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
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,
Mary sent us the following
letter in early February 2009:
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
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,
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
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.
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.
WHERE I WORK
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.
WHAT WE DO—AND WHY?
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.
A DAY IN THE LIFE…
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
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