Guatemala's civil-war victims
By: The Economist
A better approach to civil-war recovery
Oct 14th 2004 | Momostenango
It has been eight years since peace accords were signed in Guatemala,
ending a 36-year civil war that left 200,000 people, mostly Mayan Indians,
dead and a million uprooted. Yet the western highlands, where the war raged
most, remain a backwater. Malnutrition, infant mortality and illiteracy are
rampant. Many villages lack running water and electricity.
Less visibly, the killings, kidnappings, bombings and rapes over three
decades—by both soldiers and paramilitary “civil patrols” or
PAC, some of which still operate unchecked in rural
areas—have left indelible psychological scars. At the end of last month Kofi
Annan, the UN secretary-general, said that a
“deep-seated legacy of racism” and social inequality remains in Guatemala—even
as a UN verification mission prepares to pull out
Aid projects for shattered communities are numerous, but many are run by
foreigners. Few are like the one in Momostenango, a mountainous district
inhabited by 120,000 mainly Quiché Mayans. Spearheaded by a Mayan holy man,
known as don Abraham, and a local doctor, Lionel López, it takes a holistic
approach, combining mental-health counselling, medical care, social work and
development assistance (such as advice on agricultural techniques). Unusually,
in a country known for its racism, the ladino professionals who
travel in from the city—a medical doctor, psychologist and social worker—defer
to don Abraham, who is the go-between with village leaders, and to his
insistence on using both western and traditional healing techniques, such as
floating flowers and candles down the river to carry away bad luck.
Foreign support, primarily from a UN fund for
torture victims and private donations, sustains the programme's meagre budget.
The Marjorie Kovler Centre for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture in
Chicago gives technical assistance and training. American medical students
occasionally visit to help for a month or two. Cuban doctors come for two-year
stints. Yet the need continues to exceed the resources.
And it remains a dangerous business, with perpetrators of war crimes still
at large. Dr López has received death threats. The mental health clinic in the
town of Momostenango is an anonymous storefront. Along the dirt roads that
snake through the mountains, it is still common to see trees covered with
political posters supporting Efraín Ríos Montt, the former dictator whose
reign in 1982-83 was part of the war's bloodiest period.
Encouragingly, Óscar Berger, who roundly defeated General Ríos Montt in
last year's presidential election, has started to make good on some of the
empty promises of past administrations. This summer the government promised to
pay 30m quetzales ($3.8m) a year for the next ten years to war victims as
compensation. That, though meagre for an estimated 1.5m victims (and far less
per victim than the sums promised to former PAC
members), is more than ever promised before, and will be administered by a
commission of indigenous groups.
The government has also cut the size of the army, and admitted the army's
guilt in several important human-rights cases. Rigoberta Menchú, a Quiché
woman and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Victor Montejo, a Mayan writer who
returned from exile last year, both have jobs in Mr Berger's administration,
Mr Montejo as head of the newly created ministry of peace. But after years of
neglect of the civil war's victims, and with many of the perpetrators still in
powerful positions, they have their work cut out.
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