also really appreciate that I try. They are among the warmest people I have ever encountered.

This is a brief summery of their story:

In 1982, the victims of the massacre of San José Rio Negro (SJRN) were working and living on two farms: El Remolíno and SJRN. In March of that year, members of the Guerilla Army of the Poor (EGP) arrived on the Romolíno farm and held a meeting in which they demanded that the workers collaborate with them. After the meeting they burned the farm’s cardamom dryer as well as supplies of rice and beans, and returned to the jungle. The workers were afraid that the army would blame them for the burning of
the dryer and decided to flee to another farm, San Isidro. The men boarded canoes that they found by the river without noticing that “EPG” was painted on their sides. Shortly before arriving at San Isidro, they were apprehended by soldiers on the riverbank of the SJRN farm.

The workers on the SJRN farm were peasants who were already displaced by the internal conflict and who were assured by the owner that they would be safe there. However, in 1982 guerillas arrived to warn the workers that the army was coming to massacre them. Unfortunately, many workers were under the impression that only Catholics (often suspected of being guerillas or guerilla sympathizers) would be targeted and killed. Some
workers fled but most decided to stay. Later, the army arrived by helicopter and stayed for a week. On the third day they began to kill the workers they had captured from El Romolíno and SJRN.

An ex-soldier who claims to have participated in the massacre says that some people were decapitated, some shot with bullets and others chopped to death. Survivors report to have heard machine guns, bombs and screams and seen smoke coming from the site of the massacre. When family members returned after the soldiers left, they found that their houses had been completely destroyed and discovered a freshly-dug grave, encircled by
vultures and women’s clothes.

COMMEMORATION OF THE MASSACRE OF SAN JOSE RIO NEGRO:

“It is important to continue remembering what happened to us in the past. Every year we gather so our children will know what happened here. If we choose to forget, they will never know our history”.
-Mario-

In addition to accompanying witnesses of the AJR, we also accompany and visit community members engaged in their locally organized human rights organization. ADEREMCO stands for the Association of Development of the Uprooted and Re-established Communities of the Micro-regions of Q’iche and Alta Verapaz. Formed in 1999 during the exhumations of the victims of the massacre, its mandate is to seek justice for the victims of the massacre, exhume the bodies of the victims who have not yet been found, demand reparations, seek to restore their communities social fabric damaged by
the civil war and promote development and land ownership in the affected communities.

Every year, these communities gather together to commemorate and remember the family members and friends who were killed during the conflict. As in SMT and the many other communities who suffered, this is an important occasion not only to remember the dead, but to reignite the ongoing fight for justice.

Mario, a member of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) and a resident of SMT, spoke at the ceremony which consisted of a Catholic Mass, a community dinner and a dance featuring a live marimba band. “We cannot stay silent. We are not animals. We are human beings!” He was speaking about the fact that 200,000 Mayan people were killed in a bloody war in which the heads of State at that time have still not been punished.

ELECTIONS 2007:

In September, the 2007 presidential and regional elections will take place in Guatemala. It’s an interesting time to be in the country because, although some people have written off the government as corrupt and not worth their time to vote, many people are still talking about politics.

There are about 16 major political parties running in the presidential and municipal elections. Each one is differentiated by a different symbol, and when arriving at the polling stations, the symbol is what the population will actually vote for. Of course, this means that most uniformed or illiterate voters will simply check the symbol they have seen the most… which are everywhere… on posters in stores, gigantic billboards and even painted on trees and rocks along the highways.

I have recently attended several talks about the current political situation in Guatemala in relation to the upcoming elections. One conversation that keeps resurfacing in discussions, and which I find very interesting, is the question: “Who funds the political parties?”

Guatemala has a very high concentration of income and wealth in a few hands, which makes it one of the most unequal in the world. With no effective distribution mechanisms, and with low wages and low employment, the majority of Guatemala’s population lives in extreme poverty and exclusion from resources like education. This concentration of wealth has produced increasingly powerful economic groups that use their power to influence the political scene and exercise control over the State. These
groups are owned and run by a few families; the two main families are Gutierrez and Bosch.

Together, these businessmen allied with foreign interests, own the 30 largest companies in Guatemala. The two front-running parties, Unidad Nacional de Esperanza (UNE), National Unity for Hope, and Partido Patriota (PP), Patriots Party, have each received around $5 million from these two families. Encuentro por Guatemala, (EG), Gathering for Guatemala, the party of Rigoberta Menchú, has also received a large sum of money from these two families. This very basic look at the financial foundation of the elections implies that no matter who wins, these parties continue to be controlled by the same big-business interests.

I hope that all of you are happy and healthy in your lives.
Peace,
kimika

Here is Kim's friends and family letter written in June 2007.

Dear friends and family,

These last four months living in Guatemala and working as a human rights accompanier with the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) has already been an amazing experience. The relationships I have formed, with other accompaniers from around the world and especially the families of
Santa Maria Tzejá (SMT) have opened my eyes and my heart. I hope that the stories, history and current political information that I send in these letters inspires y’all to action in the fight for justice, not just
globally, but in your own communities where you see blatant injustice.

The Story of Marta

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Marta about children and childbirth. The average age for a woman to become a mother here is 15, so obviously, a 27 year-old woman with no husband or children is very strange. Nine times she has experienced the excruciating pain of giving life, but today she only has seven children. When I asked what happened to them she told me her story…one of many similar stories:

“When the army came that day in 1982, we ran for our lives though the jungle… some people had no shoes… we couldn’t see anything in the dark… the branches tore our skin… but we couldn’t stop, it was life or death so we kept moving,” she remembers. For months and months, Marta and the group she traveled with roamed blindly though the mountains of northern Guatemala, escaping many close encounters with the army who was constantly hunting them. Most of the time, they had no idea which direction they were going.

After wandering for weeks and months, she remembers being at an encampment of people who saw the army coming and they decided to move the group, yet again. She was so weak, she couldn’t go. “I decided that I wouldn’t walk anymore… I couldn’t walk anymore… I was starving. I sat down on the ground with my two babies and said this is where I’m going to die, me and my babies.” She doesn’t know exactly what it was that made her lift herself up and keep moving, but she suddenly found the strength to keep going.

The decision to flee to Mexico was a point of conflict among the wandering group. Many people thought the war would end soon or the army would give up searching for them. Many people suffered terribly and two of Marta’s children died in the mountains of malnutrition during those months of indecision.

Her strength to move forward, not just that day in the mountains but her constant positive activity in her community, is an inspiration to me. She is a woman who was never given the opportunity to receive an education so she cannot read or write. But she broke away from her expected role as a soft-spoken woman and mother and became a leader in her community. She says, “I have a lot of opinions and think they should be heard.” She is inspiring to other women in the community as well because she isn’t afraid to stand up and speak, something which she, as in indigenous woman, has worked to overcome her whole life.

Before the massacre, she was married to a man who was physically abusive and never let her get involved outside of their house. He was killed the day of the massacre and as a refugee in Mexico, Marta was introduced to a woman’s organization called Mama Maquin. From this experience, she brought back a wealth of knowledge to SMT and is a strong force in the woman’s union there. In Mexico, she also found a man who is extremely supportive of her community activity and she created a new life and a new family with him.

Rios Montt runs for Congress…again

Unfortunately Rios Montt, a man who currently has an international genocide case against him in the Spanish Courts, inscribed to run for the Guatemalan Congress on May 18th. This, of course, is major news here on the ground and work will continue around the national cases against Rios Montt and his military high command.
If you have not signed this letter to move the case forward, please take a moment of your time and sign it here:
http://nisgua.org/get_involved/action_alerts/action_alert_02.asp

If you have already signed, it would be helpful to send this link to five people that you think would like to support the people who suffered terribly during a brutal civil war and are fighting for justice.

Another interesting piece of news came out in the national newspaper, “Prensa Libre,” which undeniably links Rios Montt to several massacres that took place in 1982. This link, called “Plan Sofia,” is a military
document that outlines the plans for the eradication of indigenous communities in the Quiché region of Guatemala. "The documents detailing Plan Sofia clearly illustrate an explicit chain of command, with Rios Montt at its head, through which orders of mass extermination were communicated at the height of the conflict" said Catherine Norris, an organizer with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) in Washington D.C. "Since the demands for justice from survivors have yet to compel the
Guatemalan judicial system to prosecute those responsible for genocide, we hope such brazen documentation of planning and responsibility for atrocities will prove impossible to ignore and bolster the survivors' case," Norris told Upside Down World.

Another accompanier wrote a detailed article about this plan and the effects of this news on the case. You can read it here:
http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/718/1/

Consulta Comunitaria (Community Referendum)

On April 20th, a very interesting and exciting action took place here incthe Ixcan region of Guatemala: a vote concerning the construction of new hydro-electric dams (namely the Xalala Dam) and the exploration and exploitation of oil by foreign interests. Since a majority of land is owned and utilized by indigenous communities in the Ixcan, a popular vote was taken to see if the people that would be most directly affected by these projects were in favor of them or not. After many information sessions and talk throughout the region, a vote was taken and 91% of the region said “NO” to the projects.

The day of the Consulta was an inspiring day for SMT. Everyone was very excited to be part of this historical process and have their voice heard. In Guatemala, the government never asks their opinion on anything, so this vote made them feel very empowered. I felt privileged to be present as an
observer.

You can read an article I wrote about the Consulta here:
http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/719/1/

Semana Santa (Holy Week)

Semana Santa is extremely important here in Guatemala. In SMT, the students that are usually away studying high school or college all return for this one week festival extraordinaire. At first, when everyone was talking about Semana Santa, I thought it was going to be more of a party, but with religion so deeply intertwined in the local culture, I should have known better. I went to Catholic mass more times in the last month than in the last ten years.

Other than going to mass and participating in processions of the Stations of the Cross, the two main traditions here in SMT are making bread and spending a day at the river. These two traditions also mirror the traditions of the church. Bread is made early in the week to eat during the time between Good Friday and Easter (many people in the states fast during this time). On Thursday (the Last Supper), everyone goes to the Tzeja River all day with their families and cooks enormous amounts of food.

On the Tuesday of Semana Santa, I was invited to make bread with a family. The bread is prepared in small portions with unique swirls or other decorations. At 7am we stared a fire inside a huge cob oven. It is about
10 feet high with a diameter of about 6 feet. While the oven heated, we mixed large amounts of flour and sugar in a wooden box about 8 feet long. The process, as many of you know, is a long one… the dough rises and gets kneaded again and again. At 8am we started making little balls of dough that eventually turned into little decorative creations with the help of many women. By 10am the wood had become ash and coals inside the oven which was swept to the side to keep the heat in. The bread was put on metal pans and placed into the oven for about ten minutes. From the batch, we produced about 200 portions.

The smell of fresh bread is only slightly beat by the taste. While we were outside baking the bread, another family had come to mix their own batch. Only three families have cob ovens, so they are shared with the neighbors. The tradition is to eat the bread with honey, but there is also another topping called panela which is derived from sugar cane. I prefer the honey, myself.

On Thursday, we packed three horses with pots, pans, watermelons, food and hammocks and headed to the river to relax. When we got there around 8am, we gathered firewood and started making soup which cooked slowly all day. Until then, people ate bread and watermelon, fished in the river, swam and bathed, played games, listened to music and caught up with family member’s home for the holiday.

I definitely missed my family a lot during this week, seeing all the smiling, laughing families together. But I am feeling more and more comfortable in SMT and have found people I consider friends to talk to about anything. I miss you all very much and talk about home considerably more than I should. Everyone just loves to hear about Texas… which they say, “casi es Mexico”(“it’s basically Mexico.”)

Peace,
Kimika

Follow the link to read Kim's other writings about happenings in the Ixcan

Kim sent us her first friends and family letter in March 2007.

Dear Friends and Family,

Six weeks ago, I began my work here as a human rights accompanier in the Ixcán region of Guatemala. In a very short time, I have had the opportunity to listen to incredible stories which constantly remind me why I am here. It is important to continue in this struggle for justice and to remind people (like you) about a
forgotten genocide.

A civil war ravaged this country for 36 years which ended with the peace accords in 1996 and more than 200,000 civilians dead. 90% of the casualties were at the hands of the US-backed Guatemalan army under the auspices of fighting “communism.” In 2000 and 2001, a courageous group of war survivors filed charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against former military dictators Romeo Lucas Garcia
and Efrain Rios Montt and their military high commands in the Guatemalan court system. Seven years later, these cases remain in the investigative phase due to a lack of political will to bring the accused to justice.

Living as an accompanier in these communities not only helps to deter threats against the genocide case witnesses but also teaches the lesson of survival and perseverance. Some people might think that this type of work would be depressing. Simply put, the fact that accompaniment exists is because massacres happened.

But, the stories I have heard about lost loved ones are not told with a defeatist attitude. Yes, people still talk about the tragic losses they lived through, but the remembrance of the dead in this culture is very important. Many new children are named after the ones who died during the conflict… to remember. Yes, survivors still
cry and grieve. Maybe that will never stop, but who’s to say what is a normal reaction after living through a massacre?

What is unbelievably apparent in this community is the sense of hope. The collective commitment is evident every day as an ongoing process to raise the quality of life through education and better health standards. Santa Maria Tzejá is organized and it seems that everyone is involved in either one committee or another which is directly related to a decision making process.

The Story of Santa Maria Tzeja (SMT)

In 1970, Mayan campesinos (peasent farmers) made the long, 150 mile journey from the highlands to the jungles of the Ixcán in search of autonomy… a place where they could cultivate their land to support their families and live in peace. They settled in SMT and began cutting down trees, building houses, planting food and building a new life for themselves. For the next ten years, they worked hard, formed cooperatives and established a community that prospered.

12 years later, Monday, February 15th, 17 people were brutally massacred; houses were burned to the ground; crops were destroyed. Even the animals were slaughtered. One woman in particular was pregnant during this time. She was shot and killed, her stomach sliced open and the baby ripped out. Witnesses say the army cut off the head of another man and put it in her stomach for others to find later. Her little son escaped and hid under a log and later recounted what had happened to his mother.

People have actually used the expression “lucky” to describe that day in comparison to what took place in other neighboring communities. The ¨scorched earth¨ campaign which began in 1981 by General Lucas Garcia had started around the city of Chimaltenango and crossed through central Guatemala towards the borders. The purpose of this campaign was to eradicate the ¨subversive¨ guerilla forces but included eliminating many innocent Mayan campesinos and their families in the process. One slogan of this campaign was “the fish can’t survive without water.” In other words, the guerillas were the fish and the easiest way to kill fish is to eliminate the water… the water was innocent civilians.

A neighboring community called Santo Tomas was invaded a day earlier (February 14th, 1982) by the Guatemalan army. 41 people were killed and the rest (400-500 people) fled to the mountains. SMT, being very near the border to Mexico was fortunate to have heard about the army coming and most of the town escaped to the mountains before they arrived. Of course, not everyone had the opportunity to flee. Some hid and were not found by the army. Others were killed.

Less than a month later, in another Guatemalan community on the border of Mexico called Cuarto Pueblo, more than 350 people were killed.

So, the community of SMT disappeared into the mountains… men, women, children, elderly, the sick… everyone. One couple, Thomas and Maria recounted their story to me. They left suddenly and were forced to leave everything behind to save themselves. Thomas has tears in his eyes as he remembers how their family was prospering at that time. They owned seven head of cattle, 60 chickens and a parcela ready to harvest. He recalls years of hard work and when they left, “the army destroyed everything.” They killed all the animals and burned all the crops and houses.

They had three young children with them while they lived in hiding in the mountains of Guatemala for nearly 10 months before crossing the border into Chiapas, Mexico. Maria recalls that during this time, many people, and especially babies died from dehydration and other sicknesses. Food was scarce and they constantly watched their backs in fear that the army would find them. 10½ years they lived as refugees in Chiltepec, Mexico as they waited for the peace accords to be signed.

12 years later, when the community returned to SMT, they started over from scratch. The sole surviving building was the community center, which was promptly converted into a catholic church. Everything else was rebuilt, the land divided into parcelas (plots of land for harvest) and a new school was implemented.

Since then, the people of SMT have worked hard to create a thriving community that continues to grow through the work of the food cooperative, the women’s union, the school committees and other community development committees. Today, there is a library, a computer center, many new community buildings and a proposal on the table about building a high school.

25th Anniversary of Santa Maria Tzeja Massacre

This February (2007) marked the 25th anniversary of the massacre. Around 500 people gathered into the catholic church to attend the mass that was held in commemoration of the dead on February 21st. People from neighboring communities came to the church in SMT along with Radio Ixcán to broadcast the service live.

A monument in dedication to those that lost their lives in the region stands outside the church. It is a triangular shaped stone painted bright green about 6 feet high which is surrounded by a small metal fence. The names of the victims are etched into the stone on all three sides. On this day flowers and burning candles surrounded the monument and palm leaves covered the fence. During the service, the priest and
members of the AJR read the names of the dead five times and once more in front of the monument.

Members of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), the survivors/witnesses, were in attendance and some spoke live on the radio about the importance of remembering this day and the fact that the guilty parties still have not been tried and prosecuted for their crimes.

25th Anniversary of the Coup d’etat of General Rios Montt

Rios Montt headed a military regime which began on March 23rd, 1982. He left a legacy of violence including widespread massacres, rape, torture, and acts of genocide against the indigenous population that still haunts the country today. Extradition requests for him by the Spanish Courts (under international jurisdiction) have been received by Guatemalan courts. As of today, the Guatemalan courts have yet to issue detention orders due to an appeal filed by Rios Montt’s attorney disputing the constitutionality of applying an arrest order with intent to extradite the former dictator.

Montt is planning to run for President of the Guatemalan Congress in this year’s elections in order to gain immunity from prosecution. The Guatemalan Attorney General’s office is obligated to respond to the AJR’s demand to move the national legal process forward, which would mean that Rios Montt would no longer be allowed to run for office. This action must be taken to prevent his candidacy before candidate registration begins on May 2nd.

Please take one moment of your time to send an e-mail to the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office to demand that the cases be moved forward at this link:
www.nisgua.org/get_involved/action_alerts/action_alert_02.asp

The U.S. government financially and militarily backed many of the dictators in power during the Guatemalan conflict, including General Rios Montt. This gives us an added responsibility to urge our representatives to support anti-impunity efforts in Guatemala. They also need to request that the US Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs comply with the international arrest warrants, including investigating and freezing any assets held in the US.

For those of you from Texas, two Congressmen – Michael McCaul and Ron Paul – sit on the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, a powerful legislative taskforce responsible for shaping U.S. relations with Latin America. If they are your Texas representatives, now is an important time to write or call them and urge them to pressure the Guatemalan government about these issues combating impunity. Their districts range from Austin to Houston and on the coast from Victoria to Galveston.

A Bit of My Life in Santa Maria Tzeja

The low-land jungle where SMT is located is very beautiful. Everywhere I look I see uncountable shades of green mixed with a bright blue sky. The rolling hills stretch on for miles and miles until they reach the mountains of Alta Verapaz. Goats loiter in the grass outside the door of my house and chickens and pigs run wild where they please.

Depending on where I am in the community, I can catch the scents of the banana and orange trees, women making fresh tortillas or food being cooked over an open fire. Everyday, the molinero (a very loud machine that processes the corn into masa to make tortillas) competes with the roosters to wake me up around 5:30 in the morning. All throughout the day are sounds of kids playing and constant announcements for community meetings over the loudspeaker of the cooperative store.

Everyday, my partner and I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with a different family in the community. We have no kitchen, so we rely on the community to feed us by asking a couple days in advance if we can eat and visit with a certain family. When we arrive we bring a bag of food to give them. This time makes up most of the day when we sit with the families and chat, play with the kids, listen to the radio, or sometimes we make cakes or tamales or help pick oranges or coffee.

Life here, like anywhere in the “rural country-side,” revolves around food. All day the men work on their parcelas planting or harvesting. Some also have cows and horses that they raise and sell.

The women spend the day mostly in the kitchen turning corn into masa and masa into tortillas, shelling black beans, shucking corn, boiling drinking water and cooking. Along with those duties, they also do all the washing and take care of the (usually) many children. Some women also work outside the home as teachers in the school or in their tiendas (stores).

I enjoy helping from time to time in the traditional daily activities of women. I am learning to make tortillas and to carry water on my head, which by the way, is WAY harder than it looks. It’s something I am sure I will never master while I’m here, but like the señora’s say, “poco a poco” (“little by little”).

I hope everyone is happy and healthy in their lives. I always appreciate the e-mails and letters. Thank you so much for your support.

peace,
kim

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