General Assembly 2004 Event 4061
Presenters: Charlie Clements, President of Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC); Allison Kent, UUSC Staff Associate specializing in Guatemala; and Denese Becker, survivor from Guatemalan massacres
In March 13, 1982, Denese Becker was a nine-year-old Maya girl named Dominga Sic Ruiz living in the highlands in Guatemala, when the Guatemalan army entered the village of Rio Negro. By the time the soldiers left, hundreds of people, including 70 women and 107 children, had been massacred and dumped in a mass grave. They became part of the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 men, women, and children killed in the Rio Negro area by military forces from 1980 to 1983. The Rio Negro villagers had been marked as "insurgents" for resisting their forced removal to make way for a World Bank-funded dam.
Two of the people murdered were Denese's mother and father. Denese was able to survive by hiding out in the forest with her baby sister for two weeks; the baby was not able to survive the ordeal. Denese was moved to an orphanage in Guatemala City and later adopted by an American family in Iowa, where she subsequently grew up.
After living nearly 20 years in America, Denese returned to Guatemala to learn more about the murders of her family members and to seek justice for the perpetrators.
The movie Discovering Dominga: Genocide in Guatemala was made to tell this story. It appeared on PBS's Point of View last year and has also been shown to church and community groups around the country.
When the movie was shown in Guatemala last year, people came up to Dominga afterwards to thank her, to tell her that she was not alone.
In the session, we viewed an abbreviated version of the movie, and then heard from the presenters.
Allison Kent, UUSC Staff
The UU Service Committee has three areas of focus:
- supporting womens' projects, especially indigenous women
- supporting citizen participation efforts; include women and others in the political process. This helped to defeat Rios-Montt in November 2003.
- supporting indigenous areas of the country; widows, orphans
An Organization of Survivors has banded together from all over Guatemala and has worked to indict former dictator Rios-Montt; they hope that this year the indictments will stand.
This organization has also prosecuted the lower level offenders, the ones who actually did the violence, and has successfully prosecuted three of them. This group has also done 30 excavations, and has used the evidence in legal cases.
The most poignant statement Denese heard while visiting there was, “There were so many massacres here we can't celebrate them all individually, we have to celebrate them in groups.”
The Service Committee needs your help, not only financially but with your efforts as well.
177 people were exhumed in 1993; she has no photo of her mother, only her father.
She has started a foundation, the Dominga Foundation, to help the people from her town. She has also started doing mission trips, going to Rio Negro to find out what they need. The most important thing right now is better homes; the ones they are in now are dirty and unstable; her goal is to build 17 block homes for the villagers.
She is helping prosecute the civil patrol and the military captain who had roles in the killings.
Questions from the Audience
Have you taken this problem to political people, to your congressmen?
Allison Kent: CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, will not help the indigenous people in Central America, the small farmers.
The Inter-American Court for Human Rights took a case in April of 2004; for the first time with a new government in Guatemala, someone actually accepted responsibility for a massacre—this was for a different community, not Rio Negro.
Some cases are also happening in the Guatemalan national court system. Nine “patrollers” and one military captain have been indicted. That trial is set to take place in August of 2004.
The high-level cases, the military high command and the rulers, the architects of the scorched earth policy, are now being pursued. There is no statute of limitations on genocide.
In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held very public hearings and was instrumental in promoting healing in the country. Has there been any comparable healing in Guatemala?
Allison Kent: The Truth Commission in Guatemala took many testimonies but nothing has come of them. There is a huge difference in political will between that Truth Commission and what happened in South Africa.
Sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
Reported for the web by Allan Stern; edited by Joyce Holmen; photos by Allan Stern.