Colombia and Guatemala Trip Part 2

In May, 2005 Peaceful Tomorrows members Patricio Grehan and Sue Rosenblum traveled to sites in Colombia and Guatemala in support of the Spanish-language edition of the Peaceful Tomorrows book, making new connections with NGOs and individuals affected by terrorism, violence and war. These diaries were filed during and after their trips. This is part 2, written by Sue Rosenblum. 

From Sue Rosenblum, Coral Springs, Florida, May 22, 2005

In order to define our mission to Guatemala I think it would be helpful to begin with a short history of the armed conflicts that took place there.  Historically, the relationship between the Indian majority and the State has been characterized by the subordination of the Indians.  In the early 1970’s the indigenous populations began to challenge these traditional arrangements.  To preserve the ‘status quo,’ the State intensified the already existing conflicts, and violence began to escalate into unimaginable levels.  The onslaught brought about the widespread murder of individuals and the destruction of their communities leading to terror and paralysis among the survivors.  The State penetrated every aspect of the Indian community, leaving no sanctuaries for these beleaguered people.  In many cases, the victims fled north to Mexico leaving their children behind.  Often, these ‘orphaned’ children were taken in by various religious organizations and eventually adopted by families outside of Guatemala. When the parents returned to their communities, their children were lost to them.  In spite of much pressure, these religious groups refused to open their files.  These massacres resulted in leaving behind over 40,000 widows and over 200,000 orphans.

These families became victims themselves.  Aside from the human loss, they were forced to suffer in silence.  Because the perpetrators often lived among them, fear of reprisals kept them from speaking out.   The Mayan people have very strong religious beliefs regarding the burial of their dead and because the remains of their family members were not returned to them, the survivors were not afforded and closure.  For more than twenty years they endured their grief alone and without support.  Additionally, the survivors were made to believe that their loved ones had done something to cause their own deaths.  In an attempt to deny these wholesale killings, the government would not accept these deaths as genocide.  They, along with the perpetrators simply wanted to ‘move on’ as it was not ‘convenient’ for them to deal with the problem

In 1996 the Peace Accords were signed hopefully signaling and end to the discord and a brighter future of the county.  Some of the braver women started to speak out so that the exhumation of the murdered could begin.

Monday – May 16, 2005

Since Juan is closely connected to the book and because he is fluent in Spanish, it was decided the he would open each meeting by giving a brief background of his peace connection, which of course includes his association with PT.  In talking with the victims, it was I who spoke at greater length.  Being a victim myself, they were very interested in I had to say.  Our first visit was at the office of the Conavigua.  This is the first group of widows who formed an organization to help other widows.  This was a very courageous thing to do, as bringing  awareness of the plight of the victims was not popular.  They do their work behind securely lock doors.  In order to have body exhumed, a family member must go to court and legally declare exactly what they had witnessed.  Keeping in mind that most of these atrocities occurred in the rural mountainous districts where these uneducated Indians subsist on their land, testifying before a court was very daunting. The women at Conavigua help prepare these families, most of whom are illiterate, by giving them advise and support.  I spoke to several of these women. They told me they were not looking for retribution, but rather justice and the ability to receive the remains of their loved ones.  Additionally, they want recognition and acknowledgment of what actually happened during those turbulent years.  It was explained to us that they are seeking equality against the long standing prejudice against the Mayan people.  Further the told us that to receive support and solidarity from the outside world was very meaningful and important to them.

We next went to a meeting with the Secretaria Asuntos Agrarious, Mariel Aguilar, and her staff.  Because most of the victims subsist off the land, having their lands returned to them is of great importance.  The secretary assured us that she and her office support the peace process and hope to resolve the land conflicts as equitably as possible as she these were not natural deaths but moral deaths.  As the hour was late another meeting was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

Tuesday – May 17, 2005

We began the day by going to the Guatemalan Antropological Forenses Foundation (FAFG) where we met Mr. Clyde Snow.  He is an anthropologist from Norman, Oklahoma who has been traveling back and forth to Guatemala for several years helping with these forensic studies.  After being painstakingly labeled and catalogued in the field, it is here at the foundation that the remains and any other items (clothing, shoes, baby bottles etc.) found in the graves are brought.  After careful and thorough examination, the remains are identified and the cause of death determined.  In the majority of these cases, death was caused by something other than natural causes.  I should add that these exhumed remains include those of men, women, young, old, children and babies, thus adding to the theory that these deaths were the result of indiscriminate murder.  With this evidence now available, hopefully a case against the perpetrators can be made.  Very few of these have come to trial.  When the State no longer needs the remains, they are returned to the families for a dignified and proper burial.  Fredy Peccerelli, a native of Brooklyn, NY and the executive director of the Foundation gave us a tour of the laboratories and explained the laborious process that each set of remains goes through. I was very impressed with the dedication of these young workers.

Upon leaving the foundation, we drove for three hours on windy mountain roads to Chichicastenango, ElQuiche, where that morning two graves had just been opened.  One grave contained the remains of a woman believed to be pregnant at the time of her death.  The other grave held the bodies of two men, one of whom was her husband.  I later met their two surviving sons who, although they were very sad, were grateful that after so many years their parents would be laid to a dignified rest.  After walking a short way through a corn field, we turned into what appeared to be a clearing in part of a rain forest. There I beheld an open grave surrounded by thirty or forty Mayan men, women and children from the local community.

Before  a body can be exhumed, a religious ceremony must take place.  Lit candles were placed around the grave and an old woman, probably one of the elders, fell on her knees and recited prayers.  The others joined in lending support to each other.  When the ceremony ended, the technicians from the FAFG began their work of carefully and respectfully removing the remains.  The villagers remained standing there for several hours watching this process. It was an honor and privilege to witness this remarkable event.  Some of the women and children formed a circle and began telling me of their experiences.  One had lost a husband, one a brother and one a son.  They spoke of their years of silent grief and pain.  Like the women at Conavigua, they  too did not seek retribution but wanted acknowledgment of these murders and the ability to bury their loved ones.  I was struck by the gentleness, grace and courage of these women. I told them that I too was not able to recover my son’s body and they understood my pain.  We did not need words to feel what was in our hearts.  As each woman finished speaking I hugged her and we clung tightly to one another. We ended by joining hands to form a bridge based upon peace and mutual support.  Although I did not bring a camera with me, the faces, tears and hugs of these remarkable women will be with me forever.  I have do doubt that I received much more from them than I returned.

Wednesday – May 18, 2005

We had a meeting with the GARDES Group, an organization that ‘accompanies’ the reparation process.  This group included Vilma Duque from GTZ a technical support group, Carlos Alberta Sarh Castaneda, the director of PROPAZ and from the Swiss Embassy, Utz k’aslemal (Guatemalan Mental Health Organization).  We discussed the progress that has already been made on behalf of the victims and we all agreed that there is still much more to be done.  It was decided to set up another meeting to continue this dialogue.

We then attended a meeting with the new Secretary of Peace, Norma Hyde Quixan, and her associate, Estheiman Amaya Solano.  The secretary expressed their gratitude for our coming to Guatemala to help build a bridge of peace.  She assured us that she was trying to do the same through the many institutions that are working for the victims.  Ms. Quixan said she is trying to learn who are the friends of peace both inside and outside of her country.  She hopes to fulfill the needs of her countrymen by organizing projects and programs based upon the needs expressed by their grassroots organizations.  She presented each of us with a Peace Calendar.

We went to the office of GAM and met with its director Mario Polance.  This office deals with  and helps in the exhumations.  Mr. Polanco himself was a victim.  In 1993, he was kidnapped, tortured and badly beaten.  A gun was placed in his mouth and on his head.  Fortunately he survive and despite the extreme intimidation, Mr. Polanco returned to his work.  It is just such dedication and bravery that impressed me all through my visit in Guatemala.

We had a meeting with Master Course on Social Psychology and Political Violence graduate students and their professors.  This was held at the Psychological Sciences School of the Guatemalan San Carlos University.  They appeared to be interested in the fact that my son had never been recovered and my reaction to that.  It is this group that is responsible for teaching students how to deal with victims who have experienced this kind of emotional trauma. Additionally, they work with the Guatemalan victims in the area of mental health.  I did not stay for the entire discussion and since Juan did, I am sure he will add this to his report.

Wednesday evening I met with Patricio, who had just arrived after meetings in northern Guatemala.  Unfortunately I did not have much time to spend with him and I know we have much to share.  Perhaps we will have the opportunity to do in the not too distant future.

I awoke to the prediction of an approaching hurricane.  Not wanting to become (possibly) stranded in Guatemala, arrangements were made for me to leave that afternoon, one day ahead of schedule.  Fortunately I was able to attend the press conference held in the UNDP office at 9:00 A.M. After telling the press of my 9/11 experience I was asked two questions. The first was: Had I been aware of happened in Guatemala before I came here?  I had to truthfully and ashamedly answer that I had not.  I tried to assure the reporter that although my awareness might have come late I hoped I would still be able to make a difference.  He second question was:  What has the world, the USA, or PT done to help the victims in Guatemala?  This gave me pause to think about our responsibilities and how much there is still to be done in the world and much I have yet to learn.  Although my contributions have been small, I am proud to be a member of a group of people, who in spite of what they have experienced are out there trying to make the world a better place.

Before I finish this report I want to say a few words about Christina Elich.  It was she who put together this itinerary.  ( Christina is a Program Official with the UNDP, the UN’s global development network, which describes itself as “an organization advocating for change and connecting countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life. We are on the ground in 166 countries, working with them on their own solutions to global and national development challenges. As they develop local capacity, they draw on the people of UNDP and our wide range of partners.”).  She was with us from morning to night. But of greater importance, it was her passion, enthusiasm and dedication that enabled me to open my eyes and thus open my heart.  I told her that my trip to Guatemala was too short . . . there are many more victims I want to meet.    She assured me that one day I would return.  I hope so.  I would also like to take this opportunity to thank David for calling on me to make this journey and for having the faith in me to represent the ideals of PT.  David, as you told me, if I speak from my heart people will listen.


For part 1 featuring Patricio Grehan’s diary, visit:

For part 3 featuring Patricio Grehan’s diary, visit:



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