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Resistir para Vivir/ Resist to Live: Part Three
(all images: Jonas Moller)
In some respects, Don Benjamin is one of the lucky ones, a survivor.
As a 35-year-old indigenous peasant from Guatemala's western highlands, he has pushed the limits of survival, beyond what many could ever imagine -- outlasting a genocide aimed at him and other Maya civilians in the 1980s and '90s. It was a strategic, government-sponsored crusade that left him orphaned as a young teenager, fleeing into the mountainous backcountry, and eluding army search squads and aerial bombardments.
In the early 1980s, those who resolved to prolong their survival by living hidden in the wilderness formed the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPR). As a member of the CPR for nearly a decade and a half, Don Benjamin not only confronted repeated military attacks, he often lacked shelter and clothing amid dangerously chilly weather and constantly battled hunger.
He did not re-emerge from the CPR until after the signing of the Peace Accords in December 1996, which officially ended the military's so-called "counterinsurgency" operations against Guatemala's Maya population, implemented under the guise of hunting guerrilla fighters.
A few years later, a truth commission sponsored by the United Nations (U.N.) found that more than 200,000 people had been killed in the conflict -- the overwhelming majority were Maya -- establishing the bloodshed in Guatemala as one of the deadliest genocides in our hemisphere's modern history.
The CPR first publicly declared itself a civilian population under attack in a communique issued in September 1990; it had been resisting army violence and capture for more than eight years. The following year the United Nations dispatched human rights expert Christian Tomuschat to the Quiche highlands of Guatemala, the same region where Don Benjamin was living, to investigate the CPR's claims.
Upon arrival, Tomuschat immediately witnessed an air attack on a civilian community, prompting him to testify in February 1992 before the U.N. Human Rights Commission about what he had seen. At the time of his report, some 30,000 persons were still living in the CPR. His testimony signaled the end of army bombings on CPR communities and spiked international attention and outrage over the violence.
In 2000, a multiethnic coalition of Maya massacre survivors created the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), an organization seeking to hold military and political leaders accountable for their role in the violence. Don Benjamin, along with other AJR companeros (companions in struggle), is risking his life by volunteering to serve as a witness in legal cases charging former dictators and their high commands with genocide against the Maya.
The chief target of the AJR's organizing is Efrain Rios Montt, an ex-president who ruled over the bloodiest episodes of the genocide. Complicating its efforts is the fact that Rios Montt is running for Congress in September's national elections, and he argues that, if elected, congressional immunity laws would protect him from prosecution.
WireTapMag.org caught up with Don Benjamin to ask about life in the CPR as well as the AJR's current struggle to hold the genocide's architects accountable for their crimes.
WT: How did your experience in the Communities of Populations in Resistance (CPR) begin?
Don Benjamin: Well, it was like this: in 1982, February 14th was the first massacre of my village. The second was the 22nd of March, when they assassinated my father. It was the army and the civil patrol. They forcibly disappeared my uncles, and other family members were also murdered.
I was 13 years old and left here towards the river. There we went behind the older people, defending their lives. Traveling, we were very hungry -- we had nothing to eat, we were thirsty and left with only the threats from the army. We could no longer walk calmly. We walked day and night without food, without clothes. All of our corn had been burned and also our houses. That's how it was defending my life on the way to Ixiltenam.
How was day-to-day life, in terms of finding food and so on, when you were in the CPR?
Well, day to day we were struggling, looking for food, during these times of the internal armed conflict. We would eat roots and other grasses that one must not eat, but we were forced to eat due to the hunger. Like that, we were defending our lives and living.
When the army attacked you in the CPR, was it because there were guerrilla fighters there, or why exactly?
They attacked for pleasure, to be direct. We were purely civilians: children and elderly men and women living there in these little places. The army arrived to destroy all of our tiny homes. At this point, we no longer had good houses but rather sites where we could live. So they arrived to cut down what we had. We'd change locations, they'd arrive to attack us again, sometimes to capture and murder us, our companeros, in these places.
What types of threats did the army pose?
Well, either infantries or airplanes would come to bombard us. The blood of various companeros was spilled for defending the children and the elders. Sometimes our CPR lookouts would end up captured by the army, who would then kill them. They would burn them alive -- for defending the children. I was growing up during this, for some 14 years; I was resisting like this in the wilderness of Ixiltenam.
Thanks to God for protecting us during the suffering that we passed through -- without clothes, without food, without salt. Lots of suffering, and my siblings were very little, and I had to suffer a lot with them.
Did many people die in the CPR, and, if so, from what?
Many companeros died from hunger and from the army. There are those who died for only going out to find food but could never return to their little homes, because they stayed behind, murdered in the trail by the army. Hunger, too, affected us a lot.
What was your impression of the United States' role in all of this?
What we want to say is that when the airplanes came to bomb us, they were accompanied by those helicopters from the United States called Chinooks. It frightened us a lot. Our companeros would say, "Those are from the United States. I think they've come to terminate us." But thanks to God, they could not terminate us because many of us were alive, and now we are still like that, still here, as those left behind of the victims, of our families.
Although the AJR first filed charges of genocide in 2000, the Guatemalan government has still failed to advance them. Why do the authorities not want to move these cases forward?
Because they are the same people. It is cronyism mixed with militarism; they defend them to defend themselves. Because they feel powerful -- not like us, the indigenous, the Maya people that we are. We are very looked down upon by the powerful.
For that reason, we continue soliciting efforts from, and we give thanks to, those from other countries who have often defended us, for supporting us morally so that we may demand our rights. We don't want for the times that already happened to us to return once again.
Now we see that the authorities have tried to destroy the possibility of us getting involved and rising up to demand our rights. We also see that the authorities, like the civil police, they are the kidnappers that walk around in our country, Guatemala, threatening our people.
We want justice. It is what we ask of the international community. We do not want to see any more blood; we no longer want to see all the suffering that transpired in the year 1982. We want to see peace with our families. We want to be the future, the felicity of our country.
What do you make of General Rios Montt's upcoming, probably successful bid for Congress?
We do not want to see Mr. Rios Montt advance anymore because he is a murderer. May God grant that justice be served for this man, for all of the suffering that he has caused us. And now he wants to remain a candidate, but we no longer want to even see him in Guatemala.
What do you think about the AJR's struggle and the genocide cases you all are pursuing?
I am very supportive of the AJR, and for the same reason that I am a witness, too -- for my parents who were assassinated by the army. This is why I demand, as my right, that it is just what the AJR is doing, to demand justice. I wish that the international community would support the AJR even more so, that we might continue pressing forward.
Because we are already tired of all the threats our population has suffered. And now, today, every day men and women are dying, there are kidnappings, torture. We are coming to learn that the same government has authorized these threats against the Guatemalan people. And so I ask that the international community support us in demanding justice so that peace might be made here in Guatemala.
Four ways to support the AJR:
- Email Guatemalan President Oscar Berger and Ambassador Jose Guillermo Castillo to demand that they prosecute Rios Montt for his leadership in the genocide.
- Organize a postcard drive in your community. Contact Amnesty International to request free copies of a new, informative postcard demanding that Guatemalan authorities finally let the survivors testify and move the charges forward: ija (at) aiusa.org.
- Apply to become a human rights accompanier. AJR activists, because of the threats facing them, have requested for Westerners to live and travel with them as a measure of protection. Apps due Aug. 17.
- To see more of Jonathan Moller's photography of the CPR in Guatemala and to learn how to host his consciousness-raising exhibits in your community, check out these portfolios: Refugees Even After Death and Our Culture Is Our Resistance.
<Editor's note: Various details were altered to protect the safety and identity of Don Benjamin.)
Translation and introduction by Elias Lawless, 22, an independent journalist from Texas working in and around Guatemala. Contact him with comments or ideas for collaboration or to support the AJR at elias (at) riseup(dot)net.