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Guatemala: Despite the pain

28-02-1999 Feature


Pedro, father


Margarita, mother


Tomas, son


Manuela, daughter


Juana, daughter


Francisco, son


Elena, daugher


The clouds hang low and gray about the mountains surrounding the small town of Nebaj. Up there, in the unhabited woods, it is cold and damp. Just as it was in April 1983. Pedro Bernal Perez will never forget the day when the drone of the planes grew louder with each new wave of attack and the bombs chewed up the earth. For him and his family there was only one thing to do that day - get out fast.

His wife, Margitta Chavez Corio, stopped to wrap their newborn baby in a blanket. It had been coughing for days and had a fever. The family sped into the woods. When Perez looked back, he saw pillars of smoke rising from the village into the sky. In minutes the soldiers had brunt to the ground what it had taken him years to build.

The nights were cold in the mountains. Too cold for a newborn child. The villagers could not light a fire, the smoke and light would have given away their position. When they buried the baby, Perez's face was a blank mask. He couldn't speak. It was the second child to die while fleeing. Three years earlier, in 1980, the same inconceivable thing had happened. Perez did not understand the world anymore. What had his family done to deserve such punishment?

Many people were murdered around Nebaj during the civil war, and huge swathes of forest burned with napalm. When Perez and his family returned to the town, the army forced him to enrol in the civilian militia. Men in uniform handed him a gun and sent him on patrol. The hunted were to become the hunters. Perez's only wish was never to happen on a guerrilla fighter. The soldiers noticed. Perez was lucky, he was soon released from the army. But thousands of others continued to be pressed into service.

Now peace has arrived. T he 47-year-old Perez has achieved a measure of well-being. He owns his own small tailor's shop and weaves the colourful Mayan skirts on his loom. He has built his family a new home of wood and clay. A small house on the city outskirts, it even has electricity. As the local head of a self-help group, he is fighting for the rights of the indigenous population.

That requires self-confidence. “Yes, we have become more self-confident. But our culture has lost many things. The young people do not listen to their elders anymore. No one knows the Mayan traditions anymore,” Perez says.

Perez faces a dilemma. He belongs to a small Protestant community that forbids Mayan traditions and frowns on traditional dress. On Sundays he goes to church in a starched white shirt. “In spite of that, I want to learn more about the culture of my people. You have to know your roots, that's important for the future,” Perez feels.

In the city centre a group of drunken men staggers across the muddy streets. The drivers of the yellow country buses honk their horns in anger. It's the middle of day, but the men with their glazed eyes are a not uncommon sight. They have already given up all hope of a worthwhile life.

Perez fights on. When the fog rolls in over the mountains he has only one wish: that his daughter will never have to flee with her baby into the cold mists.

 Text: Till Mayer  

 Photos: Daniel Zihlmann  

(Extract from the interviews made during the ICRC campaign " People on war " ).

Ref. GT_TM_Despit