Photo: Outside the courthouse in Guatemala City, survivors await the verdict in the Ixil genocide case. September 26, 2018. Credit: NISGUA, Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala.
By Chris Shorne
I watched the hearings live. Not for Supreme Court Justice Nominee Brett Kavanaugh, but for José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, the man accused of genocide in Guatemala. In a split decision, the court acquitted Sánchez, ruling that as head of military intelligence under dictator Ríos Montt, he did not give the orders. The next morning, my face sticky from crying the night before, I get a text from a friend: “The news is a mindf*ck.” For a split-second (before I realize the text refers to the Kavanaugh hearings only and not also to the genocide verdict), I feel that small relief that comes when someone you love recognizes with you the awfulness of something awful.
In 2000, survivors of Guatemala’s Internal Armed Conflict (1960-1996), formed the Association for Justice and Reconciliation and filed charges of genocide against Rodriguez Sánchez and Ríos Montt (Montt died during the trial). Over eighteen years, more than one hundred survivors of the Maya Ixil genocide testified. It is with these survivors that I spent last year as an international human rights accompanier in Guatemala.
While waiting for the judges to arrive to give the genocide verdict, I looked online at every picture I could find of the hundreds of survivors gathered outside the courthouse in Guatemala City. I smiled each time I found a familiar face: a woman who made me coffee or sent her kid to the nearest tiendita to buy two eggs and a tomato to cook me lunch or gave me extra blankets at night because she knew I wasn’t expecting the mountains’ cold.
Though the court acquitted Sánchez, it also ruled that the regime of Ríos Montt (1982-83), for which Sanchez was head of intelligence, did commit genocide against the Maya Ixil. The goal of genocide is to destroy not only all the people, but a people. How do you end a culture—every person, every tradition, every story?
In their verdict, the court reiterated what made it genocide. How the army came into a village and raped 80% of the women before killing them. They raped them in front of their children. If a woman had life inside her, that life was cut out and killed by hand. The way to destroy a culture is through the bodies of the women.
The most difficult thing about living among people who have survived genocide is coming back to the United States. It’s hard to explain. Last week, at a get together with my family, I checked my email and saw that Juana Ramírez Santiago had been murdered in Nebaj, where I had accompanied. I didn’t always know or remember people’s last names and Juana was a common first name. There was no picture. Did I know her? Was she one of the witnesses, or the wife of one of the witnesses, that I had accompanied?
For what was likely three minutes but felt like half an hour, while my family chattered on and my sister-in-law seemed to tell a funny story about her daughter getting pasta all over her face or the floor or the room—pasta everywhere was all I heard—I searched online for a picture of Juana. Maybe that best explains the feeling of being back in the U.S.: like someone you care about may have been murdered and everyone around you is really engrossed in this pasta story.
One thing that has made my return to the U.S. more manageable is #MeToo. The first time I heard, related to Kavanaugh’s hearings, the term “gang rape,” I cringed. I despise the term. But I don’t wish people would stop saying “gang rape;” I wish people would stop gang raping. When everyone around me seems to be pretending nothing happened, I feel cracked. #MeToo says yes, this happened. And this. This, too. Me too.
With #MeToo, I felt less split-off from those around me. My mom and I had our first conversation about the men who molested her. My sister talked to me, also for the first time, about her gymnastics coach. About being coerced (my term, not hers) by the investigators into calling him, the coach whom she loved, and getting him to say that yes, there were other girls—crushing her just-turned-fifteen-year-old heart. In her introduction to Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, Roxane Gay talks about that internal voice: that others had it worse, that what happened to her, being gang raped as a girl, was “not that bad.”
Juana Ramírez Santiago, a midwife whom, it turns out, I did not know, is the twentieth human rights defender to be murdered in Guatemala this year. The Peace Accords were signed twenty-two years ago, but peace is not instant. Those in power in Guatemala then are those in power in Guatemala still.
In government-run schools, children are taught that the guerillas fought the government in a civil war, suggesting that many if not most of the 200,000 people who died were killed by the guerillas. But the United Nations and the Catholic Church, in their massive independent studies, found that at least 93% of the mass murders, disappearances, rape, and torture were committed by the Guatemalan government—and mostly against civilians. The previous president, Otto Perez Molina, and the current president of Congress both say there was no genocide.
The Ixil survivors I know are not concerned so much with a single man getting justice as with stopping it from happening again. To this end, they want the world to know what happened to them. Their hash-tag: #SíHuboGenocidio. Rough translation: Yeah, it was that bad.
It’s hard to come back to the U.S. not just because people don’t know, but because they often don’t want to know. They say they don’t believe me. But belief is for those things for which there is no proof.
The declassified U.S. defense documents show that we knew the Guatemalan army was taking out whole villages. There are pictures. There are New York Times articles from then referring to documented human rights abuses. You can look up the number of dollars we sent in the form of helicopter parts or the number of soldiers we trained at our School of the Americas, including former dictator Ríos Montt.
You can read Reagan’s own words from the time when the Guatemalan military was burning 70-90% of the villages in Ixil (the homes I stayed had been rebuilt after the massacres). Reagan met the dictator and said he’d gotten a “bum rap” on human rights abuses. The U.S. State Department said that since Montt (and his scorched earth policy) had taken power, the conflict in the countryside (where they’d burned it down) seemed to have decreased.
There are arguments about why we supported the Guatemalan government, but no one who’s done one google s search about it denies that we did. Still, I know the idea that the U.S. had any part in genocide can be hard to swallow. So, when I gave a presentation on Guatemala a while back for some of my sister’s church friends, I decided not to say it in my own words. Instead, I read President Clinton’s apology for supporting both the military and intelligence units of the right-wing governments in Guatemala. I read an excerpt from the memoir of a U.S. nun, Sister Dianna Ortiz. She was kidnapped, raped, and tortured in Guatemala during the conflict. She, too, didn’t want to believe the U.S. had any part in torture or systematic rape of civilians. But when she escaped, did her research, and requested declassified military documents, she found that her own government was involved.
Right after I told of the story of the man I accompanied who, after his siblings and wife were murdered, went back home to look for his baby in the ashes (he found only her diapers), one man said, “Reagan must not have known about it.” And I’m not sure it’s any different than saying Brett Kavanaugh must be innocent because he seems like a good guy to me.
After my presentation, while a few of us still sat around drinking decaf my sister had made, one of her friends said, “It’s hard, you know. You don’t want to see it. Don’t want to believe our government did that.” Her honesty struck me, her ability to sit with that discomfort and call it what it is. There’s a difference between “I don’t know” and “I don’t want to know.”
Some researchers, journalists, and so-called experts argue that genocide could not have happened without U.S. support. Some researchers, journalists, and so-called experts argue it would have happened anyway. Some say the U.S. was genuinely trying to prevent communism. Others that the supposed fear of communism was justification for promoting U.S. business interests (read up on the United Fruit Company and the CIA). I don’t care about these arguments.
It is axiomatic that it is bad to have any part, including a small one, in gang rape. To support, just a little, genocide (which includes many gang rapes) is unethical. Some people say I’m noble for the year I spent in Guatemala. But it’s not being an altruistic do-gooder to do a little work to support survivors of a genocide our government had a part in; it’s just being a human who can feel.
There are degrees of guilt. If Mark Judge watched an attempted rape and did nothing to stop it, he is not guilty of rape, but he is not innocent. If Rodriguez Sanchéz, head of military intelligence, knew civilians were being burned alive, could have stopped it and didn’t, he is guilty—regardless of what the courts say.
There are perpetrators and there are victims and, often, there are those of us in between. Within the Catholic Church, there are the priests who assaulted children, but there are also those who covered it up and those who didn’t want to know. There are, too, presumably, those who genuinely did not know. But it happened. And now, each of those people, to different degrees, has a responsibility to make reparations and to make sure it never happens again.
I went to Guatemala because, regardless of what the courts say, I, too, am on trial. Collectively, we, citizens of the most powerful democracy in the world, are responsible for making sure our government doesn’t fund genocide. And when it does—and it did—we are responsible for making sure it never happens again.
It’s not my fault I was born in the U.S., this is just the party I happened to be at. But that doesn’t mean I can turn away and pretend it didn’t happen, isn’t happening. During Dr. Ford’s testimony at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings for Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, what bothered me most was when she talked about the laughter. Not just the laughter of the boy assaulting her, but the laughter of the one watching. How they laughed together. That laughter is not marked indelibly in my memory as it is in hers, but I hear it. I feel, in my own body, some small, uncomfortable part of it.
Chris Shorne holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and has recently published with Utne online, Portland Review, and Entropy. Shorne spent 2017 as an international human rights accompanier with Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala and previously taught at Bent, a queer writing institute. Chris has also been previously published on The Manifest-Station, the essays can be found here.