SATURDAY APRIL 1
The Road to Guatemala........Pat Fox........Antigua.......
Packed into a hired Hiace with a driver Samuel and his off-side Oscar, and all our luggage, we left El Salvador and bumped our way to the Guatemala-El Salvador border, and arrived in Guatemala city
after about a five hour run.
Here we picked up Pat Fox, an Australian Salesian who has been here for nine years working in poor rural areas with the Qeqchi people, one of the Mayan ethnic groups.
Pat came with us to the tourist town, Antigua, and here there were gringos
Back in El Salvador we were a bit of a novelty, but here we looked like the tourists.
It was an interesting shift of image.
Pat's here he says because of the opportunity the place gives him to live a more radical life, free of all that weighs us down at home. Australia he says is trivial, caught up in its own life and not interested substantially in anything much beyond its borders. There is too much to distract you from living the gospel there and having a clear spiritual path. The Church in Australia is "fucked" and here he says, he has a chance to live some authentic experience of church.
His people are spread over about 60 or so villages, all without power, in mud brick and straw houses, and living a subsistence life. They are part of the 60% of the people in Guatemala who live in extreme poverty. Even government statistics show that 90% of the population here lives in poverty, 60% of the population live in extreme poverty, 7% are a sort of middle class and 3% are wealthy.
Pat's people he says, have a strong spirit, think in concrete and experiential terms, and for them to meet the gospel, it has to be in terms of what happened last week, or what someone said to someone else, or how the crops are going. This sounds pretty much like the original gospel from where I sit, and I know the same approach works at home.
Pat says that his people have little interest in the REMHI process which the Church's Social Justice organization is running to help people recover their memory of the war and to move forward through a reconciliation process to a healing. He says his people prefer simply to forget - it's their culture, he says - and raising all this pain again simply causes the wounds to bleed some more.
Pat is in charge of his community, but is fairly isolated in terms of his mission - there is none or very little connection with his Province back in Australia and the Province here regards him and his group as being out in left field - they mostly run schools for the more well-off in Central America.
His choice of a radical life suits him, and he is happy here. I am left with a question about where his support network is. Over a couple of late beers with Sean and myself, he tells us that he can never talk Alike this" in his own community - no one can hear what he's on about. I hope he's ok as he journeys on - email will be a good contact.
We have a memorable evening with Pat, with his raw energy, and his struggling to find English words, since he speaks mostly Qeqchi or Spanish now.
Given we spent many hours on the road, we still managed to pack in some fascinating conversation. SUNDAY APRIL 2
Santiago Atitlan and the Guatemalan story opens a little.......
An early start from our back-packer style and primitive accommodation in Antigua and a lovely early morning drive of about two hours to Panajchal and Lago (Lake) Atitlan flanked by two towering volcanoes. A magnificent sight on a sparkling Sunday. Again this is tourist country complete with hotels and restaurants for visiting gringos, which means we had a sumptuous breakfast, an excellent change from the breakfast fare of recent days.
We were a touch late for the boat which would have got us across the lake to Santiago Atitlan (Santiago means Saint James of course!) in time for Mass at 10.00, but breakfast was a priority at this stage. Sean hired a smaller boat for us, which took us across the lake at a much better speed than the bigger tourist boats could have managed, and we enjoyed the breeze in our faces. We briefly visited Santiago Atitlan and the church where Father Stanley Rother was murdered in 1981. An American, he had stood by the people during the war, and along with his confreres had decided that instead of allowing themselves to be arrested and "disappeared", they would stay and face the consequences. He knew the military were after him, and so slept in different rooms each night. Finally he ran out of rooms and was assassinated. Hearing his story and sitting in the room where he gave his life, added to the picture of a people who with their priests and religious, had come through the most horrific sufferings and who are now seeking a new spirit of hope together.
Here things are a lot more stark than in El Salvador as the war only finished in 1996 and the wounds are still tender and ever so deep.
The town resonates with the music and preaching of an evangelical rally, a Mass baptism down at the lake, and quietly tucked away in a little room we pass, a trio seem to be worshipping a wooden idol with a cigar in its mouth. The room is full of incense and candles, chanting and solemnity and it costs 10 Quetzales to take a photo!
Again onto the boat for the trip back to Panajchal via a little duck sanctuary where we see the only colony of Poks in the world - a small duck with a white bill.
Onto the bus and a ride to the market town of Chichi Castenango where we crawl through the crowded markets, stepping in all sorts of slippery and indistinguishable muck, up the steps of the church and into an amazing sight. The church is Catholic, and the religion here is mixed with Mayan culture and religion. It's often enough that the people come here for Mass of a morning and then head up the hill to a sacred rock where they sacrifice a chicken for blessings on the day ahead.
The church is littered with floral displays, statutes of saints all dressed in local garb, and the by now familiar statue of a dead Jesus lying in state in a sort of coffin.
At the door an old lady kneels on the rough dirty stones of the church steps with a small tin billowing incense smoke and praying intently.
The markets are designed for tourists - they are extensive, expensive and bartering will be easier in the city Sean tells us, which successfully puts all of us off making any purchases! It's a real "Bags and pockets" place - code for us to watch our bags and pockets - people rushing and brushing by. Men with loads of wood on their backs and the women and girls with amazing loads on their heads. The women of the various Mayan groups have a distinctive dress and each group has its own pattern - they look lovely and are all trying to eke out a living in these markets. A baby tugged at a very dry-looking breast and a clutch of chooks and turkeys sit, seemingly resigned to their fate. Monsenor Cabrero - and REMHI......
Another drive and we are at Santa Cruz, and catch the end of a children's Mass in the Cathedral. Sean seeks out the local bishop who was in San Salvador for the SICSAL conference last week. Don Cabrera agrees to see us and again our spirits are deeply moved as we listen to this gentle, compassionate pastor speak of the REMHI process and the profound healing that is necessary because of the war.
His beautiful eyes fill as he talks about the suffering of his people, where members of the same family fought on opposite sides, recruited cynically by the military and indoctrinated, - and now they have to learn to live together again. Many of the massacres and atrocities were committed by locals and I think it's no wonder that people want to forget as Pat said yesterday.
REMHI involved the community - diocese and parishes agreeing to take on the project. It was publicly promoted and then don Cabrera says that everyone at the consultative meeting embraced the plan. It gave people the opportunity to come forward and in a safe environment tell the stories of their grief, the violence they suffered and to open the wounds for healing. Naming the pain is crucial for these people, who in their gentleness tend apparently to simply move on carrying the most profound suffering unresolved.
In the light of the stories, the location of mass graves is revealed and the exhumations take place in the presence of families and support people. Don Cabrera says that a crucial part of the reconciliation is not reconciliation first with the former enemy but rather with the dead. The dead whose fate has been unknown or only suspected, are retrieved from their brutal resting place, each one given a proper wake and funeral, and finally a burial with dignity and grace. The family are now allowed to do their grieving and farewell their lost ones with dignity.
Later on comes reconciliation with the former enemy.
Don Cabrera says there are three sacred things that guide him:
1 . The creation that God gives us for our living and the creation we are;
2 . The insertion of God into human history - God comes to us through our humanity - in Jesus and now in us;
3 . Pardon - forgiveness.
Holding these three as sacred are his clues for moving forward. His whole body speaks of compassion - he is a bishop who is a servant and who leads through love - the gospel is unspeakably beautiful when it is lived this way.
No wonder Linda falls in love with him - "he put his arm around me too!" She is beating me in the falling in love stakes by about 8-2 on this trip - but who's counting?
We leave Santa Cruz as dusk falls and begin a long, windy and bumpy drive back to Antigua - after a while we travel mostly in silence, alone with our thoughts - re-visiting another remarkable encounter on this journey of remarkable encounters.
While all this is going on, El Salvador cause a major boilover by beating Guatemala 1-0 in a World Cup qualifying match in Guatemala city.
And so to sleep - Bruno and I share "Cell No 3" - and it feels a bit like it too! MONDAY APRIL 3
A bright clear morning in Antigua with a few spare hours - a shoe shine, breakfast, an hour at an internet cafe and a little repair job on my camera which dropped off my belt outside the cathedral yesterday when the strap broke.
Then the drive back into Guatemala city - we pull up outside our little hotel and I step straight into a smelly cocktail, which turns out to be the result of a sewerage problem our hotel is trying to fix - so much for the shoe-shine!!We meet with Roberto Cabrera in Guatemala City, and hear first hand the story of REMHI and the death of Mgr Girardi in April 1998
We settle in for a while and then head to the Cathedral for yet another memorable encounter. Roberto Cabrera.....the work of REMHI & Monsenor Girardi=s Murder......
Roberto Cabrera (no relation to yesterday's bishop) spends about two hours with us. Roberto is Director-General - Internal Affairs of the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala. A short gentle man, married with four children, with soft eyes and a gentle voice, speaking excellent English, he tells the story of REMHI - which he has been in charge of administering since early last year. Like the bishop yesterday, Roberto fills us with a profound sense of the horrors that people have inflicted on each other, as he details the development of the REMHI project and how it has impacted on the findings of the government sponsored report on the atrocities of the war.
Stories of people who carried brutal wounds in their soul for years, like one woman who came into to reveal her story to the REMHI people - she has a chronic pain in her back that nothing has cured - and eventually she reveals that she was carrying her baby girl on her back as they were fleeing the bombs and machine guns, and when she reached safety she found her baby had died.
Then there was the woman who, hiding by the side of the road as military passed by, put her hand over her baby's mouth to stop it from crying out and betraying their position, and when the danger had passed, she found that in her fright she had suffocated her baby.
The reports were published in four large volumes on April 24 1998. The bishop responsible Don Girardi - publicly released the report and was assassinated on April 26.
After many smokescreens put up by the army - it was a gay killing, a priest's German shepherd had done it at the orders of the priest, a street person or gang had killed him.....and so on, and after the first committal judge had been shown to be totally biassed, and the second prosecutor had had to flee the country for Costa Rica, after receiving death threats, and after the anthropological "expert" brought in by the government had been shown up as a fraud, a fair judge finally was put in place and two military officers were arrested and are being charged with the murder and a priest is being charged with complicity. The process continues, but there is no separation of powers here and the President can pressure judges to hurry or to reach certain verdicts - the corruption is endemic.
International pressure from many countries, not including the US, are prompting the government to encourage the trial process.
The army radio station keeps putting out misinformation to muddy the case and mislead the public.
Roberto's eyes cloud with exhaustion as he speaks of the incredible burden of seeking any sort of justice within this lopsided system.
His clear courage and deep practical faith are behind every word and tears are not far away as he speaks with longing for the peace of his people.
The REMHI report is now in many languages and we arrange to get the English version. A new "popular" version is to be launched on the 26th, the second anniversary of Girardi's death, in four of the twenty two Mayan languages and in Spanish - full of graphic drawings which re-tell the stories of the war.
Three dioceses have yet to embrace REMHI properly so there is still work to be done. Roberto is convinced of its value, and Sean and I are reminded of Pat Fox's fairly dismissive comments about the value of REMHI for his Qeqchi people.
Roberto responds to our questions about this and says that the Qeqchi have indeed embraced the process and in many instances have provided some of the best testimony. He says that the reticence we have heard about (and which Pat had described as cultural), is not cultural at all - "I know, I'm a Qeqchi myself!" Sean and I have the same thought - we'd like to talk to Pat some more but that won't be possible yet.
Linda (suitably in love again) presents Roberto with four small toy koalas for his children. We offer him our prayers and promise of whatever expressions of solidarity might be appropriate in the future and take our leave. Mobilising civil communities........
We're all quite buggered but have another appointment with a mate of Sean's - Eddie, married with a child, and head of an office which is involved at a civil level in the reconstruction of Guatemalan society. As Roberto had said, people's relationships with each other are deeply scarred, and Eddie's office ahs been a key player in forwarding the cause of reconciliation in government and civic circles - and the battle is far from won yet.
Eddie was once grilled by a bishop and accused of working for URNG - the guerilla movement - and "the promotion of an ecclesial model outside the perameters of the Episcopal conference." He gave direct church involvement away and now works for the "Kingdom of God" in other ways - through SICSAL and other agencies including his own office where he is Executive Secretary.
He has had threats to his life, but is committed to continuing the struggle "for life and peace". His agency is an Assembly of civil societies representing different sectors, campesenos, ethnic groups, professional groups, workers and so on. The Assembly aims to bring together the most excluded social sectors - but of course there is in-fighting between the various sectors and more corruption develops. It's often strong international pressure that helps keep the process moving forward.
He says that the post-conflict stage is far more complex than the previous war period. The war went from 1960-1996 and so is alive in the memory and experience of nearly every person here.
Fiscal reform is a priority for the Assembly. At the moment, anyone in the country earning between $US100 and $1500 per month are paying between 8 and 11% tax. The wealthy are paying about 1.4%.
Last Friday 10,000 people marched on the government offices to protest this injustice and to plead for a change.
These previously excluded social sectors are participating for the first time in the policy-making process.
They are now looking for alternative funding sources which will give them greater freedom of operation.
A referendum last year was defeated on the back of much misinformation, and so the law remains the same which enables the army still to be involved both in internal affairs and external affairs. Unlike most armies which are focussed outwards, the arm here can interfere legally with policing and other internal matters - and we see them everywhere around the streets here, guns at the ready.
Fundamentalist groups, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation from the 1970's, designed to break the Church's influence and alleged communist leanings, are popular Eddie says. People are looking for religion to comfort rather than challenge or empower them and these groups plug right in there - "it may not be all that bad at for the moment, but it does not help our process move forward."
Now we are even more buggered than ever and with a copy of "Guatemala - memory of silence" (the official report of the Commission for Historical Clarification), we head out looking for some tucker and a few cervesas.
Later at the hotel we sip a scotch or two and talk with our neighbour - a Guatemalan who was adopted and brought up in Belgium. he is working here as a volunteer for a couple of years. Sleep comes easily. TUESDAY APRIL 4
Again we visit Eddie at his centre where we meet Fernando his assistant.He wants to talk about his project. From June last year, a number of friends met together, from the organizations, who want to form an organization to support the work of human rights, and with a political dimension.
They want to help the groups who are weakest the moment - and aim to develop strategies for gaining improved housing, land access and education. The further aim is to have the groups preparing funding proposals for themselves. Not having much formation in these areas, they need to learn the skills to help them in their negotiations with the government.
Three sectors are involved - people of the marginalised suburbs, unions, and teachers. A fourth sector would be the women working in factories.....
They have no support for this project so far - it's of no interest to the groups who donate money. Their interest is more in indigenous and women's affairs.
Another project is not popular because it does not aim at concrete results immediately - it would be more in terms of people being trained and having support.
They are thinking of setting up their own business whose profits would go back into the project - and the people would be employed by the organization.....and this would help the organization give support to the various sectors.
They are looking to form contacts in other countries for support and for markets.
He gives us a small package hoping we could sell for them, and they are asking for accommodation during the Olympics so they can make some contacts there.
One reason for this development is that funding through NGO's is diminishing because much of their funding goes into developing their own structures rather than benefiting the people. This was recently evaluated at the level of the European Union and US government where the funding comes from, and their funding has been reduced. This means that organizations like Eddie's, need to look for alternative ways to help the people in real development terms. This factory is the start of what they hope will become a larger initiative.
He gives us details of the project and I make a note to pass this on to Ron Nissen at our Marist Mission Centre in Sydney to see what assistance we may be able to offer.