New Internationalist

Letter From Guatemala

Issue 287

Strong hearts to struggle
As peace is signed in Guatemala after 36 years of warfare,
Wendy Tyndale journeys through the jungle to meet the people who have never given up.

Illustration by SARAH JOHN The path through the jungle is deep in mud. It is dark under the trees. I try not to trip over the roots or get entwined in the creepers and at the same time not to grab hold of a 'broom' tree whose ten-centimetre spines can go right through your hand. We walk in single file with only the sound of our squelching footsteps, the lion-like roar of the monkeys in the trees and now and then the piercing whistle of a bird.

I am on the last lap of my journey from the nearest co-operative to one of the four little settlements of the Communities of People in Resistance (CPR) in the Péton, in the north of Guatemala. Four hours by boat down the river Usumacinta is followed by a three-and-a-half hour walk into the heart of the rainforest.

It is in this remote area that the CPR have spent 15 years. They fled from their co-operatives in the early 1980s in the wake of army massacres. I enter into conversation with a middle-aged man called Juan Carlos who is cutting down some undergrowth with his machete. He sits down on a tree-trunk.

'I heard the shooting, gathered my family together and fled into the forest,' he remembers. 'The next day I went back to see what had happened. I rode all around on my bike. The houses had been reduced to ashes. There were bodies of men, women and children lying on the ground. We left. We walked and walked, thinking we would go to Mexico, but we met up with other families and we decided to stay and resist. There is nothing in Mexico for us. We are children of Guatemala. This is our country.'

And so, forever on the move, hiding from the Army, the 500 or so people resisted. 'When we heard the soldiers coming we would pick up our children and our things and run,' Amparo tells me later as we work with a group of women and children, taking the grain off cobs of maize. Amparo is a round-faced cheerful mother of four girls. She is also in charge of one of the centres where groups of families share the cooking and the food.

'Many people got lost, others were killed. Children died of malnutrition. The old people who couldn't walk far just sat under trees and waited,' she says. Amparo's husband was killed by the Army and her brother was drowned in a whirlpool as he was swimming across the river from Mexico. 'A good death,' is the laconic comment of a younger woman from a refugee camp in Mexico, who is also listening to the story. 'Better than dying in a bar.'

Better indeed. But when I ask Don Celso, one of the CPR's leaders, whether it has all been worth it, he is cautious. Now an old man, he has seen too much to have full faith in the peace accord signed by the Government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) front on 29 December 1996 which brought to an end 36 years of guerrilla warfare and military repression.

'The future will depend on us,' says Don Celso. 'Many promises have been made but the rich have no interest in changing things.'

The signing of peace is a joyful event, celebrated with festivities all over the country, but the tragedy of war is still present. 'Of course we are happy that the war has ended, that the Army will no longer kill us and that we are free to come and go,' says Saúl, a young schoolteacher. 'But when we are alone, with only the depths of our own being to keep us company, all of us feel sadness in our hearts.'

Sadness, but an extraordinary sense of determination. Don Celso's wrinkled face breaks into an incredulous smile at the suggestion that in times of peace, CPR might change its name. 'Our history is in our name,' he says. 'We shall never forget. And in any case, we shall continue to resist until everyone has a fair wage, a decent house, health and education and until the land is no longer in the hands of the few.'

As I leave, the children of the CPR are rehearsing a song. It turns out to be a sort of prayer: 'Give us a large heart to love,' they sing, 'and give us a strong heart to struggle’.

Wendy Tyndale works in Guatemala for the British agency Christian Aid.

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