"We need everybody to know"
On the south coast of Guatemala, in the heart of the sugarcane industry, lies the vibrant provincial town of Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa. During the 70s and 80s, the people of Santa Lucía became increasingly aware of the unequal distribution of wealth in their country and particularly in the sugarcane industry. The Catholic Church played an important facilitating role in this process. Awareness about the perpetual situation of poverty and exclusion led people to organise and demand improvements in the harsh working conditions, as well as of low salaries. This culminated in a massive and successful strike from plantation workers around the country. Affected by the success of the strikes and fearing further demands from the workers, the ruling elites in Guatemala responded through violent repression of the movement of workers and citizens. It was the darkest period of the internal armed conflict in Guatemala, a conflict that lasted for 36 years (1960 – 1996) and in which an estimated 200,000 persons were killed or forcibly disappeared according to the UN-supported truth commission. In Santa Lucía the repression focused on the community leaders of which approximately one hundred were murdered or forcibly disappeared. Until today, no one has been brought to trial for the crimes committed in Santa Lucía.
As a result of the violence, family members lived in fear and isolation for many years. Many left Santa Lucía to escape further violence. Today, around thirty years after the assassination or forced disappearance of their loved ones, the survivors reunited and formed a group. Their principal purpose is to dignify their loved ones, find the truth and maybe one day demand justice.
The group started out by sharing their stories with each other. By doing so they realised that they were not alone in their sufferings and started to face their fears. The process was accompanied by specialised psychologists who worked both at a group level as well as with individuals. Shortened versions of the life stories were published in a book titled, ‘Because we wanted to get out of so much poverty’ (in Spanish, ‘Porque queríamos salir de tanta pobreza’). In this book survivors talk about the dreams of those who were murdered or disappeared, the violence that followed and the tremendous impact this had on the lives of those who stayed behind and who continued to live in fear, isolation and even deeper poverty. Both the original book as well as a reprint were publically presented in Guatemala. A short film about the presentation of the original book can be found here.
Becoming a group
The process helped family members to come together as a group. Psychosocial accompaniment has also been important to begin overcoming the fears and trauma affecting most of the survivors. The group has accompanied the exhumation process in the cemetery of Escuintla, where the remains anonymously buried persons were exhumed, all of them buried there during the conflict. The group frequently visited the cemetery during the exhumations, accompanying the forensic workers and bringing them food. For identification purposes, DNA samples and testimonies were taken from family members.
More recently, adults and youngsters began working together on a mural painting about the history of Santa Lucía. By working together on the painting adults who lived through the conflict shared their stories with teenagers who have little information about this period of history. This intergenerational dialogue resulted in increased mutual understanding as well as in a colourful and revealing painting, consistent with ancient traditions to visualise history through drawings. The painting is also part of educational material that the group developed and that will be used to visit schools, teaching students and teachers about the history of Santa Lucía. A flyer has been made of the painting and the reflections of the persons that participated in its creation.
The Santa Lucía group visits other groups of victims in different areas of the country, thus establishing and strengthening relations between survivors of the armed conflict and creating networks of solidarity. When possible and where relevant, they participate as a group in national level processes of truth, justice and reparations.
Impunity Watch is closely involved with the group because we consider it representative of the many survivors that still struggle to overcome the effects of the murder or forced disappearance of close relatives. Their strength and potential as a group is exemplary, while their fears and daily struggles are equally important to consider. IW makes sure to inform the group about relevant national and international level processes of truth, justice and reparations, and involve them in these processes. IW considers it essential that such processes take the voices of survivors into account. We work with the survivors to strengthen their skills and ability to participate so that they can voice their ideas, needs and demands successfully. IW moreover facilitates exchanges with other groups of survivors, whilst also facilitating connections with relevant international actors and diplomats so that their voices are also taken into account in policymaking.
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