In early August, Old Town Outfitters had the privilege of hosting a group of students from Harvard-Westlake high school (Los Angeles) on an itinerary designed by Peace Works Travel. As a group of budding documentary filmmakers, they were guided by their interest in finding stories they could tell. In order to do so, their itinerary consisted largely of meetings and interactions with Guatemalan non-profit organizations like De La Gente and Starfish Impact. This trip was the culmination of a digital storytelling class, so for most of the kids, it was not just a travel experience, but also meant daily hours spent on project work.
Peace Works offers socially conscious education travel, and in the past has successfully conducted travel programs to destinations such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Rwanda – not the first countries that usually come to mind when you think about school travel. The intention behind this becomes more apparent when you consider one of the key questions the class is driven by on these trips, which is how do societies afflicted by genocide continue to evolve in the aftermath? It is in this context that Guatemala, with a past troubled by an almost four decade-long civil war, became a destination of interest – all the more so given the amount of influence the U.S. exerted on Guatemala’s domestic affairs in the 20th century. (For further reference, the National Security Archive at George Washington University provides online access to a number of declassified CIA documents detailing its activities in Guatemala.) The class explicitly aims to trace the origin of the Guatemalan civil war back to one of its root causes, namely a post-war U.S. foreign policy driven by interventionism abroad, and really asks the students to ponder some of the more difficult questions about the consequences of such a policy. Not exactly business as usual for a group of U.S. visitors to Guatemala.
Peace Works’ founder and director, Alethea Tyner Paradis, elaborated on all of this and more during our initial meeting over lunch. Going over their itinerary for the week, we learned that one of the scheduled activities had fallen through on short notice, and now a few hours had opened up on a Tuesday afternoon. Brainstorming about potential alternatives, we mentioned that we knew a civil war survivor, one of our local guides in the Quiché department. Alethea was excited about the idea of having the students hear a first-hand account from an eye-witness, and so we decided to set up a meeting. Fortunately, Diego was very open to the idea and agreed immediately. Living in a little village outside of Acul, Quiché, we first met him while fine-tuning the route and logistics of our Nebaj to Todos Santos trek. Apart from accommodating our groups in his home and accompanying them on the second day of the trek, he has also been a valuable source of local history.
Obviously, no single blog post is going to do justice to the complexity of the Guatemalan civil war. To provide at least some background for the context at hand, it is helpful to know that Nebaj (full name: Santa Maria Nebaj) is one of three towns generally understood to form the Ixil community, named after the region’s prevalent Mayan ethnicity. Nebaj in particular was the site of one of the war’s worst massacres against the indigenous population, while the area surrounding these towns in general saw some of the war’s most intense fighting between 1980 and 1982. Diego was eight years old when the guerrilla first came to his village to garner support for their cause, and barely a teenager when the killing began.
Returning to present day now, we were able to use the exhibition space at a local cultural center in Antigua as a location for the meeting. In another fortuitous turn of events, Richie, one of our former full-time guides, had inaugurated an exhibition of his paintings just a few days prior. He is self-taught and has been painting for years, all while working on our trips and group itineraries. Last year, he caught a big break that afforded him a chance to go ahead with the decision to become an artist full time. The exhibit entailed a series of works called “Voices of the genocide”, which provided a fitting backdrop for the meeting.
Veteran television and documentary producer Jeff MacIntyre, who accompanied the group in a mentoring capacity, took charge to create a genuine interview setting: Once the scene was professionally lit, Jeff engaged with his interview subjects first on a general level, to provide some historic context, then gradually on a more personal level. Diego also brought his cousin Santos along for the occasion. A few years older than Diego, his memories of the period were even more detailed. Over the course of two hours, the two recounted their experiences. About first encountering the guerrilla recruiters, Diego remembered hearing all the promises being made to the village’s farmers and their families, about how political change was sweeping the country and how they were all going to benefit materially and economically. Then, at a later stage, how both he and Santos first became involved themselves, being made to act as messengers and errand boys. Finally, how the guerrilla began engaging in clandestine hit-and-run operations, growing bolder until the military retaliated, quickly surpassing anything that could be considered even remotely proportionate.
The longer the fighting went on, the more desperate the measures employed by both sides became: the military eventually burned down Diego’s village and all crops in the area, implementing a now notorious scorched-earth campaign designed to flush out guerrilla combatants. A common Guatemalan expression goes “quitarle el agua al pez”, which basically means that if the fish won’t bite, just drain the pond in order to catch it. The guerrilla, faced with thinning ranks, resorted to forcing ever younger men and youth into picking up arms. Diego was twelve years old, when his father was faced with the choice of either handing him over to join the fight or being shot to death. The military, in turn, did not stop at food and shelter when it came to metaphorically draining the pond. Soon, a mere suspicion of conspiring against the state was enough to be considered guilty by association and executed on the spot.
In the end, both Diego and Santos were among the lucky ones who made it through this period alive. Being survivors, however, also meant having to live without closure for the losses they endured, as the remains of multiple of their family members are still buried in unmarked mass graves to this day. Steps are being undertaken to enable the process of identifying and transferring the remains, but there is a considerable paper trail involved, and political support is practically non-existent. Any assistance people like Diego receive in this matter comes from private initiatives. Guatemalan administrations elected since the peace accords in 1996 have been ineffectual about coming to terms with the nation’s bloody past, not to mention making amends for it.
Hearing firsthand from eye-witnesses really gave the Peace Works students a palpable idea not just of the gradual escalation of the conflict, but also how civilians unwittingly were drawn into a conflict that turned into full-blown armed warfare before they had a chance to really understand that there was an underlying ideological divide in the first place. This is of course especially true in the case of Diego and Santos, who were merely kids who did not know any better. It is not often that you get the chance to hear somebody talk about what experiencing war is like. Even rarer is someone like Diego, who can do so in a way that is neither bitter nor depressing, but rather gracious. As remarkable as this is, it makes sense once you realize that he has long made a habit of it: Once they had families of their own, both he and Santos have been very open to them about their past from the start. "I try to bring light to the dark I lived through", Diego says.
They were so approachable, and the students so intrigued, that the group continued for another 45 minutes of Q&A in a nearby park after the cultural center had closed. For us, in terms of studying history and maybe learning a thing or two in the process, the issue is now an abstract one, to be treated very rationally. For those who lived through it, however, it will always be very specific and emotional. This is both easy to forget and hard to relate to. But the longer you listen, the more it becomes apparent that sharing their testimony has really become the best way to turn what could have resulted in crippling trauma into something positive and constructive.This is certainly part of the lasting impression the Peace Works students will take away from their visit, according to some of their feedback during the farewell dinner on the last night of their stay. Even our lead guide Arnold, who was with the group every step of the way, explained that he learned new things about Guatemala. So congratulations to Peace Works on a job well done! We at Old Town were certainly happy to be able to help with making this trip happen, and are already looking forward to future trips.