Although he was instructed to testify only speak to the conditions living in the mountains after his village was massacred, Gaspar chose not to limit his testimony. With his hand tightly wrapped around the small book containing pictures of his loved ones, Gaspar told his entire story:
“Three planes came down from Huehuetenango, landing in Salquil. I was afraid”
“I found a place to watch. I felt very small among the tress. They(the soldiers) destroyed everything, the homes, the crops”
“Before them, we are seen as animals. They called us savages, whatever that means”
“From their flying instruments (helicopters) they spoke of amnesty in the morning, and in the afternoons they bombed us”
“They killed my father, my three children, my sister, and my brother”
Gaspar then picked up his photo album, flipped through the pages, and amidst objections from the defense showed pictures of his murdered family. The judge again instructed him to close his photo album, and Gaspar replied:
“Why should I not share what I cam here to give as evidence? I’m not lying!”
Before leaving the witness stand, Gaspar gave his concluding remarks:
“I am the only one who survived. The one saved with the burden to tell the history here”
“I no longer hear well, my heart is heavy. I am waiting for my time with God”
“I thank God I am here to share the story of all who were killed, raped”
“There will never be another person like my son, like my father”
“This is what I have come to say before the court today”
Gaspar’s testimony highlights several themes I have noticed throughout the proceedings. Foremost, in shaping his memory into testimony Gaspar helps to establish an official and legally approved truth--a truth that recognizes the oppression and suffering he has been forced upon him, and a truth that recognizes the government´s responsibility in creating these conditions. This truth then plays an essential role in shaping history and the way in which Guatemala and the world will look back on the events that took place in Vijolom II. In this way all 164 of the witnesses in the case play a vital role in the writing of history, an incredibly empowering ability for a group that has suffered from outside oppression for over 500 years.
Gaspar´s testimony is also empowering in the sense that it is told to the court in his native language of Ixil. For centuries Mayan languages have been referred to in Guatemala as “dialects” and seen as inferior to the Spanish language. Now that history is literally being formulated in Ixil, racist notions such as this will surely be reconsidered.
Additionally, this history is being written with Rios Montt looking on from the defendant´s seat. The fact that the very many who attempted to eliminate the voice of the Ixil people now takes a back seat while their recuperate their voice and the ability to shape how we will remember the violence of the 1980s is incredible. Many witnesses have acknowledge and taken advantage of this fact by taking the opportunity to speak directly to the ex-general while giving testimony. One witness, while speaking of his time living displaced int he mountains, looked into the face of Rios Montt and told him “I want you to know that I ate roots”. Another, when asked if he knew why the army wanted to kill him and his family, replied “I don’t know, but he is sitting right in front of us, he should know”.
The strategy of the defense mirrors the discourse of la violenciathroughout the 1980s. With voices raised, using flamboyant mannerisms and in a clear attempt to intimidate the witnesses, lawyers for Ríos Montt continually ask questions such as: Where you a guerrilla? Did you know any guerrillas? Did you have guns? How did the army help you? How are you sure that the army, and not the guerrillas, massacred your village? It is troubling, to say the least, that this same flawed, racist, and ignorant discourse that in many ways was responsible for the violence of the 1980s continues to be used by the defense today. One would have hoped that after 31 years, 200,000 deaths, and 50,000 disappearances Rios Montt would have had some time to critically reflect upon his time as the head of the Guatemalan State.
However many witnesses are too brave to fall victim to this intimidation once again. One, when asked if he was a guerrilla, replied in Spanish, making sure that the court heard his word as he wanted them to be spoken, “no, just poor”.
Not surprisingly the social and political environments in Guatemala are incredibly tense. Over the past weeks there have been various pro-military protests outside of the court room, displaying signs such as “communism finances the destruction of national unitiy”, another reprimanding a “world in reverse!” where “the defenders of your liberty are slandered, jailed, and condemned” while “terrorists, extortionists, assassins, and criminals” are “free and rewarded”. On one occasion the pro-military protesters approached and verbally threatened a group of campisinos that had arrived from across the country to view the case.
Amongst all of the tension and stress, many of the witnesses and supporters who have arrived from all over the country are understandably exhausted mentally and physically. Late one night this week I was up talking with a supporter, and he asked me what people in the United States though of the genocide trial. I pulled out my lap top and opened up NISGUA’s facebook page, to show him all of the pictures people have taken with “Justice for Genocide in Guatemala” signs from all around the world. My friend was ecstatic to see people from the Untied States, Sweeden, Germany, France, Burkina Faso, and many other countries showing their solidarity. After a particularly difficult day of testimony, it was wonderful to see my friend inspired and smiling. If you would like to contribute to NISGUA’s Justice for Genocide in Guatemala photo campaign, please visit this link to print out a poster and then upload it to NISGUA’s facebook page.
Lastly, I want to let each of you know how you can follow the proceedings in the Ríos Montt case. Live video can be seen streaming from this website, and audio here. Furthermore you can visit the Open Society’s incredibly informative website with daily updates here, and of course keep an eye on NISGUA’s blog andtwitter account for live updates as well.
Hasta la proxima vez,