RTÉ broadcaster John Creedon recently travelled to Guatemala to see the work of Trócaire ahead of the development agency’s annual Lenten campaign.
Like many people in Ireland, I’m familiar with reports about the caravans of displaced people moving through Central America to escape violence, poverty and oppression. But our visit to the Casa De La Memoria (Memory Museum) in Guatemala City today is a sobering reminder of just how the indigenous Mayan people have been dealing with similar problems since the time of the conquistadors.
Generation after generation, these people have been pushed off their land. Our tour guide, an inspiring young woman named Andrea (a second-year Law student), gives us a succinct overview of the oppression her people have faced.
Forced into colonial servitude by the Spanish, the Mayans then faced the indignity of dispossession and displacement — a reality that has continued throughout Guatemala’s path to independence and beyond. Today, many big businesses exploit the country’s rural natural resources, leaving many Guatemalans landless.
A bitter conflict was fought between the military and civilian forces from the 1960s through to the ’90s. An estimated 200,000 people were murdered or ‘disappeared’ — 83% of these victims were indigenous Mayans.
After our museum visit, we set off on a seven-hour drive through the beautiful countryside to meet some of these Mayan communities.
Along seven-hour journey leads us to the community of Parana in the fertile and stunning Polochic Valley. This is home to a young lady who may become familiar to you over the next few weeks — María (9) is one of three girls who feature on this year’s Trócaire box.
María’s family were violently evicted from these lands — their ancestral homeland — in 2011. Their home was burned down by state forces and a private security firm. They returned here four years later with the backing of Trócaire and their partners CUC (a local land rights group). A number of families in the community now have precautionary measures to protect them in the short-term, although their future remains uncertain.
We are treated to a warm welcome by the locals, who hold a really beautiful traditional Mayan ceremony for us.
Travelling up through the Polochic Valley, you can’t help but notice the fine quality of the land. Local people and CUC workers I speak with feel the African palm-oil production, one of the big businesses in the region, is a waste of good land.
Despite generations of displacement, the Mayan’s relationship with the land remains so gentle. They leave a very light footprint and have a very open system; all of the families of the community share each other’s allotments; their animals move around freely and the children run from house to house. They clearly have a real grá for Trócaire, CUC and those who are supporting them in their effort to once again call this place ‘home’.
They rely on such support to stake their claim. Very few people here speak Spanish. They continue to speak their native Mayan tongue, which means they struggle to engage with the modern legal system and they can’t express their case with those who would have them thrown off this land.
Meeting 71-year-old Carmen Xol, one of the heroic women of Sepur Zarco, today is a humbling experience.
Carmen is one of a group of 15 women who experienced sexual slavery at the hands of the military. Against the odds, this brave group brought a case against two military officials who were eventually held responsible for crimes against humanity.
These people live in a remote area of Guatemala where women often have no real legal rights. For them to stand up against the might of the military is inspiring.
The legal process can be slow and expensive. There was a time when some community members — men and women —felt the group were potentially bringing shame upon them for speaking out when their case appeared hopeless. We know all about that awful stigma of silence here at home.
Instead, over six years, they fought for justice. The Irish public, through Trócaire, helped to fund this case. Coincidentally, we meet them on the third anniversary of their day of justice. It is moving to see the entire community come out and herald the 14 surviving women as heroes. Throughout the trip, I am hugely impressed by the remarkable strength and leadership shown by the brave women we encounter.
Today we are high in the hills in the city of Cobán. It is a day of heartache as we hear the testimony of people who have suffered sexual and physical violence. Many have lost loved ones — some of whom are still missing and known simply and starkly as ‘the disappeared’.
The military’s brutal campaign of violence — justified on the supposed premise of fighting rebel ‘guerrilla’ forces — essentially amounted to an effort to exterminate the indigenous Mayans.
The CREOMPAZ military centre in Cobán is the scene from which much of this heartache stems. There has been a long wait for a scheduled trial to question the military officers alleged to be responsible for these disappearances and human-rights abuses.
Relatives of the disappeared are deeply frustrated at the delay. Speaking to one man it was obvious that, even at the age of 56, he is still traumatised by the abduction and murder of his father. He also tragically harbours a feeling of guilt,having narrowly escaped the same fate.
There’s the old cliché about ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ and this seems to be the case here. Now there is an ‘amnesty’ proposed, which would mean that, in effect, theperpetrators would never be brought to justice.
Ireland, along with the rest of the world, needs to push for the military personnel responsible for these crimes to be held to account. A lot of people who suffered fear they may not live long enough to see justice.
After six hours on the road, we return to Guatemala City. We pull up outside Casa di Migrante, or Migrant House, which offers support to those en route to the US border.
This is a halfway house for people attempting to escape violence and persecution in various Central American countries.
It is a full house again here. I meet a young man from Honduras, a gay rights campaigner who is under the threat of death at home. Another man, from El Salvador, tells me that a gang will shoot him if he ever returns home. I meet a woman who explained how she and her 10-year-old son had to leave home as he had come under pressure to work for ‘narcos’. This is a melting pot of fear and suffering.
The Migrant House supports those in need on their arduous journey. It has, at times, struggled to cope with the numbers arriving at its doors. With beds for 60 people, they recently had to sleep 600 in this facility and a further 1,200 in nearby buildings.
This morning, we visit Abelino Chub Caal – a wonderful man who has been imprisoned without trial in a high-security Guatemalan jail for over two years on five spurious charges.
In truth, he has stood up for local indigenous communities to organise and settle back on their land.
This appears to represent a meeting point between the wealthy, who are able to maintain their standard of living and acquire land, while the dispossessed can’t seem to even find an ear.
Abelino worked with Trócaire on a project supporting evicted communities in the Polochic Valley.
He is now imprisoned in a gang-infested jail.
Upon entering the prison we are informed that a gang murder had been committed that morning. We pass a number of corralled inmates, who are penned into an exercise yard while cell searches took place.
Abelino is a remarkably courageous man. Hopefully, before too long, he will find freedom and justice — not just for himself, but for his two small children and the communities he represents.
It’s evening now and we’re back at the airport. It was a full-on week and a long road that was, at times, very emotional, but it pales into insignificance by comparison to the road travelled by the native and indigenous Guatemalan people in their struggle for equality and justice.
There is clearly a real connection between Trócaire and the communities it supports. It’s not a case of wading in and saying, ‘We know best’, it’s about listening to people and giving them the assistance so they can help themselves.
The communities welcome us with open arms. The one thing they ask was that we not forget them. I explain that Guatemala often reflects Ireland’s own story.
They also ask me to thank the Irish people for their kindness and one elderly man’s parting line still reverberates in my mind: ‘Please keep walking with us’.
[I]The 2019 Trócaire Lent campaign aims to raise awareness of how land is stolen from the world’s poorest people due to conflict, big business or simply because some of them are women, and how people in Ireland can provide a lifeline to them. The campaign runs until Easter Sunday, April 21. For further info, visit www.trocaire.org, phone 1850 408 408, or visit Trócaire Centres in Cork (9 Cook Street) or Dublin (12 Cathedral Street).
RTÉ’s John Creedon recently travelled to the Central American country to see the work of Trócaire ahead of the agency’s annual Lenten campaign. Along the way, the broadcaster keeps a diary and writes about his trip, detailing his experiences of a beautiful but heartbroken people who are fighting for justice