ADIVIMA, Justice for the Survivors

Crossing the Chixoy Reservior

The survivors of the Mayan genocide still struggle for justice. In the years since the height of the violence, 1981 and 1982, the strength of the indigenous people has grown. The organizers won’t even use the term leader because the leadership is shared but the ones who stand in front of the crowd are at the greatest risk. Those responsible for the massacres are still in key positions. The human rights activists, anthropologists, union leaders, journalists and the many survivors who were witnesses are all in danger, but if one leader is killed, another steps into place, something their persecutors don’t understand. The most vulnerable of them are accompanied by friends or foreigners whenever possible to protect their lives as they travel. Then they return home to the grinding subsistence work they have always done to put food into the mouths of their families.

After two days of introduction and history, we were feeling overwhelmed. We had a break to let what we had learned settle while we traveled north from Guatemala City to meet more UUSC partners.

In a restaurant on the main Guatemalan highway, my friends and I noticed a young man eating his fried fish dinner. The back of his T-shirts read “Yes! Genocide Happened!” We were surprised at his boldness and thrilled that the Guatemalans who tumbled off buses for a hurried rest stop and snack took no notice of his shirt. We had heard that so many people continued to deny what had happened.

He got up to leave and as he passed our table we gave him a thumbs-up. His grin said volumes.

The next morning, I was able to take an hour at dawn to enjoy the colorful birds that foraged in the undergrowth and sang in the bushes near our rooms. I find solace in nature and that hour helped me prepare for the day.

A delegation of Mayans with another UUSC partner joined us for breakfast. I sat down at the table next to one of the women who had brought her young daughter. As we talked, the little girl examined us over the lip of the table with big, brown eyes. Her little hand crept onto her mother’s plate and found pieces of scrambled egg to poke into her mouth.

Juan de Dios is a spokesperson for the Mayans and an organizer from the Association for Integral Development of Victims, Maya Achi (ADIVIMA). It is a Mayan-led organization created to seek justice for the survivors of the massacres and human rights violations that occurred to facilitate the Chixoy Dam construction. In September of 2004, they staged a peaceful rally to call attention to the case against the banks who funded the dam for ignoring the human rights violations that occurred to build it. Over 5000 Mayans gathered at the power company’s administration building. Some had traveled for days to participate The event had the proper permit, but later, for their part in the rally, Juan de Dios and seven others were accused of being terrorists. Arrest warrants were issued for all of them. Even today, each man must report to a distant police station every two weeks, interrupting his work, using precious money for his expenses and exposing him to the danger of having his travels known to anyone who wishes him harm.

Soon after the rally, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission declared that the World Bank and the Inter-American Bank as well as the Guatemalan government were liable for the human rights abuses and required them to pay reparations to the survivors. There is some solace in the international recognition, but the government pleaded poverty and survivors have not seen much of the money or the aid required by the Commission.

Even though the Guatemalan government is slow to make the reparations, the Rio Negro case could open the door for similar cases in other parts of the world where World Bank-funded projects uprooted thousands of communities against their will to accommodate enormous dams and other national economic development projects. Few of the promises to the people were fulfilled and millions of lives were damaged or destroyed.

Chixoy Site Sign

Our next destination was the Chixoy Dam area. Ten minutes down a dusty road from the main highway, our bus stopped next to a pleasant stream in a deep, dry canyon. Some people wanted to take photos, but there was a guard ahead holding a large gun. From the back of the bus, I glimpsed at what looked like a scree mountain slope, but it was the face of the dam, built in 1978.

The guard was reluctant to let us pass but we persuaded him that we were Americans and we owned the dam, in a manner of speaking. He let us pass. We wound our way up the dam face on a narrow road. Cresting the top, we continued along the ridge for a few more minutes and parked. After slapping on the final coat of sunscreen, we trickled down to the shore of the reservoir where a sturdy twenty-foot fiberglass boat awaited. No lifejackets. Three seats. One motor. This would never pass a safety inspection at home, but I wasn’t at home. I reminded myself that I was there for the experience. Three smiling men waited to help us from the crumbling shore over the bow and into the boat. It had ferried the families we would visit with no problems. Our load was much smaller than usual, they said, and we settled down for the ride.

The motor roared and a light breeze from our motion cooled the people in the bow and the rest of us were happy for what puffs of humid air found us in the stern. the land The banks of the reservior were arid and planted with rows of yucca. After denuding the slopes, the government realized the resulting erosion was imperiling the power generators, so they began replanting the bare hillsides.

We were motoring over a valley that had sustained twenty-three Mayan villages. They are still there, under the water, along with the land the Mayans had farmed and the graves of the people massacred in the village of Rio Negro. The people had refused the meager offer of compensation to move from the land of their ancestors to accommodate the reservoir. The government wanted that dam to be built and already had an answer in place. After the people said no, the men were tricked out of the village and killed. Then the civil patrol surrounded the houses and opened fire. Soldiers stood behind them, ready to shoot anyone whose trigger finger hesitated.

Four hundred forty-four Mayans died in Rio Negro for electrical power.

The two banks funding the project knew of the massacre. They did nothing.

Those who agreed to move were made promises that have yet to be fulfilled. Most live in extreme poverty with on-going trauma related to the massacres.

Chixoy Kids

We approached our destination, the hillside where fifteen families lived who refused to move. Corn stalks gripped the ridge near their scattered houses. Under a small clump of trees on the shore, a cluster of grinning children stood on an overturned boat. Our vessel gently bumped the bank and we scrambled ashore. The children giggled and pushed each other with the delight of novelty. They trailed behind us as we climbed a rutted path past houses with dirt yards, fences of crooked sticks, indignant squawking geese and emaciated puppies with happy tails.

At the old community building we perched on kindergarten chairs in the shadow of the overhanging roof and listened to the villagers take turns speaking. The young teacher who had been there for several years pleaded for help because the next year there would be too few children by government criteria to justify a school. He was rare, this teacher, because he spoke their language. Most teachers who came only spoke Spanish and only lasted a year. We were told how the people hauled every bag of cement and every cement block uphill for the new schoolhouse. Another man told us that people died because they are so far from a hospital. It’s a six hour walk to Rabinal or a boat ride, if they are lucky, to our launching place, still miles from the highway.

Chixoy Community Leaders

Sweat poured down my chest and not a hint of breeze disturbed the thick air. I watched the shadow’s edge creep toward my toes. I sympathized with their struggles and yet I asked myself why. Why were they there? How could they grow enough to feed everyone on that poor soil? Why, with all the isolation, did they stay? Then I realized I had moved many times in my life and there was no one place where I could be in the presence of my ancestors. I began to understand.

The translator reminded us to drink water, drink water, and we pulled out our bottles and took another gulp of the warm liquid.

When we picked our way down to the shore, ten or twelve boys splashed and played in the shallow water looking cool and refreshed. I envied them. The men helped us back into the boat and two of the laughing swimmers stood in the water and pushed us free of the sticky mud.