Guatemalan Journey

A Tucson group gets ready to depart on another trek to help indigenous people

The year was 1993. The vicious Guatemalan civil war was raging, and Mayan Indians were being slaughtered by a military bent on erasing rebel opposition. Under the banner of fighting communism, the United States had provided intermittent aid to the Guatemalan government--and turned a blind eye to such carnage.

That same year, a Tucson humanitarian group was packing up to head south. Their journey would ultimately bind two wildly disparate cultures by simple, shared humanity.

This June, volunteers will undertake their 14th annual pilgrimage to the mountain-bound, indigenous villages known as "Communities of Population in Resistance," or CPR-Sierra.

Ila Abernathy is program coordinator for the long-running effort, called the St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church and CPR-Sierra's Guatemala Project. June will also mark her 14th trek to those Guatemalan highlands.

"The project was supposed to have been phased out in 2003," she says. "But the need is still there, and the relationship goes on. Some of the people there are practically family to me."

Like in most years, the current volunteer corps is peppered with medical professionals, teachers and old Central America hands. In small contingents, they travel by plane, bus, car and ultimately pack mule to reach the most remote villages. With them comes medicine, medical supplies and money for ongoing health care. They bring prenatal vitamins donated by Carondelet St. Mary's Hospital and World Care. Their work gets a funding boost from the Denver Peace and Justice Committee.

And at the end of that road, they achieve great things. Restorative surgery for a girl suffering a harelip and cleft palate. The delivery of precious four-wheel-drive vehicles. Critical care for a boy severely injured in a fall. New blood-testing equipment where it's never been seen before.

Team members also help the Mayans defend a culture still under siege, more than a decade after Guatemala's peace accords. That's made more difficult by rampant violence, crime and other war residue inordinately affecting poverty-stricken indigenous populations.

But none of this assistance is simply imposed. Instead, relief is fashioned in full cooperation with the villagers. That's key, says Abernathy. "It's truly a collaboration, begun in solidarity with these people who were suffering in the ending years of a 36-year internal conflict."

What a conflict it was. Spawned by historic repression of Guatemala's poor laborers, and governments controlled a tiny elite, the conflict became notorious for extreme brutality.

Threatened by rebels, the government unleashed its army and paramilitary patrols. Indigenous communities faced the brunt of this terror. "People fled to the mountains at the height of the repression," says Abernathy. "There were massacres after massacres in the little villages. That's because the army found it much easier to kill civilians, who might be supportive of the guerilla movement, than to hunt for a few guys with guns in mountains."

Most victims "were people who refused to serve in paramilitary patrols attached to the military," she says. "You were supposed to volunteer to protect your village. But if you didn't volunteer, you were labeled a communist. And that was an era when being labeled a communist was equivalent to being labeled a terrorist."

Too often, that label carried a death sentence. According to the historic 1998 report, "Guatemala: Nunca Mas" (Guatemala: Never Again), war casualties numbered 1.4 million. There were more than 400 documented massacres, and 75 percent of the victims were indigenous adults. Approximately 150,000 people were killed outright, and another 50,000 went missing. The conflict created 1 million refugees and 200,000 orphans.

Those mountains still seethed as the Guatemala Project organized in 1993. "The first time we went in, the villagers were still surrounded by the army," says Abernathy. "All the way up to 1991, they had been bombed and strafed, and their crops had been destroyed."

Visiting the next year was particularly eerie, as project volunteers and Guatemalan activists trekked along a treacherous forest path. "We were stopped by the military and questioned," Abernathy says. "We had to walk through probably 40 to 60 military (personnel) scattered along the trail under trees. That was very frightening to the (Guatemalan) people we were with, given their history. But we just put our heads down and kept walking along, making no eye contact, and politely saying, 'Buenos tardes, buenos tardes.'"

In 1996, the United Nations brokered peace accords, ending the civil war. Three years later, a Guatemalan truth commission found that country's Mayan population had endured "acts of genocide" and constituted more than 80 percent of the country's human-rights abuse victims.

"The massacres, scorched-earth operations, forced disappearances and executions of Maya authorities, leaders and spiritual guides were not only an attempt to destroy the social base of the guerrillas," said the report, "but above all, to destroy the cultural values that ensured cohesion and collective action in Maya communities.'"

Commission Chairman Christian Tomuschat also noted the United States' dismal role. Even as the Guatemalan army was carrying out massacres, Tomuschat said, "the United States government and U.S. private companies exercised pressure to maintain the country's archaic and unjust socioeconomic structure."

He also pointed to the CIA and other federal agencies, which he said "lent direct and indirect support to some illegal state operations," encouraging the Guatemalan government to continue its genocide.

Nearly 10 years later, reform is a mixed success. The Guatemalan army has been greatly reduced, and the paramilitaries abandoned. But many former soldiers now offer their services to violent drug syndicates, and Guatemalan activists have been denied visas to the United States.

Successive Guatemalan governments have also failed to ease the suffering. While some land has been returned to the CPR-Sierra, many Mayans have been urged to resettle in crime- and malaria-riddled communities along the hot coast.

In a sense, then, the war still rages, as Guatemala's indigenous people attempt to reclaim their lives and shattered culture.

"On paper, the peace accords looked good," says Abernathy. "There was respect for the indigenous people. There was also supposed to be reparation for the loss of internally displaced people, universal education and rights of indigenous people to live as indigenous people. But those are still a long way from realization."

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