E N D P I E C E
The massacre, on 22 December last year, of villagers in Acteal,
in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, is only the most notorious event
so far in an undeclared ‘medium-intensity war’ against supporters of the
1994 Zapatista uprising. Maria Walsh responded to the call for
international solidarity and went to observe.
How are your hands?’ I hold them out for inspection.
‘Only two blisters today!’ I laugh.
My hands are not the problem – it’s the muscles in my back, arms and shoulders. My second day in the Zapatista community of Diez de Abril (‘Tenth of April’) and I have just finished a six-hour stint hoeing weeds in the corn fields. I have responded, like many others, to a call from communities like Diez de Abril for International Peace Observers.
Four hours after I arrive I am needed. Major troop movements have been reported on the main road. Diez de Abril is on red alert. The army has entered this community twice this year already, stealing food, burning houses, firing tear gas at women and children, destroying crops, arresting people. Everyone mobilizes quickly and calmly. I am bundled off to a prearranged location where I can observe but not be observed. We are given the all-clear after two hours. They are not coming in – this time.
Only two years old, Diez de Abril is one of many villages built on land previously owned by ranchers. ‘We do not say that we are squatting this land. It is ours. It was stolen from us many years before and now we are taking it back,’ says one representative. A thousand Zapatista ‘communities in resistance’ have organized themselves into 32 regional autonomous municipalities. On their doorsteps are 73,000 federal soldiers and countless paramilitary groups waiting for instructions to destroy them.
The next morning I walk with José and Maria along the path to the cornfields. A second low-flying army helicopter passes overhead. I am the only one to look up. José tells me that the lives of indigenous people mean nothing to the Government: ‘They think we are animals and that we eat animal food.’ Everyone is in the cornfields today, frantically hoeing and replanting maize, beans and chillies. Last night there was rain. El Niño has had a devastating effect on Chiapas: drought has made the first crops fail; thousands of forest fires rage around us in the mountains; smoke obscures the sun.
On days when I’m not in the cornfields I’m usually sat outside the Casa Grande (‘Big House’) noting down the number of helicopters flying past, watching the children play, the women chop firewood. One day we walk together down to the river to collect water. With a 20-gallon can on my shoulder my progress back up the hill again is painfully slow. Ana has a baby strapped to her back as well. She constantly waits for me to catch up.
When we return, Juan is standing at the entrance to the Casa Grande. From the look on his face I know something is wrong. ‘There’s been another massacre in the northern zone,’ he says. His three-year-old daughter is clinging to his legs, unable to understand. She looks at me, but there are none of the usual smiles. The army has moved in to dismantle San Juan de la Libertad. It is the third autonomous municipality to be destroyed in two months.
On the village TV, the Government is broadcasting images of soldiers storming El Bosque, Union Progreso, Chavajeval. They don’t show Obregon, where the community has blocked the road and the army has turned around and left. President Zedillo denies the existence of what people in Mexico are now terming the ‘medium-intensity war’ against the Zapatista communities.
‘Lies!’ spits Juan.
Eight Zapatista supporters are dead. Their naked, mutilated bodies are returned to their communities four days later. Twenty people are still missing.
That night I watch as the community tries to come to terms with what has happened. At the emergency meeting in the church the rage and grief are on the surface. The long and tense meeting ends with everyone deciding to split into three groups for communal work projects the next day. Two bridges need to be mended and a new church is being built. The army might be about to destroy what these people have created from their dreams, but they are going to carry on building it.
That next day is my last. I help fix the rope bridge that spans one of the rivers. Saying goodbye is very hard. My hand is shaken many times. ‘Will you come back?’ asks Maria. I say ‘Yes’. In six months’ time Diez de Abril may no longer be in the same place. But the spirit and dreams of these people will not be extinguished by mere tanks and guns. Of that I am quite sure.
Maria Walsh is a direct activist in Britain with a special interest in human rights. Anyone who wants to become more involved with Chiapas can e-mail: [email protected]
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7