Accompaniment in Guatemala – a personal account

Rosemary Burnett, former Programme Director for Amnesty International in Scotland, took a year’s sabbatical to go and work in Guatemala as an accompanier. In this article, she tells us about her work.

“I’m here to accompany people who have received death threats because of their work. They might be forensic anthropologists or arqueologists who were involved in the exhumation of victims of the 1980 massacres and gave evidence in the trials which brought the perpetrators to justice. They might be human rights workers or lawyers, working on cases of crimes against humanity and genocide. They might be journalists, trying to get at the truth. They might be academics who’ve published books about the massacres.They might be mental health workers treating the families of the victims or the survivors during the period of an exhumation. Our function is not to intervene, not to put our lives in danger, but simply to protect people by our presence.

The idea is that, when a threatened person is accompanied by an international observer like myself, they will be protected. We are the eyes and ears of the international community. If something should happen to one of our ´clients´, then we are there to take notes and photographs and to be a witness. We can alert Amnesty International and other human rights organisations to what has happened, and set in motion a whole network of Urgent Actions. Pressure will then be put on the Guatemalan government at the highest level to ensure the safety of the threatened person, and an immediate investigation of the incident.

There are quite a few of us here. On my training course there were seven others, all women, from Sweden, Quebec, the US and Britain. There are about 14 others already in the field, from Austria, Ireland, Italy, France and the countries already mentioned. After my month in Guatemala City, I will be going to a community called Rabinal.

Yesterday I went to accompany a worker with an organisation that provides mental health support during exhumations and educational programmes to Mayan people. We went first to the site of a mass grave in Comalapa, where workmen were digging lines of pits about half a metre deep in an attempt to discover more remains. The skeletons that have been found at this site so far have been buried without clothes, so that the widows and other family members waiting to discover the body of their men folk have no means of identifying the remains. DNA tests would be just too expensive. Nothing new was discovered yesterday. The site is a wooded slope looking out over the encircling mountains – in any other circumstances the idea site for a picnic.

In the afternoon we went to a small town where small coffins containing the remains of men killed in another massacre in 1981 had been stored for the night. The folk gathered there had been waiting for us to arrive, and immediately started transferring the coffins to the back of the municipal truck, 32 small crude wooden boxes, some with names chalked onto their lids. One of the coffins tilted and some of the remains spilled out – a few small dusty bones and some scraps of brightly coloured cloth. Everything stopped whilst they were gathered up and placed reverently back in the coffin. When the coffins had been piled up in the back of the lorry, the waiting relatives climbed up inside together with the news photographers.

Some of the relatives came with in our minibus, and we went up a long winding dirt track to their village. Once outside the church, the coffins were unloaded again and placed in 4 rows of eight. Everyone gathered round silently, whilst the press took more photographs. The church bells tolled, 4 deep long stokes and one high-pitched short one. After some minutes, the coffins were taken into the church, the women carrying them on their heads. The church bells clanged clamorously. A mass began, with the children outside playing in the big flame trees, the boys aloft throwing down bunches of bright red flowers to the squealing girls below.

Whilst we waited outside, a village woman told me her story. The army truck had arrived one day, and rounded up everyone in the village outside the church. They had chosen some of the men and taken them away, her husband among them. Then the army burned the village to the ground, destroyed the crops and killed the animals. the survivors, including her and her six children took to the mountains. There was no food, no shelter, everything was soaking wet and on top of all this, the air force bombed the area continuously. By some miracle, she survived with all her children, but many more died in the mountains. She did not know if her husband’s remains were amongst those that were in the coffins – the remains can only be identified if they are found with some piece of clothing or a personal belonging recognised by the survivors.

All our work is about protecting the people who are working to bring the perpetrators of these massacred to justice. We hope that day will not be long in coming.”

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