Santa María Tzejá

by Nathalie Sorensen Email

Arrival, (March 2004)

We are a group of fourteen Canadians interested in social justice and human rights on a study tour of Guatemala and last night we arrived in Santa María Tzejá, a Mayan village in a remote northern region of the country, the Ixcán. We drove for nine hours in a couple of small vans, crossing high mountain ranges, to reach Santa María from the capital. For the final four hours of our trip, the dirt road was so rough that the vans were forced to slow almost to a stop as they negotiated pot holes more than a foot deep. The scenery was magnificent: brilliant green fields, groves of tall tropical trees hung with vines, high mountain passes, small plantations of corn here and there, banana plants in the deep ravines, their wide leaves shining in the afternoon light.

We pass through a couple of villages, and an army base, but mostly this region is wild and green and empty of people. It is unwise to linger on the road past nightfall. Near the end of our journey, as the day is turning to dusk, we pass an ancient Ford stranded on the side of the road, one of its front tires flat to the ground. Two tall young blond women and a couple of Guatemalan men stand beside the car. One man flags us down and explains that he has no tire changing equipment, so the operation is likely to take a long time. He has two Dutch girls as passengers and is afraid for their safety if they remain on the side of the road as night falls. The area is known to harbour outlaws and brigands. We agree to take the girls with us, and fortunately for them our driver’s mother keeps a small pension in a village just a few km down the road. We can take them there for the night. The girls collect their backpacks and board our van. On the way, they explain that they have just completed three months as volunteers in an orphanage in the city of Antiqua and are on a holiday tour of the country. The young Guatemalan who owns the Ford is driving them around. We deliver them to the pension, and wish them well for the rest of their journey.

It is well past nightfall when we reach Santa María, and we are helped by the aid of flashlights to the cabins we will occupy. Soon we gather on the patio of our host’s home and are served a delicious meal of chicken, fresh green squash, black bean paste, and tortillas by candlelight in the warm enclosing night.

Bartolo

Today, our first in Santa María, we will take a walk to visit the farm of a Mayan village elder, Bartolo. We set out along the well graded road in the village to meet Bartolo at his home about a kilometre from the cabins where we spent the night. It is about 9:00 a.m. The day is sunny and warm, perfect for this expedition. Soon we turn off the road to follow a footpath into a grove of trees which form a canopy over our heads dappling the sun here and there in the warm green gloom. By the side of the path, a young girl is lying in a hammock reading. We greet her and she shows us her book. It is the Popol Vuh, a sacred book of the Mayans.

We continue along the path which soon widens into a cattle trail leading to a small group of houses. We have reached Bartolo’s home, and he comes out to greet us. He stands tall and handsome, a man in his seventies with great personal dignity. We are introduced: Bartolo a former president of the village agricultural co-operative, is the father of eight children, one of whom, Victor Hugo, lives in a house right next door. After a few pleasantries, we are on our way.

Bartolo leads us along a path which moves steeply upward, through a large patch of jungle. The light is filtered through the canopy as we follow a narrow path through the tangle of growth. Birds call overhead; we feel ourselves surrounded by dense activity in the burgeoning elaborations of leaves and vines. We stop at the top of a rise and Bartolo points out a stand of cardamom in the dip below. The plants have palm like fronds approximately ten feet high, growing quite close together. We descend the slope to examine them and he shows us a frond lying close to the ground which holds both flowers and small oval green fruit. Bartolo picks a large handful of fruit and offers them to us, a gift from his farm.

We continue upward and soon come to a fenced pasture where about twenty Brahmin cattle are grazing. The cattle are small, mostly brown, with large pendulous neck wattles. Bartolo is clearly proud of his healthy herd and admits that he likes to see it increase just for the pleasure of ownership. He tells us that his land holdings in total measure 20 hectares.

We climb further up past some small plantations of corn and reach two small sheds on stilts. These are where Bartolo stores his corn. We look in and see the cobs of corn, husks left on, neatly stacked like cordwood against the wall of the shed. This is a good place to stop for a rest, and as we do, Bartolo tells us a story. He speaks in Spanish and our friend Heather translates.

“One night, well after dark, I heard strange noises around the sheds. The cattle just below were nervous and agitated. Of course I was wondering what it could be, but since I did not have my shotgun with me, I decided not to go and investigate just then. I went up the following day and found a freshly killed deer, its carcass half eaten. The only thing that could kill such a large animal is el tigre.”

Heather uses the Spanish word el tigre.

“What is that?” we enquire. El tigre, we are told, is the jaguar.

We continue our walk up another slope to reach Bartolo’s vanilla plantation. We admire the broad waxy leaves of the vanilla vines twined on small trees for support, and after one last steep climb reach the top of the hill. From here the view is expansive: pastures on the hills nearby, a grove of palm from which “heart of palm” is harvested, mountains in the distance. A hawk wheels slowly overhead as we admire the view

Then Bartolo points to an area of jungle just below the hill on which we stand. “That is where we fled and hid after the attack in 1982,” he says.

Immediately images of terrified villagers running for their lives in the tangled underbrush of the jungle flood our minds. The day before yesterday, in Guatemala City, we saw a video re-enacting the scene. The massacre, one of many in villages throughout the region in the early 1980s as the army carried out its scorched earth policy in the civil war, has also been well documented in books. On February 13, 1982, the Guatemalan army stormed the village and pursued the villagers who, alerted by neighbours, had fled to the jungle a couple of hours before. During the next five days, using helicopters and foot patrols, the army massacred seventeen people from the village, most of them women and children. The buildings in the village and the crops were burned to the ground and the animals slaughtered. Who lived and died was quite arbitrary. A thirteen year old girl told her mother she would carry her little sister along as they fled. Thinking to save her daughter the mother said, “No, just run as fast as you can.”

Shortly after, she heard gunfire in the direction the girl had run, and later found her daughter dead. Assuming his family were safe, another villager, Manual Canil, left his mother, wife and six children with members of their extended family hidden in a small ravine while he went with his older son to look for a more sheltered location. While he was gone, a dog barked and alerted an army patrol which killed nine people in the group. Only Manuel’s five year old son escaped. He hid behind a bush and saw the others machine gunned or executed with a shot in the head.

For the survivors, the time of hiding in the jungle was terrible. The army continued to threaten them. Fierce storms lashed the people. There was little food: corn left from earlier harvests, roots and wild fruit, and what there was could only be cooked after dark so the smoke from the fires would not alert the soldiers.

The time of hiding varied from group to group, sometimes a month or so, sometimes much longer, but eventually about half the villagers returned to the village and half left for Mexico. The journey, for those who walked to Mexico was long, difficult and dangerous. One group of about ninety people left for Mexico together. Single young men took positions in front and back of the line. They scouted the safest route and kept watch for the army. Families with small children stayed in the middle.

Once they reached Mexico, in the Lacondon Forest of Chiapas, everything changed. The refugees were greeted with open arms by the indigenous campesinos. The refugee agency COMAR (Mexican Commissions for Help with Refugees) was directed to serve as a channel of United Nations help for this new refugee population, along with help from other international agencies. The Guatemalan refugees in Mexico, fleeing from massacres in hundreds of communities, eventually numbered two hundred thousand, forty-six thousand in official refugee camps. Those from Santa María stayed for twelve years.

The refugees organized themselves well, according to accounts of these years. Each camp elected community leaders and established decision making procedures. Community cooperatives and stores were set up and selected young people were enabled to study agronomy, livestock management, carpentry, mechanics and education. Others formed groups to study their human rights as well as the history and constitution of Guatemala.

Bartolo and his family, his wife and eight children, four girls and four boys, were among those who fled to Mexico. He speaks of his time there with gratitude. He was offered land in Chiapas, enough to have allowed him to make a living, but he decided to return to Guatemala. His voice rings with sincerity as he tells us, “My heart is in Guatemala.”

Mexico, generous as it was, was still exile. Three of his daughters, however, married Mexicans and are still in Chiapas. They are prosperous and have good farms; one has a herd of a hundred cattle. These daughters helped their father re-establish himself in Santa María. Their gift of six cattle was the basis of his present herd.

We turn away from the view and the memories and head back down the trail to the village. On the way Bartolo tells us that malaria was common in the early days of the community, when Santa María was first established in the jungles of the Ixcán in the 1960s. He himself almost died of it. He turns aside from the path and picks a tall plant with yellow flowers, somewhat like mustard, but larger. He holds the plant against his body as he picks leaves from the stem and crushes them in his palms to show us how an infusion is made to cure malaria. Now, he says, malaria is rare in Santa María.

Bartolo’s wife comes out to greet us as we reach his home. She smiles and shakes our hands as we give our thanks and say goodbye, then draws him into their modest one room home.

The Witnesses

We are gathered in a large circle on the lawn behind our sleeping cabins, we visitors, and some of the villagers, about thirty-five people in all. It is early evening and we are waiting for the witnesses of Santa María who have agreed to speak with us. Four villagers, two men and a married couple join us, and all of the company introduce themselves.

These witnesses are family members of those in Santa María who died in February 1982. Along with other witnesses from twenty-two other communities, they have launched class-action lawsuits against the generals who were in power during the years of violence against the people, Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt. They have charged these men with crimes against humanity.

The witnesses, each in turn, tell us the names of the mother, the sons and daughters, the brothers who were killed. They thank us for coming and for our interest in the case. As they speak, the swift tropical dusk deepens and night comes. A full moon rises, serene and bright. A poor-will, southern relative of the whip-poor-will, calls melodiously from a tree to our left.

The witnesses speak in Spanish; Heather translates for us. Pablo (the names of the witnesses have been changed) begins. He tells of the horror of February 1982, of the flight to Mexico, and of the return on the thirteenth of May, 1994.

“When we came back,” he says, “we started to think about those who died, buried in unmarked graves. With the support of various organizations, we carried out exhumations and were able to give a few of our loved ones proper burials, though sadly the remains of most were not found. Then we began to think about legal charges. The process is very slow. This is the first case of its kind in Guatemala.”

He outlines some of the difficulties, machinations of officialdom to obfuscate and delay the process. “People are afraid, as the accused have political and economic power,” he tells us.

“Rios Montt was President of Congress in the last government, but though he ran

for President in the election of November 2003, he lost. There is hope now, as the new government is exposing the vast corruption of the previous one.”

Now it is Marco’s turn to speak. He says that the communities in which there were massacres have designated February 25 as the annual day of commemoration for those killed. “The names of each victim, with the dates and places of death were embroidered on pieces of cloth. These small pieces were sewn together into a banner.

Each community, San Marcos, Quiche, Coban, -- all of them – made a similar banner and on February 25, we all marched in the capital with our banners. Many other people from the capital joined us. We were all shouting for justice. We went around several blocks and when we arrived at the Congress, we put the banners down on the ground. The Vice-President and two representatives came out and said the Congress would recognize this day officially as a day of commemoration.

“Then we went through the streets to arrive at the National Palace. The President himself came out to speak with us. He said that the government was responsible for the violence and asked for pardon of those present. People felt hope for this. Past governments have never before taken responsibility,“ he concluded.

In the warm dark, we are all very quiet as Marco thanks us for coming and listening to their story.

“It motivates us to know people care about our cases,” he says. “We have received support from many groups. This support is very important to us. May you go on informing others so there will be other protests, so this will never happen again. In the name of the families, and the whole community of Santa María, thank you.”

Farewell

The last time I saw Bartolo, he was sitting with his wife in the audience in a small community hall. It was our last evening in Santa María, and young people, teenagers from the school, were putting on a short performance for us and their parents. A group of eight, four girls dressed in their hand woven skirts and blouses, and four boys in white shirts, straw hats and colourful sashes, danced a traditional Mayan folk dance. The evening ended when a young man with a guitar sang a song in honour of the fallen of Santa María. His warm sweet voice spoke of pain, of strength, and ultimately of love.

“Santa María,” he sang, “Santa María.”

I glanced over at Bartolo. He was not smiling, but what I think I saw in his face was quiet pride, and hope for the future.

© Nathalie Sorensen

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