Thursday, March 21, 2013

Genocide on Trial in Guatemala, Day 3: "...justice for everything we lived through."

Read our previous summaries: Day 1, Day 2, and full archive of ongoing live Twitter coverage.

Survivor testimony continued on the third day of former dictator Efraín Rios Montt and intelligence chief Rodriguez Sánchez's trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. Hours of intense first-person accounts of violence and endurance left impressions of profound grief: "They killed our fathers, our mothers, and everything we loved," said one witness; as well as resolute purpose: "I am one of the few survivors. Perhaps I was sent to be the messenger of the story here."

In all 12 witnesses were called to the stand to be questioned by lawyers for the prosecution and the accused. Most spoke with the aid of court-appointed Ixil Maya translators; one witness, Alberto López, was unable to deliver his testimony due to the lack of a K'iche' Maya translator and will be given another opportunity to take the stand in a future hearing. Among the witnesses were leaders of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, the survivors' organization which first opened the genocide case more than a decade ago, including current AJR board member Domingo Raymundo Cobo and former board members Francisco Raymundo Chavez and Gaspár Velasco.

Francisco Raymundo Cobo offers his testimony before the tribunal.

Echoed details in the survivors' stories made clear the systematic nature of the Guatemalan military's scorched earth campaigns, as one after another witness told of the soldiers' extreme and indiscriminate cruelty; of the deliberate destruction of food, crops, animals, homes, and everything necessary for survival; of the violation of women's bodies and traditional clothing. They also told of the conditions of internal displacement in "la montaña", in the forests and hills of Quiché, as massacre survivors hid from army patrols and endured exposure and starvation. Gaspar Velasco said that he remained in the mountains from 1982 until the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996—"But there is still no peace," he emphasized.

The defense of the accused Generals attempted to take advantage of these coinciding stories, with lawyer Francisco Palomo asking if one witness had been paid for his testimony, saying, "all the testimonies have said the same thing, did they take a class?" At another point, Palomo was quoted as having questioned a witness how much the blood of her husband was worth, before being stopped by an objection. The defense's overall strategy seemed to focus on implying association between the witnesses and guerrilla forces.

Witnesses were questioned repeatedly as to whether they were members of the guerrilla or if they had seen or spoken with members of the guerrilla. As a commentator on Twitter pointed out, these are the exact questions that the population was subjected to in military interrogations during the 1980s. Again, the survivors were forced to repeatedly insist that their answers were truthful—but today it was the Generals who were on trial in a court of law, not frightened civilians in the sights of a soldier's rifle.

In marked contrast, AJR lawyer Edgar Pérez's soft tone and sensitive questions gave the witnesses an important chance to express their feelings regarding their experiences, as well as their hopes for justice. Literally interpreting the Maya idiom for emotion, he asked the witnesses at various moments of their testimony, "How did that make your heart feel?"

"Since the day that the soldiers came, I have been ill all the time," said Jacinta Rivera, whose husband was killed during an incursion by the Guatemalan army in the village of Sumal Grande.

At Tuchabuc in May of 1982, Miguel Raymundo Cobo saw soldiers kill his three children, Ana, Maria and Gaspar, between the ages of 3 months a 6 years; his wife Magdalena de León was also killed in the massacre.

The witnesses were also asked what their intentions were in presenting their stories before the court, and they offered various perspectives on the possible outcomes of the trial. "What I want is justice; I never want to see a war again, I don't want my children to experience war," said Juana Bernal Velasco, whose husband was killed. Nearly every member of Domingo Raymundo Cobo's family was killed in a massacre of 30 people. "I am looking for justice for those responsible for the massacres," he said.

AJR member Francisco Raymundo Chavez, who told of his survival of the massacre of Chajúl at the age of 6, his capture and detention at a military base, and later his time in an orphanage with other young survivors, was emphatic regarding his reasons for testifying:

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