For the past 12 days I have been traveling with Breaking the Silence (BTS) on a delegation around several areas of Guatemala to learn from the organization’s partners. These partners included land defenders and survivors of the genocide.
One of the most impactful places we visited was Río Negro, a Maya Achí community that was targeted during the internal armed conflict. They were targeted because of the government’s desire to build a hydroelectric dam where the community was and because of the fallacy that the community was sustaining guerrilla fighters. This community sustained multiple massacres from 1980-82 and today there is a small community that has returned to live there, high on the banks of the new river created by the hydroelectric dam.
Don Sebastian, a survivor of the 1982, March 13th massacre that claimed the lives of 107 children and 70 women, guided us along a hike up a mountain to Pak’oxom. This is the path where the murdered and tortured were forced to walk on that day. While we walked, Don Sebastian shared the story of Río Negro. He explained that he was able to survive the massacre as a young boy because his mother had told him that if the civil patrols ever returned to terrorize the community, they would know because the dogs would all begin barking. Don Sebastian’s mother never expected the civil patrols would target women and children, only boys and men. So on March 13th when the dogs began to bark once again, he ran and hid as his mother told him to. Although he survived, Don Sebastian became a witness to the devastation left by the massacre.
Physically reaching Río Negro for both those who have resettled the area after the massacres and for those who wish to learn this history is not easy — and I don’t think that is an accident. The history of Rio Negro is not a history commonly known around the country. The fact is, some politicians who run for government deny that there was a genocide at all. To reach Río Negro, you must apply for a permit and present yourself to security for further scrutiny before winding your way up the face of the dam itself. After that, you take a boat ride over the deep water created by the dam for the better part of an hour. After disembarking, you must hike up a steep hill to reach the community. Upon arriving that night, we hiked up the hill in the dark because of delays at the security checkpoint. As we walked, we were met by a community member, Don Julian, who told us that the power had just gone out in the community moments ago.
The irony of the power outage didn’t properly sink in for me until a whole day had passed. A community that had been massacred and severely isolated from resources, work, and the rest of the country for the creation of a hydroelectric dam, regularly lost power. Indeed, one of the most tragic and pressing issues facing Guatemala is human rights violations associated with resource extraction, including displacement, violence, a lack of proper consultations with Indigenous peoples whose land is being affected.
BTS works closely with several communities that are affected and resisting resource extraction by supporting their resistance efforts and acting in solidarity from Canada. Visiting these communities and listening to their stories has been powerful and as I continue to move throughout Guatemala I hope to be able to share what I have learned and amplify reasons for fighting.