The National Catholic Review
Richard Broderick
...What won’t let us sleep
what won’t stop pulsing away
here within
is the silent warm weeping
of the Indian women without their husbands,
the tragic gaze of the children engraved deep down in our memory....

From We Dream Awake, by Julia Esquival

At the beginning of Holy Week, I stood in a place that brought home to me the connection between the cross and resurrection in a way that I never understood before. I was one of a delegation of 12 with a human rights group visiting a site in a municipality of Rabinal, Guatemala, where in the early 1980’s the military carried out massacres that led to the death of more than 5,000 indigenous Mayan people.

As we entered the small chapel at about 4:00 a.m., we saw family members asleep on the floor among the remains of their beloved dead contained in 48 wooden boxes lined up in rows on the stone floor. I felt I was in a place that had no boundary between the living and the dead. The light of burning candles cast shadows of awakening human forms on the white walls of the church as the Mayan elder began chanting in Achi, a native dialect, while swinging a censer of cobal-incense, which filled the air with the sweet scent of the forest.

Forensic anthropologists were present, still hoping to identify four out of the 48 bodies that had been exhumed from one of the 60 clandestine graves. I stared into two of the wooden boxes that contained the mortal remains of Juan Cuxum Zic (FAFG-#468-IV-27) and Guillermo Osores Lasu (FAFG-#468-VI-8). I wondered how old they were when they were assassinated and what electrifying terror went through their minds when the military began the slaughter that Sunday in 1982.

Soon the room was energized with the cacophony of life as people, dogs, wide-eyed children and visitors moved around in the chapel. Mayan women began serving a drink in colored plastic cups that tasted like hot coffee. Two old men sitting against the wall began playing a weather-beaten violin and small drum in syncopation with each other as sunlight filled the interior of the church.

Very little is known of the crucifixion of this indigenous population of Guatemala. Amnesty International reports: There were five army-led massacres at the Achí village of Río Negro, Rabinal municipality, Baja Verapaz Department, between 1980 and 1982 in the course of the army’s counterinsurgency campaign there. Local human rights groups estimate 4,000 to 5,000 people were killed during that period in the wider Rabinal area, and that 444 of the 791 inhabitants of Rio Negro were extrajudicially executed, at least 85 of them children, three as young as six months. The report also notes that most of the young women were raped before they were killed. This fits the description in Clark Taylor’s book, Return of Guatemala’s Refugees: United States counterinsurgency doctrine encouraged the Guatemalan military to adopt both new organizational forms and new techniques in order to root out insurgency more effectively. New techniques would revolve around a central precept of the new counterinsurgency: that counter-insurgent war must be waged free of restriction by laws, by the rules of war, or moral considerations: guerilla terror’ could be defeated only by the untrammeled use of counter-terror,’ the terrorism of the state.

In 1982 the former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt destroyed hundreds of indigenous villages as part of a devastating scorched-earth policy. During his term in power, almost 20,000 civilians were murdered or disappeared by Guatemalan troops, and over one million were internally and externally displaced in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The death toll in the Guatemalan conflict, estimated at about 200,000, exceeds that of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Chile combined, yet it barely registers on the international consciousness. Additionally, the ethnic cleansing that took place in Guatemala exceeds even that of Bosnia.

The bloody hands of the powerful military and politicos still conspired to keep the truth underground, threatening with death those who would talk. But now, since the signing of the peace accords in 1996, some are making courageous attempts to divulge the truth of what happened to their massacred loved ones during those years. They are bringing the truth above the ground. At the risk of their lives, they are seeking justice in their legal cases against the high command of that turbulent era’s former presidents, Lucas García and Rios Montt. As the disciples on the road to Emmaus were accompanied by an apparent stranger who listened to their heartfelt grief, international accompaniers are now walking in support with the witnesses in these cases and acting as a buffer against violence toward them.

Standing on that site, listening and praying with the still grieving families and feeling the determined courage of the witnesses, I felt a shift within my soulfrom initial shock and sadness upon entering the chapel early that morning to a sense of hope. These victims are being raised up the way Archbishop Romero said he would be raised up in the Salvadoran people if assassinated. I sensed the reality of the paschal mysteries this year in a new and penetrating way.

Since these families and victims have suffered the passion and death of Christ, perhaps in some way their suffering is being changed into glory, now that the truth is above ground. I was drawn into a deep sense of sacred mystery, and I realized that I was indeed standing on holy ground. The rituals of prayer and the dignified burial of their dead would help reweave the torn fabric of their lives. The danger is not over for the witnesses, for even as the remains of the dead were being buried in the cemetery, a cellphone rang. A witness standing in the grave by the remains of his father, waiting for burial, received a death threat.

I remembered what the exiled Guatemalan poet, Julia Esquival, wrote:

What won’t let us sleep is that we’ve been threatened with Resurrection! because we’ve touched their lifeless bodies and their souls have penetrated our own, now doubly strengthened....

Obviously, some must feel threatened by resurrection.

The Rev. Richard Broderick is chaplain in three county jails and serves as coordinator for the Pueblo to People project for the Diocese of Albany, n.Y.

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