The Whole World is Watching?
It’s 11pm and I should be sleeping, since I need to be up at 4:30am. Tomorrow morning I leave this busy, bustling city of color and smog to return to a quieter place. Exams await me, as do streets I can walk in safety and that calm, centered feeling of ‘home.’ But tonight I am particularly cognizant of the privilege in this. Tomorrow I can step on that airplane and if I want to I can choose to never come back to this place. I could choose to “defend human rights” from the safety of an office in Manhattan, or San Francisco. I could lock my doors at night, and when I drive to work each morning I can feel fairly certain that I can trust the ground beneath me. This is a privilege I carry because of my nationality, my skin color, my passport. Others are not so lucky.
I’ve spent the last week in the presence of heroes. And that’s really the right word for these incredible, passionate people. Today I had the pleasure of sharing the morning with a man who has spent his whole adult life luchando for human dignity. For justice, for peace. He is a human rights defender, and a Guatemalan, and they’ve tried to kill him three times. Once by putting a bomb in his car. He told me this while we were driving (in his car) and the nonchalance with which he mentioned it did not match the brief but panicked leap of my imagination at this statement. I picture driving down the avenida, ten minutes from now, nearing our hotel when the rickety 4X4 we are dodging traffic with explodes, sending shrapnel half a block up. I picture dying on the side of the road in Guatemala in my black dress slacks. My mother would be furious.
Three times they’ve tried to kill him. I ask “Do you live in fear? Or have you accepted that you may die for this?” He laughs. “I have accepted that I may die for this.” It’s not even really a question to him. “I’m a survivor. What are they going to do to me?” He talks about his biggest fear- that the sentence will come down against the opposition and will fuel a backlash. If this happens, he tells me, people are going to die. Our people. Good people. This isn’t speculation, he says. This is fact.
So no matter what happens with this trial- can there really be justice? If Rios Montt is convicted of genocide, but fifteen human rights leaders and survivors of the massacre are assassinated for their participation in the trial, is it a success? If the defenders are let alone, but Montt walks free, is this justice? Are these our only choices? In a country where speaking for human dignity, for life, means risking it- how do we keep fighting?
I visited the US Embassy yesterday. I asked the representative what the Embassy and US government were doing to ensure protection for participants in the trial- not just during the trial, but after. He told me about the security for the judges, for the government attorneys. I asked him, “what about the Ixil? What about the people in the mountains?” He tells me that, unfortunately, these groups do not trust the police, and the police are the ones that would protect them. So what can we do?” It’s too bad, he says. I’m thinking “why on Earth would they trust the police?”
Today, driving in the car, we ask this human rights defender, “who is responsible for the assassinations that continue against human rights defenders to this day? Is it the police?” “Yes,” he says. “often it is paramilitary, but the police are frequently involved.” I’m thinking back to the representative’s words. If I were Ixil, who would I trust? Is there anyone?
This is not just a civil war problem. This is not just a remnant of the dictatorship. This is happening now, anew, all over Guatemala. Last night we attended the premier of Guatemala’s human rights film festival. We sat in this grand, lush hall on this high balcony and watched a documentary called Fiebre de Oro, about the gold mining industry in Guatemala. At the part where the tiny, elderly indigenous woman was shot in the face for organizing against the foreign gold mines, because the mines are destroying indigenous land and polluting their villages, I cried in the theater. Not just for that woman, but for every person I have seen in the courtroom each day that must live with the knowledge that it seems like the only thing in this country that you can trust is that only the rich are safe.
International solidarity committees and delegations play an incredibly important part in filling the safety gap. This takes place in a number of ways. Some groups of foreigners live in rural communities. They do this to observe what is going on but also to act as a buffer- when white folks are living in the communities it may be less likely that there will be violence directed there. This is based on the sad truth that dead foreigners are a lot harder for the State to justify or hide than dead indigenous folks. But even these groups receive indirect threats to their safety for their work. Another method is to send delegations to witness the processes and report back- like NLG is doing here for this trial. International attention of any kind makes it harder for states to commit continued atrocities- this is why it is important to pay attention now during the trial, but also to continue paying attention to what is happening on the ground after the trial is over. If we all just pack up and go home to the safety of our two-car garages and doors with locks, if we turn a blind eye to Guatemala, the violence continues.
The last week has been an incredible experience for me. I am grateful to the Guild for providing me with the opportunity to participate in the first of what I hope will be many delegations as an observer. But more than that, I am grateful to the incredible human rights defenders, survivors, and members of the international community that are present here and keeping the pressure on Guatemala to start a new chapter where impunity doesn’t reign supreme. Tomorrow I go home, but to the rest of the world, I implore you: keep watching. When the sentence comes, it isn’t then end. It’s just the beginning. We will still need all eyes on Guatemala to make sure that those who are standing up for human rights remain safe enough to continue fighting. Please, help us do that.