Originally posted January 2007.

Dear friends and family,I hope everyone is doing great, and enjoying the winter or the summer, wherever this letter might find you 🙂

I am greeting you from Toronto today. I returned from Guatemala in mid-December. I am writing to you all again, having just passed a very significant date: the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords in Guatemala, which occurred on December 29, 1996. The accords formally ended the 36-year-long war that ravaged Guatemala.

In this letter, I will briefly outline the work that I was doing in Guate, and go over two major issues that strongly impacted my stay there. What was the work in Guatemala? This year, I lived in Guatemala from March to December. Most of my time there was spent working with the Guatemalan International Accompaniment Project. I specifically worked in the context of the genocide cases that are taking place both in Guatemalan and Spanish courts. The last two months of my commitment were dedicated to designing and carrying out an evaluation of the accompaniment program.

During the first four months of my commitment as a human rights accompanier, I accompanied massacre witnesses from six different indigenous communities in the departments of Quiche and Alta Verapaz, in the northwestern region of Guatemala. Thanks to some very welcomed Maya Qeqchi language training, I acquired basic communication skills to interact with witnesses (especially women) of the five Maya Qeqchi communities who are mostly monolingual in this language. It was very gratifying to gradually develop and notice the deepening of relationships with the various witnesses and other supporters of the genocide case in the communities that we visited as accompaniers. Through our repeated and regular visits, I was able to better understand the context of the every day living, the challenges, the trivialities and major events.

I was able to experience some of the numerous ways in which the armed conflict, and particularly the genocide, have deeply affected the everyday lives of the families that we visited. Some people continue suffering, 25 years after the massacres, from recurring migraines, blurred vision, and ulcers, which are often attributed to the trauma of the 1980’s. In the communities, people talk about ‘susto’ (translated as fear) in the same way as a disease. People that suffer from ‘susto’ suffer from physical conditions like the ones I just mentioned, and or other conditions like depression, or recurring nightmares about violence and the massacres. The explanation of these ailments can simply be that someone suffers from ‘susto,’ and everyone will know what that means.

During the early 80’s, the army massacred entire communities, destroying also their homes and corn fields, and taking every type of valuables they could find. Surviving families lost any and all belongings that they had possessed, resulting in their already fragile economic standing to become unsurmountable by average Canadian standards. Families are still struggling to recover from this situation even today. It is hard for me to imagine the difficulties to overcome these enormous barriers. Yet, overriding what seems to me unmanageable challenges, community members are continuing on with their lives, without forgetting about the past.

My role as an accompanier in this context was to provide a physical presence to the witnesses in order to convey our moral support, personally and on behalf of communities abroad. Accompaniers can also serve as a dissuading presence, to prevent abuses and violations of witnesses and supporters of the genocide cases both in their communities and when travelling to meetings regarding the cases. Thirdly, accompanying has allowed me to get a bit more of an ‘insider’s perspective’ on the genocide cases and regarding the current socio-political situation of the country, which I have been sharing with you through e-mail, and will be sharing through speaking engagements during the next few weeks.

Our role is generally well accepted and appreciated among witnesses, case supporters and non-governmental organizations. However, we are most certainly not the main players in the struggle for justice particularly through the genocide cases. In solidarity, we accompany the struggle of the witnesses. Many members of the communities in the Ixcan, where I was working, continue to struggle to bring some justice to the genocide of the 1980’s, and struggle also to divert what has become a new form of terror: the development of megaprojects (dams, and oil and other forms of fuel). In the next two sections I briefly go over these two themes.

Genocide Case Update:

A lot has gratefully changed in the genocide cases since I last wrote. The changes are particularly noticeable in the case filed by Rigoberta Menchu (1992 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate) through the Spanish court. The charges in this case include genocide, the burning of the Spanish embassy, and the killing of several Spanish priests during the civil war.

In July, the Spanish judge in charge of the case, Santiago Pedraz, issued international arrest warrants for the accused, including Efrain Rios Montt, one of the two dictators in power during much of the genocidal Scorched Earth campaign of the early 1980’s (the other one, Lucas Garcia, passed away in Venezuela earlier this year, not having been tried for any of the crimes against humanity that he committed). After numerous comings and goings between the Spanish court, the Guatemalan courts, and Guatemalan police (there was always a ‘small error’ at some point in the never-ending bureaucracy, which prevented the arrest orders from being carried out) two of the accused have finally been arrested.

On one hand, it was surprising for many to even see that the arrest orders were being carried out within Guatemala. Judging from the outrageous extent to which impunity reigns, a good number of people did not expect much to happen. On the other hand, Rios Montt still remains free. His lawyers threaten with all sorts of appeals should there be a solid attempt to process his arrest warrant. The most exiting idea for me, however, is that the cases are in fact moving forward. Compared to the stagnation prevalent during the great majority of the time since the cases were filed both in Guatemala and in Spain around 2000, these are very welcomed changes!

I think it is important to note that international pressure does seem to have played a role to move the process forward. The European Union as well as the United States have at different times urged for more fluidity in the processing of the cases. Coincidentally, these calls were followed by key developments in the cases.

In Canada and the States, a great number of concerned individuals have been writing their government representatives to express their concern about various issues concerning the genocide cases. For example, PAQG, a Quebec solidarity organization, recently asked supporters to send copies of an urgent action, concerning threats to a Guatemalan organization supporting the genocide cases, to Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter MacKay. Significantly, it appears that his office has noticed the number of letters, and asked the embassy to follow up on the issue. Please check the following sites for updates regarding the above-mentioned themes:

Projet Accompagnement Quebec Guatemala

Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala

And what about those megaprojects?

First of all, I would like to clarify what it is that I mean by the term ‘megraproject.’ By using this term, I refer to very large expansions of land, with some form of established infrastructure that exploits the land to use its natural resources, most often in a socially and environmentally unsustainable manner. Hydroelectric dams can be examples of megraprojects.

During 2004 and 2005 I lived in Pacux, Rabinal. Pacux is a relocated Mayan community. The original community, Rio Negro, was flooded by the Chixoy Dam built in the early 1980’s, against many communities’ approval. The dam flooded their livelihoods, homes, and sacred sites, with very limited compensation in return. Massacres carried out by the military in the early 1980’s eliminated hundreds of villagers that opposed the dam. Many of the remaining families were relocated to present-day Pacux.

To this date, the community is waiting and pressuring to get the reparations that they were promised in order to build the dam. Some families have chosen to move back to the area where the community of Rio Negro used to exist (but higher up, as the original site was flooded). Ironically this community, located right beside the hydroelectric dam, does not have access to electricity. Several communities in the Ixcan, where I accompanied in 2006, are only too aware of the harm that megaprojects can bring to them in terms of the physical effects of these projects, as well as the human rights violations that they can be accompanied by. Many community members comment on the fragility of the ecosystems in which their corn fields flourish, and the devastation that the flooding from a dam could provoke. Reports from varying sources have been circulating around the area, calling for communities to organize in the face of various dams that are currently being planned.

Particularly, I noticed many community members (none of whom I ever heard express a need or even desire to have electricity, aware of the implications that it can carry) express concern about the relation that they know can exist between megraprojects and the military. This relation is not only connected to the 1980’s, in cases like the massacre of Rio Negro that I mention above.

As I describe in my last report, there is a connection that is being increasingly drawn between military incursions and the imposition of megraprojects, often funded from foreign companies, in rural communities. In the last few months, several communities in the area where I was working, and where there are plans to build hydroelectric dams, have been throughly intimidated, in some cases by soldiers and heavy artillery, by different areas of the State. Some communities are trying to organize to stand up against these abuses. I hope that as members of supporting communities, we will be able to support these struggles.

In closing… The exposure that I have had to the issues that I mention above has made me much more aware of the ways in which I may impact struggles that occur in what appears to be half a world away, and is yet so close. Especially concerning megaprojects, I often find myself thinking about the resources that we use, and often abuse, in North America, and their precedence. I may no longer be working in Guatemala, but that does not mean that I will not continue my commitment to social justice wherever I may be.

I feel that, as a concerned Canadian, I also have a role to play ‘accompanying,’ and/or participating in, the various struggles that I have been so affected by, whether it be concerning the genocide cases, the involvement of Canadian companies in abusive megaprojects, the development of organic and fair trade markets, etc.

I would like thank you all for the support that you have expressed in these past few months, and during my preparation to leave for Guatemala. I appreciate the good thoughts, the interested questions, the conversations and e-mails, donations, and all other ways in which we have shared our interests and concerns for social justice. I look forward to seeing many of you during the various talks that I will impart, and in all cases I look forward to keeping in touch. I wish you all the best for the new year.


PS: The Breaking the Silence Network, a solidarity group between Maritime Canada and Guatemala is currently planning an accompaniment training session that will take place this June 2007. I highly recommend enrolling in this session if you are considering accompaniment.

Please get in touch with me to get further information if you are interested. I will also be happy to provide further information on the topics that I mention in this message.