What it’s all for, anyway.
Sitting around a long cramped table in this low-lit room room is like taking la frontera itself out for coffee. One side of the table has dark skin, wrinkled faces and the eyes of a hundred years of wisdom. The other side is wearing dress shoes, chewing pens and leaning forward expectantly, eagerly, humbled yet anticipatory. I serve coffee. Some else serves papaya juice. The anthropologist puts the recorder in the middle of the table, and we begin to share.
There are ten or so survivors here. Most are Ixil or from the Baja Verapaz. They go around the circle, introduce themselves in a way that reminds me of an AA meeting. My name is _____, and I am a survivor of a massacre. After the introductions go around the indigenous side, the gringos talk. My name is Mariah, and I am a student. The part I don’t say is “… of you…because I can learn so much from your courage.” Oh yeah, and “My god, I’m so, so sorry.”
One by one we hear their stories. The army came in 82. They killed my father in front of me. They killed my mom. They killed my child. They cut the clothes off her body as she was lying there. I survived. I was one of four. They killed twelve of us. They killed a hundred of us. They killed my whole village. We ran to the mountains. We ran to the forest. We ran. Everyone slept under trees. Everyone thanked god for the mountain, for the trees. No one had any food. Those of us who they didn’t kill, starved. I was ten. I was fifteen. I was with three people. I was alone.
There’s courage, and then there’s this. There’s strength, and then there’s this. There’s hope and perseverance, and then there are these incredible humans that are sitting across from me, sharing. Taking the time, and having the strength to sip on coffee, look strangers in the eye and open their hearts. And for some strange reason they are thanking me for coming here. Me, who is holding a flimsy napkin under my glasses to stop the tears. Me, and the rest of the silent row of faces that have gone somber, that tremble with indignant compassion. I think you could probably smell my righteous anger, my heartbreak, from a hundred yards.
These incredible heroes in front of me talk of their dignity. The fight for justice. For truth. “We are luchando.” This is a sacred fight. Sagrado. We have come for our justice. We aren’t coming to Guatemala City for sight seeing. They are not interested in your sorrow, your pity. We don’t have time for pity, we only have time for strength. It’s your solidarity, your action that we need.
The trial here in Guatemala is doing something for this group that eases my rumpled feathers. My teenage-like angst about the utility of law. As a progressive law student still unsure of my path, I spend half my time in a privileged existential crisis, lamenting the futility of litigation, the seeming pointlessness of trying to use legal tools to really make significant change. What am I doing with my life? Is this the right path? Like I keep saying to my friends: this human rights stuff that I’m crazy for, it all seems so reactionary. It’s picking pieces of blood up off the grass after the war.
Or is it? For the people sitting across from me at this table, this is the big fight. The fight for recognition. The fight for a voice. The fight to take back their history, their narrative. The fight for a place to take up space, to not be afraid, and to point to the one’s responsible for the massacres and say “it was them that did this.” Trials like this are not just about a sentence, they are about a process. Trials give survivors a place to tell their stories, to have a society recognize their history instead of denying it. Because the state is often the perpetrator of such horrors, the state has the power to rewrite the history, to deny the truth of what it has done. This delegitimizes the suffering and strength of the victims, the survivors. Holding the heads of states up and making them bow to the rule of law in trials or in truth commissions is a way for the world to say that no one is immune for such atrocities. That power and money cannot always buy impunity. And if that is possible here in Guatemala, that might just be possible anywhere.
I am so grateful that these amazing people are sitting here, sharing coffee with me. That they are giving me the privilege to hear their stories, a chance to hug them, to let them know that I am listening, that I care. These folks, who carry inside of them a strength and courage that I will never approach but who I respect more than any shiny attorney or big shot activist. These are my heroes. And I am proud to serve them in whatever way I can. This is what it’s all for, anyway.