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Fear, the Unfading Trace of the Guatemalan Civil War

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The Guatemalan Civil War marked an unforgettable period of time for the country because of the oppression and fear people had to bear. More than 200,000 people died and/or remain missing as a consequence of more than three decades of war. The two sides fighting were the military and the guerrilla; these people are the ones that were constantly interviewed in order to obtain a broader perspective of the war. However, people forget to listen to the civilians, the innocent ones, who were frightened, helpless and damaged by the war. The importance of listening to their voices relies on the effects it left on their lives today. Among the thousands of people affected by the civil war, there was a teacher, Juana Gil, her husband, her daughter and her son who lived in Quiche, one of the main places of conflict during that time.

Juana Gil walked everyday to teach at a public school. She worked arduously to give the best education she could, to her students of first grade to sixth grade. But her efforts seemed to be unable to fight against the personal issues the students were going through because of the war. Juana remembers that one day a girl told her that she had spent the night before out in the woods, she was terrified. The military officers required people to be inside of their houses by 6 pm but for the girl, it meant she had to escape in order to spare the life of her family and her own. However, if she were to be found out there, it would've also meant the end. The next day, Juana spoke to a military officer, she had known a while ago, about the problem and he said he would see what he could do to help. Later on, when she asked the girl about her family, she said they were all getting a little more rest. Juana knew the military officer had been loyal to his word.

Another memory that cannot fade away is when she was walking to the school in the morning, as usual, and by the time she turned a corner, she saw a dead man in a fetus position who had been tortured. He had wires across his head through his ears and had a paper that read “Asi mueren los traidores [This is how traitors die].”

Her life as a teacher and a mother was not an easy task, having to deal with witnessing inhuman atrocities around the corner, literally. But she was not the only one, other teachers had a hard time, too. Some teachers from the surroundings of the main city of Quiche, in which Juana lives, had to be transferred because of the devastating situation of violence that was going on in their communities. The rural areas were the ones affected the most, the public schools there were closed and children did not get the chance to keep learning what 'normal' kids learn. Instead, being so exposed to the Civil War, they learned obedience through fear. Their families were threatened, by the guerrillas, if any suspicions aroused of the family supporting the military and by the military, if any suspicions aroused of the family supporting the guerrillas. For this reason, many people flew away from their homes looking for a safer place to live in.

However, Juana Gil and her family remained all along in their house in the main city of Quiche. Her daughter, Maria, the youngest of the two siblings, does not remember much but she remembers having to stay in her house, instead of playing outside, and listening to gun shots every once in a while that scared her. But her son, Estuardo, who was a student at an institute, he says that the civil war was a forbidden topic where he studied. “No mucho se podian hacer comentarios, porque tambien lo mataban a uno,” he describes that they could not really make any comments on it because they were afraid to be killed. The people who talked about the civil war were at risk because someone could assume they belong to either the guerrillas or to the military. Being part of any of the two represented a problem. Evading this risks, young people did not discuss on it. But outside of school, at just 16 years old, he was forced to face the reality when he had to volunteer at a firefighter station that was in charge of helping out with the wounded and the dead. Due to his build look during that time, neighbors were demanding him to patrol around during the night, even when he was still a minor. Opposing to their neighbor's ideas, his mom made the arrangements for him to volunteer at the firefighter station instead. Now she regrets it. She said, “Me arrepiento, porque despues vio muchas cosas horribles y el era patojo. Le dije que fuera bombero, por miedo [I regret it because later on he witnessed many horrible things and he was young. I told him to be a firefighter out of fear].” Juana feared that her son would be at a higher risk if he patrolled around. But having to carry out the dead people and the wounded is no sweet task even when he was willing to serve people. And at his age, it marked him for the years to come, since they did not have any special preparation or psychological aid. On one of his trips as a firefighter, he went to a small town was bombarded and the dead people were so many, that he was ordered to leave them there to be eaten by wild pigs pigs. Such inhumanities are obviously not easy to carry nor easily forgotten. During the interview, he did not seem comfortable talking about his experiences. The memories of cruelty remain.

The people interviewed for this article were concerned of my safety when choosing to write about this matter. They were afraid that something might happen to me when it was published. When explained to them that as a journalist, you must always speak the truth, Juana said “Por la verdad murio Jesucristo pero ya ves por todo lo que paso” [For the truth Jesus died, but can you see all that he went through.] It is interesting how most Guatemalans got used to hide the truth to protect themselves.

The Guatemalan Civil War has left a great part of Guatemala's population in a state of fear and ignorance. Education was clearly not a priority during the war, many young people were taken to war instead of going to school. Keeping people under human conditions didn't really concerned the government. Nowadays, even though the Peace Agreement was signed, Guatemalans have been unable to find rest and peace within themselves. The goal now is to teach people that they need to learn to speak out for themselves and to be less obedient, to demand their rights as citizens. Progress will only be achieved when they free themselves from fear. After more than a decade of the end of the civil war, the effects and memories of it have not faded away.





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