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Mary Sennewald

CCGAP Human Rights Accompanier



Mary Sennewald and Sue Ellen in front of Guatemala's National Palace in October of 2008.


Mary Sennewald is a journalist, educator and counselor/therapist from St Louis, Missouri. In 2007 she published a book, Roadschooling Ryan: Learn As We Go, a memoir recounting a school year during which she homeschooled her youngest son as they traveled through eastern Canada, New England, Mexico and Canada. Click here to visit her website.

When she left for Guatemala at the beginning of September 2008, Mary spent several weeks refreshing her Spanish and getting to know her way around the area where she accompanies witnesses for the genocide case. This area is new to supporters of CCGAP, as we have usually had accompaniers assigned to the Ixcan region. Mary is in the Ixil (pronounced ee-SHEEL) in the mountains around Nebaj (nay-BAH).

Here is Mary's farewell to Guatemala, as she has now finished her term there.

April 6, 2009
St. Louis MO 63110

Dear All,

Hard to believe these six months of human rights accompaniment are over. My first months in Guatemala stretched out interminably, and I wondered if I had stumbled into an eternity of mud, corn meal and unrelenting cold. The last two careened to conclusion.

I guess it’s natural. I needed a few months to get to know the people we worked with, then not much time more to discover I loved them, some deeply. People we lived with shared simple joys and celebrations as well as heart-rending stories. Our Guatemalan colleagues spent hours filling us in on background and meanings of current events.
But it also felt that the whole political and social situation within the country speeded up. On the positive sides, some of the military and police records from the years of the armed internal conflict, as the killing years are called, have been released. Newspapers note the results, the public prosecutors bring charges, columnists discuss them, and I hear people offer opinions in restaurants and buses. So the Veil of Silence, which shrouded so much of the destruction and the massacres during the 70s, 80s and 90s, is partially pulled aside.

We still await the release of the plan, Operation Ixil, which affected the mountainous region in northern Quiche, where I worked. First the Minister of Defense claimed that the plan never existed. When that statement created uproar, he returned the following day to insist that once the plan had been executed, it was destroyed. Nobody believes that, either. But the plan is expected to seriously implicate both the military dictator of 1981-1982, Jose Efrain Rios Montt, now a deputy in the congress and the head of the political party, the FRG, as well as his commander in the Ixil, Otto Perez Molina, head of the Patriot Party, whose symbol is a fist, representing ¨Hard Hand.¨ Many people, within the country and without, believe that Molina commanded the death squads and other clandestine operations during the conflict. He also is reputed to have close ties to organized crime, including the narco-trafficking networking within the country.

Guatemala is currently in the midst of a wave of extreme violence. In the capital, bus drivers, their assistants and sometimes passengers are murdered daily, and these acts leave the population fearful and depressed, and threaten to undermine the government of President Alvaro Colom. Because of the coordinated nature of these attacks, some persons who have analyzed the pattern of this violence theorize that Molina and his party are behind them. At the peak of the killings, Molina, who unsuccessfully ran for president in the last election, ran a full page ad in La Prensa, detailing his plan for security and calling for increased military in the streets, among other things. As I explained in my last letter, the military in Guatemala has been used almost exclusively against Guatemalans, particularly those standing in any opposition, real or potential, to the ruling class.

As things heated up, I found it hard to leave.

So, yes, there is turmoil, and you may soon be reading about Guatemala in the U.S. press. But in this last letter I prefer to focus on the beauty and strengths of the people who have crossed my path and, in some cases, stolen my heart. Since I am a pushover for persons with big dreams, I would like to close out this time with portraits two who refuse to let ¨Common Sense¨ stand in their way.

Francisco: In a Nebaj restaurant and internet café a young man works afternoons and evenings as cashier. He always has a shy smile, a happy word. And, after six months of my coming and going, he asked to speak to me. Francisco said he finished his secondary education in the capital, loved physics and hoped to continue his studies at a university, as a beloved teacher had encouraged. But at home he was needed to support his six sisters. He knows he is lucky to have a job, any job, but he is bored with turning on computers and making change. So he and another friend have organized soccer teams in a very poor, tiny town an hour and a half away.

¨The children there have nothing, absolutely nothing” he said. No educational opportunities to speak of. The two idealists want to provide these
youths with a chance to work together, to compete and, in the case of victories, to travel beyond the confines of their own community. But the teams are only the beginning, Francisco said. They envision expanding into educational programs, credit coops, career training. But for all this he needed some financial support. Could I help?
I suggested that he and his partner work up a business plan and seek mentoring, perhaps from his former teacher or coaches. (As accompaniers, we are barred from providing material help in Guatemala.) I said I would pass along the plan to persons in the region who could advise him. By the next day I did, in fact, have his proposal and budget in hand. As promised, I passed it along to someone who did have suggestions
How this turns out is anyone’s guess. I’d like to tune in next year.

Jose: One day, while hiking cross country from a witness’ home to the road in the community of Xix, my partner and I stumbled upon a complex so compellingly lovely with the long, white colonnaded and tiled-roofed buildings, vegetable garden and art exhibits, that at first I believed it to be a secret hotel tucked away in the mountains. Closer examination of the all but abandoned complex indicated it was the Center for the Formation of New Mayas. Around the walls were painted symbols from the Mayan calendar, corn in all her glorious manifestations as goddess, plant and sust
enance (Mayans know themselves as the ¨People of Corn¨), as well as ancient kings who fought bravely against the conquering Spanish. Several months later, once the school reconvened for the scholastic year, its board president and chief dreamer, Jose gave us a tour.

The institute, which consists of primary, secondary, career training, teacher training, is open to children all over the Ixil. Of the 110 students, seventy board. There are twice as many girls as boys, in order to help balance the gender inequities in the region, which favor the education of males over that of their sisters. It is bilingual, with classes given in the Mayan languages of Ixil or Quiche as well as Spanish, and emphasis upon teaching Mayan history and culture. It is practical, because when the graduates return to their communities they will have to support themselves. So all students learn the art of baking in the panaderia, and both boys and girls work the fields. These are children of the poor (as almost all of the Ixil is poor), but whose parents, nevertheless, commit to paying Q300 a month either in cash or in corn and beans (approximately $45), a royal sum for many families. It is a commitment that few are able to keep for the entire year, Jose said. He worries that the school will not survive past this year, or even if it can play out the entire year. So he scurries around, seeking help.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: …If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours…If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost, that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

That, of course, is the challenge of big dreams in a very poor country…how to build up the foundations. But people like Jose and Francisco continue to make a run at them.
So I’ve left people with great visions and pained stories, people with implacable hope, people who work very hard to construct foundations for those dreams. I am grateful I had these six months to get to know this country of brilliant hues and deep, dense shadows, of bloody history and a scary political present, of children´s clear-eyed smiles and women’s offer of coffee and tortillas across the kitchen fires. I am thankful this human rights accompaniment work gave me time out to catch my breath, improve my Spanish, read, observe, hike hours each week in the mountains, and let the next phase of my life take shape.

I can’t say goodbye for good. So I won’t. Because, like the Sirens´ song, Guatemala calls me back.

Hasta Luego, Guatemala. Just for a little while. And to all of you, who wrote and sent support, or just were there, Muchas gracias.
Mary Lois Sennewald

Note: If you want
to keep this human rights accompaniment work going, in the face of the economic downturn, log on to www.nisgua.org. Even a gift of a few dollars helps. If you think you might like to do this work yourself, same website.


Mary sent us the following letter in early February 2009:

Dear All,

It is hard to believe that my accompaniment work here in Guatemala is winding down to fewer than five weeks. It feels as though I just started untangling the threads of this complex reality.

Christmas here in the mountains was about as different from our celebrations at home as the tropics from snow-clad peaks. My partner, a young man from Austria, and I took part in the six-hour celebration at the Catholic Church which was decorated with pine boughs, candles and incense set onto the floor in Mayan style. A flashing Santa stood pinioned into a graceful pine next to the altar. No priest, but many welcomes, music and sermons. From other parts of the town we could hear the heavy, rhythmic beat of amplified songs from the Evangelical churches, pounding out the happy news. The next day we visited families, were invited to the traditional meals of chicken or pork tamales. It was simple but quite enough, though I missed my sons.

Last time I wrote I tried to give an idea of our day-to-day life visiting people in communities in the region of the Ixil Maya in the Cuchumatanes Mountains. Now I want to brainstorm some things we always think and talk about. I approach these issues separately, but they are all connected. Sadly, most of the news I bear is bad. The bright news—and there is some light-- I will share at the end.


Impunity is an abstract legal concept which has very concrete effects. Guatemalans tell us over and over, in voices thick with despair: ¨There is no justice here.¨

Simply put, in Guatemala, people don’t pay for their crimes; people literally get away with murder. For example, of the 6,338 homicides last year—in a country of thirteen million people the size of Tennessee—in less than two per cent of cases were people convicted. That figure of 98 percent impunity holds across the board. What this means for the people with whom we work, witnesses to the horrific massacres perpetrated by the army and the government in the 70s, 80s and 90s against the mostly indigenous people, is that many who lost family, homes, means of livelihood live next door to or up the road from the perpetrators. Political leaders who planned and executed the horror are still free, many in positions of great power. Only a few low-ranking individuals have received prison sentences for these crimes against humanity.

These survivors, witnesses in the genocide cases filed in Guatemala and also in Spain, wait for some movement in the courts, to the day their stories finally will be told to the world, and that the criminals will be punished. And they wait.

And while they wait, Guatemalans who work for social change and justice are threatened, abducted, and, sometimes, killed.


Very frightening is the increased military presence in the Ixil in the last couple of months. (And here in Guatemala, the military was established in the 1870s, not to protect citizens from foreign threats, but to protect lands taken from the indigenous and given to the wealthy in order to stimulate coffee and other export productions, also and to enforce laws which required indigenous to work these lands up to half a year at no pay.) More soldiers are seen on the streets. People who can identify such things say that sophisticated weapons have come into the region. Military movements parallel the movements of the army back in the late seventies and eighties, preliminary to their murderous incursions into the communities. Last week President Alvaro Colom announced that previously abandoned military bases in the Peten, in the north of the country, will be reoccupied. Veterans’ organizations continue to register persons clandestinely, in many cases promising the poorly-educated and the very poor financial benefits. As I go about my business, I am warned that Nebaj, the town where we stay when we come in from the communities, crawls with spies.

When we say goodbye after meeting with Guatemalans active in this work, men and women of extraordinary commitment and passion, their words are always the same: ¨Be careful. Be very careful.”

We pay attention to people in our surroundings. If someone walking ahead of us on the street slows his pace which would keep him within earshot, we change direction. It is an odd feeling to be so hyper-alert.

Two weeks ago a Spanish activist, who has lived for decades in Guatemala working with and supporting the people in the communities (and living with them as refugees in the mountains,) spoke to our group about recent developments in the Ixil. He noted the increased military presence and weaponry. He also drew a map of new highways being built in the mountainous region, which will totally surround the area. These lands, the titles of which are disputed by the indigenous communities, have been licensed to a company for extraction of minerals. The highway encirclement will allow the military total control of the region. Brutal evictions of the poorest people from their lands and communities, long a fact of life in Guatemala, are probable, he said. He does not believe the people’s fear of a new round of massacres is unfounded.

Case in point. One evening we visited a woman in a remote village. Sitting at her kitchen fire after a supper of soup and tortillas, she pointed to scars on her hands and feet where she said she had been shot from the helicopters which descended in 1982, killing most of her family. Her frequent and intense headaches date from that day and from years fleeing the army, nearly starving in the mountains.

¨I wake up at two or three in the morning,¨ she told us. I dream of the helicopters and that the war will come again, and that we will have to live again in the mountains without food and clothes.¨

She has heard news about war in Iraq. Having no idea of geography, she fears it will come to her. We assure her that she is safe from that war.

She also saw the military helicopters encircling the community on the neighboring mountain several weeks earlier. “I am afraid.¨ she says. Less honestly, we tell her not to worry. What else do you tell some one who is still traumatized by pain and loss, who is in the throes of a migraine?


Why, throughout its history, has the Guatemalan government and its military turned on its people, committing atrocities to rival any in the rest of the world? The answer given by the indigenous themselves as well as by other national and international investigators, is that indigenous lands hold tremendous resources in minerals, petroleum and water. Because local communities generally do not choose to be relocated or disbanded, because in some cases they want to share in the wealth, because they claim that lands which are sold by wealthy families to corporations are their lands, they oppose these mega-projects. From past projects, such as the Chixoy dam, they have compiled a long list of unkept promises, community destruction, dislocation and death. When communities vote on whether to allow these projects --as provided for in the U.N. Declaration of Indigenous Rights which was signed by Guatemala --they universally reject them at rates of ninety-two to ninety-six percent. It is not that the people are opposed to a better life, having electricity, water, education for their children and health care. They are simply opposed to their lands and resources being gobbled up, often by interests outside the country, while they themselves are left even poorer and more desperate.

Just as reliably, the government ignores these community votes, awards licenses for extraction and puts out bids for construction of new dams.


I know this is long. Even so, I oversimplify, ignore important facts and themes. In my first months here, the Ixil has appeared tranquil, but under the surface, some ugly pots are boiling. People watching the stove are afraid, very afraid.


And yet, there is hope. Newspapers do use the word “genocide” and “massacres”; do note the number of death threats reported—up in 2008 from the previous year, which was already high-- and lament the impunity. This, I am told, is new within the last few years. While we still await the opening of the military and police records for the years of terror, the fact that such opening was mandated by the court is a miracle in itself.

Earlier this week, the European Union came out in force, supporting the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), calling the lack of punishment for crimes a ¨chain of complicity in the Guatemalan justice system,¨ a chain which reaches from the lowest levels of police work, up through the prosecutor’s office, to the courts, the penal system and reaching to the highest levels of government.

JUST IN TWO MINUTES AGO: The high court just ruled that the last appeal to the judgment to hand over the military and police records has no merit and THESE RECORDS MUST BE MADE PUBLIC. This is amazing, unprecedented. Assuming these records have not been burned, anything might happen.

Perhaps our friend high in her in her mountain home will one night be able to sleep well again.

You can take some action. Check out the Nisgua website www.nisgua.org for more information on what you can do. We need your voices.

Once I return to the states in April, I would be happy to speak to any groups or classes about Guatemala. Also, please forward this letter to anyone who might find it useful.

Be healthy. Be happy. Be careful.


Mary Lois


She wrote the following letter to friends and family in November 2008:

Dear All: Family, Friends and Stalwart Supporters,

My first two months in Guatemala draw to a close: weeks of intensive training, Spanish classes and visits to the communities where I work. The rains are stopping. I am getting the hang of things. Let me share a bit with you.


The mountains of the Cuchumatanes rise proud and green, large cones angling down to unseen valley floors. My partner and I ride crammed in a van which careens wildly around blind curves, teasing Fate. Crosses at the side of the mountain prove that, sometimes, Fate bites back.

Here in the Ixil Triangle, as the area is known, defined by the points of the three municipalies of Nebaj, Cajul and Cotzal in the department of Quiche, the Mayan people of the Ixil language group—twenty-three such languages in the country—live in remote villages. Much like they did decades ago, centuries ago, they tend their milpas, plots of corn and beans, chilis and vines yielding a profusion of guisquil, a squash-like vegetable used in soups and other dishes. Women weave extraordinary huipiles, blouses in gem-tones of ruby, sapphire and emerald, skirts of red and chocolate, and pom-pommed hair bindings in greens and reds. They sit in front of their houses or perhaps in their tiny open-air shops, yarn stretched tight from a hook or ceiling, held taut by a strap passed around the back of their waist.

The difference between
now and thirty years ago, people tell me, before the army arrived to devour its own, is that these days they are so much poorer.


As an accompanier with NISGUA (Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala), my job is to provide an international presence and support to Guatemalans who work for human rights, especially those who are witnesses in cases brought against the government officials here in Guatemala and in Spain. Back in the 1980s, dictators Romero Lucas Garcia, now dead, and Efraim Rios Montt, still in a high position of power, promoted a scorched-earth policy, primarily against the Mayan people, because they said they supported the guerilla movement. Other investigators claim that it is because the Mayan lands held great natural resources, which the oligarchy wanted. Over two hundred thousand people were massacred, “disappeared,” or starved to death during the conflict. Scores of indigenous villages were eradicated. Somewhere around a half million people (out of a population of eleven million) became refugees, fleeing to other parts of Guatemala or to Mexico, In the Ixil and farther north into the Ixcan, people escaped brutal atrocities by hiding in the mountains or jungle, in “resistance”, as they called it, often for as many as fifteen years, before it was safe to return. Of those, it is estimated that eighty percent of died of hunger and expo
sure. Many survivors were tortured.

Very little of this savagery was reported in the international press. A Veil of Silence, as it is known, covered the land. Our job is to insure that such events will never go unreported again, that those who continue the seemingly impossible fight for justice can do so in the eyes of the rest of the world.

In Guatemala, a favored way for those in power to maintain control is to threaten, kidnap and assessinate leaders who inconveniently oppose their policies. These attacks continue today.


To get to the community of Ilom, on the far side of the range, we travel by van when the way is clear, on the back of a pickup in the rainy season when roads wash out and mud and landslides stall passage. Here, at lower elevations, the landscape is tropical: immense ferns, glistening cascades, bananas and rubber plants, explosions of flowers. Electricty hasn’t come to the five hundred or so homes here, although many hope it will by next year. Of course, indoor plumbing is still in the future. Houses are mainly a couple of rooms of rough wooden planks. With few exceptions, people here are campesinos, farmers, mostly uneducated, but with a powerful love of family and land.

We greet our hosts and chat with one of the two indigenous mayors and his wife, who, unlike so many women here, speaks Spanish. Around the wood cooking fire in=2
0the kitchen, we drink thin, sugared coffee, eat tortillas or ground corn tamales, perhaps a soup of greens. Chicken, turkeys, a cat hunt food around the dirt floor, because people here love to live with their animals. We catch up with news of the family, the town, the genocide case, the harvest (this year poor because of the incessant rains.) For people living on the edge, like so many in the region, a poor harvest signals hunger later in the year.

This visit is repeated around the town with other witnesses and their supporters. As we slosh through mud, always straight up, it seems, children call “Buenas Dias,” then giggle when we respond.

Four days later, at 3 a.m .in the morning, we trudge up the mountain and climb aboard the pickup to return to Nebaj.


In Vivitz, we look down into the clouds, appearing like an ocean washing distance peaks. We are here to commemmorate the day when helicopters dropped from the sky, when people were pulled from their homes, gunned down or sliced through with great knives. Four days earlier we attended a Catholic Mass in another village remembering the dead of that fateful day. This ceremony will be Mayan.

In the cemetery meeting room, prayers continue throughout the morning and into the afternoon. Candles burn, the heavy fragrance of burning copal swirls around the darkened room. Outside boys fly kites to carry messages to their ancestors.=2
0When I step into the sun, a man I know from his work with the witnesses, who grew up in this village and lived fifteen years in the mountains, pulls me aside.

“We could see the helicopters come that morning, first dropping into Tuchabuk,” he says, pointing across the ravine to where a few homes shine in the light. “There were eight. Then another came from behind us and they all landed here.” Over thirty people were killed that day. People fled. Houses and crops were burned, livestock slaughtered.

“On that day, everything changed,” he said. “On that day, poverty came to our land.”


So for now, and for the next five months, this is my life. I’d love to hear from you, because the States seem very far away. If you can help support this work with a donation, or would like to buy calendars picturing ebullient Mayan art, or just to learn more about this fascinating country, log on to www.nisgua.org.

Heartfelt wishes for a blooming Thanksgiving,

Mary Lois Sennewald

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