“Thank you for continuing your support. Please don’t abandon us. I will die soon but I want to leave something behind for my children and my grandchildren.” A woman at Sepur Zarco
If I don’t manage to steal time to write about a Nobel Women’s Initiative trip in the heat of the moment, other issues get in the way when I get home and days slip away. But my need to write about the visit to Sepur Zarco in May to see the women from the groundbreaking Sepur Zarco trial on rape in conflict has been a slow burn at the back of my mind that won’t let me settle until I get it down.
As I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to write about the visit over the past weeks, I’ve begun to wonder if I’ve been unable to write about it because I don’t want to let it go. And for me putting things in writing often is a way of doing just that. But it’s more than time to tell this part of the story since I wrote some time ago about our trip to Guatemala during the trial itself, as mentioned below. For those who’ve not read that piece, here is a very brief outline of the case. The piece itself is available here.
Sepur Zarco is a village in rural northeastern Guatemala where a military base was built in early 1982, during the decades-long conflict in the country, which started in 1960 and finally ended with the signing of a peace accord in 1996. Among other things, the base was meant to provide for the “rest and relaxation” of soldiers who regularly rotated through.
The terratenientes, major landholders, also wanted a base in Sepur Zarco in order to intimidate Mayan Q’eqchi’ (pronounced kek-chee) people who had been openly and legally organizing there for a decade, trying to gain rights to their ancestral land.
With the building of the military base, eighteen indigenous community leaders in the struggles for land in villages around the base were forcibly disappeared – along with many others – and most were never seen again. With the leaders removed, soldiers attacked the communities, raped countless women and girls and destroyed everything they owned – their homes, crops, and animals. Some women managed to escape to the mountains with their children. Not all survived
The wives of the disappeared community leaders, who the soldiers began calling “the widows,” were forced into domestic and sexual slavery to “meet the needs” of the men at the fort. They were required to endure 12-hour shifts of cooking, doing laundry and other domestic duties for the soldiers – to then be raped over and over by them. An article after the trial reported that one of the woman in the trial told of being raped by five different soldiers every day for six months. As the journalist noted, that totals nine hundred rapes of ONE woman. Although the garrison was finally closed in 1988, for the survivors of Sepur Zarco, nothing would ever be the same again.
Ultimately, almost three decades after the crimes were committed, fifteen of the women victims, along with five men witnesses, decided to bring charges against the military for the crimes they endured at the fort in 1982 and 1983. It took six years, with the support of the Alliance to End Silence and Impunity, a coalition of three Guatemalan women’s organizations, for the case to get to court, but finally the trial began this year on February 1.
Rachel and I spent time during the last week of the trial in Guatemala with Rigoberta Menchu listening to the final witnesses and arguments in the case. Seemingly against all odds, the judges found justice for the women. The two defendants were sent to prison for a total of 360 years and reparations ordered.
During the trial, we had promised the women that we would come back to Guatemala and visit them in Sepur Zarco. We were able to make that trip at the beginning of May. Although Rigoberta was out of the country at the time and unable to go, her Foundation and members of the Alliance to End Silence and Impunity helped with the logistics of the trip, which we all made together.
Getting to Sepur Zarco
It takes some time to get from Guatemala City to Sepur Zarco in northeastern Guatemala. Our little caravan of vehicles left the city early in the morning on May 3 and drove to the city of El Estor, on Guatemala’s largest lake, Izabal, where we spent the night. We left the next morning for the couple-hour drive to finally reach the village.
At one point on our journey, the vehicles had to be pulled on a wooden pontoon-like structure across a river by a small boat. It called to mind a similar experience I’d had many years ago in Cambodia when I was working on the landmine campaign.
Sepur Zarco is a spit of a village by the side of the dirt track we’d been driving on. It was lush and green and small wooden houses with thatched roofs were tucked into the trees. When we got out of our air-conditioned vehicles, the heat and humidity hit us all like a massive body blow.
Although it had taken a long time to get there, we had to leave by 3:00 in the afternoon. It was not safe to be in the countryside once it got dark. Many of the women had walked hours and hours to meet us, not all lived in Sepur Zarco itself, and they would set out on the return journey that afternoon.
The first meeting was with the village leaders – read that “the men” and they would be doing all the talking– and after that we’d meet and have lunch separately with the women. This is partly due to the formality of the visit, but mostly because of the male-dominated culture.
Carlos Chocooj, director of the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation, opened it by briefly introducing the Foundation, explaining that Rigoberta Menchu wasn’t with us because she was out of the country, and then introducing me. He reminded everyone that during the trial, we’d promised to come to visit the women in Sepur Zarco, where they had suffered the war crimes carried out by the military.
We had previously been briefed about the main points of his overview as Carlos would be speaking in Q’eqchi’ as most at the meeting didn’t speak Spanish. It was wonderful to hear and to watch the exchanges with the people, even if I couldn’t understand a word. I’d been a teacher of English as a Second Language and of Spanish decades ago and the magic of hearing different languages has never left me.
Then Paula Barrios, one of the lawyers from the case and a member of the Alliance, chaired the meetings and opened the floor to discussion noting that we were very interested in hearing the feelings of community members about the reparations resulting from the trial.
While the trial resulted in 16 measures of reparations, the main point of discussion ultimately in the meeting was about the location of a future health center for the communities. To a much lesser degree there were references to educational benefits for everyone.
The “professor” was the first to speak. He is a teacher and a member of the education committee. Apparently there are four committees to deal with the various aspects of the reparations. He said that these days they feel secure.
He said that one of the expectations they all have is to never again live through what they experienced in the 1980s.
Don Domingo was one of the witnesses in the case. He said that it has been and still is a long road they are following in the pursuit of justice. He said they know that there are supposed to be reparations to benefit everyone. The week before, the leaders had been in El Estor discussing the health center and its location. Then there was another meeting where the mayor of El Estor was talking about putting the center in Polochik, a town about 3 kilometers from Sepur Zarco. No one was happy about that – except the people of Polochik, of course.
As talk continued about the location of the health center, the discussion seemed more confused, confusing and fraught with tensions and struggles. For whatever reason, the men of Sepur Zarco, the leaders, were having trouble settling on a site there.
One man said that over the years there had been various studies somehow related to the site of the health center and that “there was no problem [in Sepur Zarco] as a location for the center.” He said, “It hurts that the authorities are still messing with us.” But apparently there are some issues regarding legal title to the land.
Another leader noted that they are not united about where the center should be built. They have supported the women in their struggle, but what could they do now to move on. He said that he’d spoken with his wife about donating his plot of land for the center and that she agreed. As the conversation continued, no one picked up on that point as a possibility.
A young man from San Marcos, one of the four villages the women who brought the charges in the trial are from and the son of one of the women, said that the people there also suffered in the war. Some 150 homes were burned to the ground and crops and animals destroyed. He said that the village has never really recovered from the effects of the war. He noted that the women are old and may not live to see the fruits of their struggle, but their children, grandchildren and others will.
Finally, he said that the leaders of San Marcos had met with the leaders of Sepur Zarco and it was obvious that the leaders there couldn’t agree. He said that if the clinic were to be built in San Marcos, it would already be settled.
I confess that it was disturbing listening to the backs and forths about the health center. On its face, it seemed somehow petty and people and communities were making grabs for “power” and the prestige of being the home of health care for the communities involved in Sepur Zarco atrocities and others.
But when you stop and think about the layers of complexity attached to what seems like a “no-brainer” kind of decision, the pushes and pulls are somewhat understandable. The women who pursued the case were from four different villages. Why couldn’t any one of those communities house the health center? Not everyone in the villages supported the women’s decision to take the case to trial. Some called them liars; that what they alleged never happened. And worse. How might these people be trying to influence the decision?
But the clincher should be the feelings of the women of the trial. Sepur Zarco is where the fort was. It is where they were subjected to unimaginable crimes. For them, it seems, the only proper place for the health center is Sepur Zarco. What could be more fitting for them than seeing a center providing care for the communities where previously had stood the fort from hell?
The meeting with the leaders ended and we began talking with the women as lunch was being served. One of the women echoed what had been said in the earlier meeting in that they don’t feel insecure now. She also said that she was very happy with the struggle they made for justice. “Now we’re waiting for the reparations. For the government to accept what was done to us – the loss of lives, our homes. We ended up with nothing.”
Doña Margarita and Doña Rosa participate in the meetings of the leaders on behalf of the women and they said that it was obvious that the men didn’t value their participation. Sometimes it seemed like the leaders didn’t believe anything the women had to say because they are “just women.” “They are men,” the women said, “but they can’t manage to agree. We don’t want the clinic to be built in some other village. That isn’t what we want from our struggle.”
Doña Rosa noted that she spoke strongly to the men at the meetings that the women need their support. “We suffered in our bodies and we don’t want the clinic anywhere else.” She said that finally the men began to listen, but they still can’t agree. They also didn’t understand why the mayor of El Estor had any say in the decision. “It is our struggle,” she said. She said that if the health center ended up somewhere else, she’d never go to a meeting again.
The women said that they were going to struggle for the health center. They wanted to meet with the mayor to orient him about the decision of the court and try to negotiate with him. If that didn’t work, they planned to try to stop him legally. They were also demanding that women be part of the process in the four communities [where the women in the trial are from].
As the conversation was wrapping up, one woman said, “I hope the compañeras pay attention to those of us who aren’t part [of the case]. I’m not from one of the four communities and I wonder if we will be left out.”
As closure to the day, Rachel gave each of the women a copy of a framed photograph that had been taken of Rigoberta and me greeting them during the trial. We hope they see them as a physical symbol of the ongoing support they will receive from the Nobel Women’s Initiative.
We got into our air-conditioned cars for the relatively short drive back to El Estor for the night and then return to Guatemala City the next morning. I wondered when the women would set out from Sepur Zarco on the little footpaths that would take them to their villages and how many hours each would have to walk to get where she was going. Sometimes, the immensity of the inequalities at every single level can feel like a dagger to the heart. ###
Update: At the beginning of August, I wrote to some from our trip to try to get an update on the situation of the health center and a few days later received a preliminary response. It seems the major holdup remains the question of legal title to the land, which, it is hoped, will be resolved “soon.” An issue of primary concern, separate from the processes surrounding the various reparations awarded by the court, is the health of the women and the men who testified in the trial. Resources are needed to be able to attend to them. ###
“Guatemala: Justice for Sepur Zarco sexual slavery victims,” Maya Thomas-Davis, Al Jazeera, 3 March 2016.
“Witness to a War Crimes Trial: My Heart is Sepur Zarco,” Lawrence Reichard,Counterpunch, 29 March 2016.
“Papers Show U.S. Role in Guatemalan Abuses,” Douglas Farah, The Washington Post,11 March 1999.
“Indicted for Genocide: Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt – U.S. and Guatemalan Documents Trace Dictator’s Rise to Power,” The National Security Archive, 19 March 2013.
“Genocide in the Ixil Triangle,” Guatemala Human Rights Commission.
“Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” Commission for Historical Clarification, 1999.
“Clamor for Justice” Luz Méndez Gutiérrez & Amanda Carrera Guerra, November 2015.
“A Massacre in Guatemala: Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú on the 1980 Fire that Killed her Father,” Democracy Now, 20 January 2015.
“Guatemala Sexual Slavery Verdict Shows Women’s Bodies are not Battlefields,” The Guardian, 29 February 2016.