Accompanying in Santa Maria Tzeja: “It was life or death so we kept moving”

Written by Kimberly Kern

Dear friends and family,

These last four months living in Guatemala and working as a human rights accompanier with the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) has already been an amazing experience. The relationships I have formed, with other accompaniers from around the world and especially the families of Santa Maria Tzeja (SMT) have opened my eyes and my heart. I hope that the stories, history and current political information that I send in these letters inspires y’all to action in the fight for justice, not just globally, but in your own communities where you see blatant injustice.

The Story of Marta

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Marta about children and childbirth. The average age for a woman to become a mother here is 15, so obviously, a 27 year-old woman with no husband or children is very strange. Nine times she has experienced the excruciating pain of giving life, but today she only has seven children. When I asked what happened to them she told me her story¦one of many similar stories:

When the army came that day in 1982, we ran for our lives though the jungle¦ some people had no shoes¦ we couldn’t see anything in the dark¦ the branches tore our skin¦ but we couldn’t stop, it was life or death so we kept moving, she remembers.

For months and months, Marta and the group she travelled with roamed blindly through the mountains of northern Guatemala, escaping many close encounters with the army which was constantly hunting them. Most of the time, they had no idea which direction they were going.

After wandering for weeks and months, she remembers being at an encampment of people who saw the army coming and they decided to move the group, yet again. She was so weak, she couldn’t go.

I decided that I wouldn’t walk anymore¦ I couldn’t walk anymore¦ I was starving. I sat down on the ground with my two babies and said this is where I’m going to die, me and my babies.

She doesn’t know exactly what it was that made her lift herself up and keep moving, but she suddenly found the strength to keep going. The decision to flee to Mexico was a point of conflict among the wandering group. Many people thought the war would end soon or the army would give up searching for them. Many people suffered terribly and two of Marta’s children died in the mountains of malnutrition during those months of indecision.

Her strength to move forward, not just that day in the mountains, but her constant positive activity in her community, is an inspiration to me. She is a woman who was never given the opportunity to receive an education, so she cannot read or write. But she broke away from her expected role as a soft-spoken woman and mother and became a leader in her community. She says, I have a lot of opinions and think they should be heard. She is inspiring to other women in the community as well because she isn’t afraid to stand up and speak, something which she, as in indigenous woman, has worked to overcome her whole life.

Before the massacre, she was married to a man who was physically abusive and never let her get involved outside of their house. He was killed the day of the massacre and as a refugee in Mexico, Marta was introduced to a woman’s organization called Mama Maquin. From this experience, she brought back a wealth of knowledge to SMT and is a strong force in the woman’s union there. In Mexico, she also found a man who is extremely supportive of her community activity and she created a new life and a new family with him.

Rios Montt runs for Congress¦again

Unfortunately Rios Montt, a man who currently has an international genocide case against him in the Spanish Courts, registered to run for the Guatemalan Congress on May 18th. This, of course, is major news here on the ground and work will continue around the national cases against Rios Montt and his military high command. If you have not signed this letter to move the case forward, please take a moment of your time and sign it here.

If you have already signed, it would be helpful to send this link to five people that you think would like to support the people who suffered terribly during a brutal civil war and are fighting for justice.

Another interesting piece of news came out in the national newspaper, Prensa Libre, which undeniably links Rios Montt to several massacres that took place in 1982. This link, called Plan Sofia, is a military document that outlines the plans for the eradication of indigenous communities in the Quiche region of Guatemala. “The documents detailing Plan Sofia clearly illustrate an explicit chain of command, with Rios Montt at its head, through which orders of mass extermination were communicated at the height of the conflict” said Catherine Norris, an organizer with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) in Washington D.C.

“Since the demands for justice from survivors have yet to compel the Guatemalan judicial system to prosecute those responsible for genocide, we hope such brazen documentation of planning and responsibility for atrocities will prove impossible to ignore and bolster the survivors” case,” Norris told Upside Down World. Another accompanier wrote a detailed article about this plan and the effects of this news on the case.

Consulta Comunitaria (Community Referendum)

On April 20th, a very interesting and exciting action took place here in the Ixcan region of Guatemala: a vote concerning the construction of new hydro-electric dams (namely the Xalala Dam) and the exploration and exploitation of oil by foreign interests. Since a majority of land is owned and utilized by indigenous communities in the Ixcan, a popular vote was taken to see if the people that would be most directly affected by these projects were in favor of them or not. After many information sessions and talk throughout the region, a vote was taken and 91% of the region said NO to the projects.

The day of the Consulta was an inspiring day for SMT. Everyone was very excited to be part of this historical process and have their voice heard. In Guatemala, the government never asks their opinion on anything, so this vote made them feel very empowered. I felt privileged to be present as an observer.

Semana Santa (Holy Week)

Semana Santa is extremely important here in Guatemala. In SMT, the students that are usually away studying high school or college all return for this one week festival extraordinaire. At first, when everyone was talking about Semana Santa, I thought it was going to be more of a party, but with religion so deeply intertwined in the local culture, I should have known better. I went to Catholic mass more times in the last month than in the last ten years. Other than going to mass and participating in processions of the Stations of the Cross, the two main traditions here in SMT are making bread and spending a day at the river. These two traditions also mirror the traditions of the church. Bread is made early in the week to eat during the time between Good Friday and Easter (many people in the states fast during this time). On Thursday (the Last Supper), everyone goes to the Tzeja River all day with their families and cooks enormous amounts of food.

On the Tuesday of Semana Santa, I was invited to make bread with a family. The bread is prepared in small portions with unique swirls or other decorations. At 7am we stared a fire inside a huge cob oven. It is about 10 feet high with a diameter of about 6 feet. While the oven heated, we mixed large amounts of flour and sugar in a wooden box about 8 feet long. The process, as many of you know, is a long one¦ the dough rises and gets kneaded again and again.

At 8am we started making little balls of dough that eventually turned into little decorative creations with the help of many women. By 10am the wood had become ash and coals inside the oven which was swept to the side to keep the heat in. The bread was put on metal pans and placed into the oven for about ten minutes. From the batch, we produced about 200 portions. The smell of fresh bread is only slightly beat by the taste. While we were outside baking the bread, another family had come to mix their own batch. Only three families have cob ovens, so they are shared with the neighbors.

The tradition is to eat the bread with honey, but there is also another topping called panela which is derived from sugar cane. I prefer the honey, myself.

On Thursday, we packed three horses with pots, pans, watermelons, food and hammocks and headed to the river to relax. When we got there around 8am, we gathered firewood and started making soup which cooked slowly all day. Until then, people ate bread and watermelon, fished in the river, swam and bathed, played games, listened to music and caught up with family member’s home for the holiday. I definitely missed my family a lot during this week, seeing all the smiling, laughing families together. But I am feeling more and more comfortable in SMT and have found people I consider friends to talk to about anything. I miss you all very much and talk about home considerably more than I should. Everyone just loves to hear about Texas¦ which they say, casi es Mexico(it’s basically Mexico.)


Background information

-Listen to Central America After The Wars – “Tale of One Village – Santa Maria Tzeja
-Read more about the history of Santa Maria Tzeja in the book by Beatriz Manz, “Paradise in Ashes: A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror and Hope”, published by Berkeley 2004.

Categories: Accompaniment, Guatemala, Main Page, Solidarity in Action

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