May 1, 2000
“Hey Carlos,” I said, glancing at the list of incoming emails, “there is one for you.” We had come early to my office of Rights Action, an NGO that supports human rights work in Mexico and Central America. “What does it say?”, Carlos asked of the email, written in English. “To whom it may concern, My name is Denese Becker and I am a survivor of the Rio Negro massacre.”
I stopped, surprised, and read again what I had just read to Carlos. An English name, through and through. Perfectly written English. The email was sent from Algona, Iowa last night. Intriguing, to say the least. Carlos is as perplexed as I am.
Carlos is a Mayan-Achi man from the rural village of Rio Negro in Guatemala. We had invited him to the US and Canada on a speaking tour to tell about how the Guatemalan Army and civil defense forces had wiped out his entire village, massacring over half the townspeople. They did this in large part because the villagers had opposed being forcibly resettled due to the Chixoy dam project that the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank were funding, via the Guatemalan military regime to the tune of $290,000,000.
The destruction of Carlos’ community and people — including his pregnant wife and two infant children — happened in 1982. Now, 18 years later, Carlos was in Washington, still trying to get some acknowledgment of what happened, still trying to get proper compensation and reparations for the Rio Negro massacre survivors.
And this morning, sitting before my computer, we were about to discover that we had just located one more massacre survivor. Or rather one more survivor had found Carlos, trying to reconnect with her home community and family.
With Carlos’ consent, we called the number, not realizing until too late that we were probably waking them up. The man who answered passed the phone to a woman’s sleepy voice: “Hello?” “Hi, this is Grahame Russell, and I am calling in response to an email that you sent us, trying to get in touch with Carlos Chen — well, he is standing here with me.” Silence. “Umm, listen, I realize now that I have called you quite early, should we call back at some other time?”
“No,” a quiet, almost timid voice said, “don’t hang up.”
The woman, a survivor of the Rio Negro massacre, explained to me that Denese was not her original name and that she had come to the US as a child orphan, adopted. I asked her if she spoke Achi [the language of the Rio Negro people] or Spanish. “No”, she quietly answered “I have forgotten it all.” I would translate the ensuing conversation between these long separated community members.
Carlos wanted to know her name. When Carlos heard the name “Dominga Sic Ruiz”, his eyes lit up, and he almost burst into tears. He was pacing around our small office. Since 1993, he has been working tirelessly to repair the destroyed and violated strands of his community. Dominga was one more piece, who had been whisked far away (fortunately to safety, love and security).
Carlos clearly remembered her as child. She was a ten year-old survivor of and witness to the terrible March 13, 1982 massacre of 107 children and 70 women in the village of Rio Negro, carried out by soldiers and civil defense patrollers.
“He remembers me?”, she quietly and urgently asks. “Yes”, I tell her and feel the silence and the weight of her history — known and unknown — and 18 years of separation and distance. Smiling, tears in his eyes, Carlos tells me that everyone in the community used to call her “la gringa”, because she was lighter skinned than most of the townspeople. When I told her this, she barely whispered “Yes, I AM lighter skinned.”
For the first time in 18 years, she was communicating with someone, albeit via translation, who knew of her childhood; someone who knew more about her than she knows, or at least remembers. In fact, she remembers so little of her childhood; she needs and wants to learn so much.
I know more about her community — all the atrocities that occurred; how many were brutally and mercilessly massacred — than she does. I find myself catching my breath, holding back tears. After so much crime, suffering and loss, a far flung survivor is trying to reach back to reconnect and heal herself, which is to reconnect and heal her community.
“Does Carlos know why I am lighter skinned? Is my mother or father light-skinned?” “Your mother, who came from the nearby town of Pajales, was lighter skinned. But we only called you la gringa for fun,” Carlos says, and I translate.
We make one futile attempt to have Carlos get on the phone and speak Achi to her — she tries, but she can’t remember. As a nine or ten year old, she spoke fluent Achi, with snatches of Spanish. Now, 18 years later, it is deeply buried. If she pursues this reconnection, she may well rediscover her spoken Achi.
When she pursues this reconnection, she will discover many sad and probably overwhelming things.
“Does Carlos know my family?” “Oh yes,” he replies, and he proceeds to name three uncles and two aunts on her father’s side, who live in Pacux, the same resettlement community where Carlos lives with his new wife and two children.
Another silence. “Does he know of my parents?” Yes, Carlos knows. “Your mother was killed that day in March, 1982, when you escaped, and your father was killed in Xococ,” a neighboring village. Again, the deep silence. My heart sunk, as I told her this, though she had suspected that her mother had been killed that day.
“Listen,” I finally said, “this must be incredibly overwhelming for you — I mean I find it hard myself, so I can’t imagine what you must be going through, and if you want us to call some other time . . . “. “No,” she cut in, quiet and firm, “I just . . . No, I want to find out, I am planning to back there — I want to go back, I want to see Rio Negro.”
Before the massacres of 1981 and 1982 [there were five in all, committed by soldiers and civil defense patrollers, leaving over 440 people dead], Rio Negro was an isolated Mayan community: no electricity; huts with thatched roofs; small farming plots and communal lands; chicken and cows; mango and coconut trees; plenty of fish in the river; and ancient religious sites and burial grounds. It had been home to the Rio Negro Achi people for over 700 years.
Today, more than half the former village — including all burial grounds and religious sites — lie under water, due to the Chixoy Dam flood basin, and all the remaining huts were destroyed by the soldiers and patrollers. In the last 4 years, a few families have gone back to live, to re-build from scratch.
This will be a hard home to go back to.
We talk some more. She asks how it was that she was saved? She doesn’t remember. She wants to know who saved her and how. Carlos knows. After the Rio Negro massacre, all survivors fled into the mountains, living in packs, hiding and sleeping by day, moving and foraging by night. No where to go, no food, no quarter — the Army and patrollers were after them. Their community was destroyed and the Chixoy river basin had been filled in. The Chixoy dam “development” project was nearing “successful” completion.
In the mountains, on the run, the elderly and the young died first, of hunger, disease and exhaustion. Whenever they could, the men would sneak an elderly person or a child out — walk down into the town of Rabinal at night, drop off a person at a friendly home. That person, putting his or her own life at risk, would then sneak the Rio Negro massacre survivor out of Rabinal.
Carlos told Denese that he knows the man that got her out of the mountains, to the home of a woman in Rabinal, who then took her to the Sisters of St. Vincent of Paul, who had a small convent in Rabinal. It was the Sisters who snuck her out of Rabinal and to an orphanage. From there, she was taught Spanish, and then adopted and taken to the US, the very country whose government was funding, training, arming and sometime participating directly with the Guatemalan Army that was destroying her country, including her hometown.
Carlos concludes by saying that the Army later assassinated Francisco Cuxum, the man that carried her out of the mountain. Another long silence. More resolve to continue learning her own story.
After 40 minutes, we say good bye. She has promised to send a letter to our office [“Will you translate it for me, as I can’t write it in Spanish.”] with a photo of herself, that Carlos will take to the surviving uncles and aunts. “I want to do everything I can to help them recover their land.”
We promise to keep in touch. I told her that if and when she were ready to go to Guatemala, it would be our pleasure and honor to support her, and serve as her guide during her re-introduction to her home country, to her surviving family members and to her home village, Rio Negro.
Grahame Russell, a Canadian human rights lawyer and development activist, is director of Rights Action, an NGO with offices in Washington DC (US), Toronto (Canada) and Guatemala. Rights Action supports community development work in southern Mexico and Central America. 1830 Connecticut Av, NW, Washington DC 20009, USA. T: 202-783-1123. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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