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The Plea of a Guatemalan Refugee Family

March 2, 1983 - Brother John


It's early morning in Weston—just after the five o'clock Vigil prayer of our monastic community. This is the time when all of the brothers go quietly to our rooms to spend a few hours in personal prayer—a time of silent presence with the God who has created us, redeemed us, and constantly calls us to the newness of life.

This morning a voice compels me to write—to fulfill a promise that somehow takes me beyond schedules or even the opportunity for a time of quiet and peaceful prayer. It is a voice that I heard, and that I still hear, in a darkened room in southern Mexico.

It is a woman's voice—a young woman holding an infant in her arms. She sits on the edge of a rough hemp cot, surrounded by little children, her two married sisters, and her husband, sitting with more children huddled around him on the concrete floor. All these people are dark-skinned and have Mayan features. They speak and understand Spanish.

The only light in the room is a little vigil light placed on the floor in the center of the room. Five brothers, Monks of Weston Priory in Vermont, two Benedictine Missionary Sisters, and a Mexican priest complete the gathering. One of the older children anxiously rises from time to time to look cautiously out the window—an opening in the block concrete wall—to see if anyone is listening to the subdued conversation within.

The woman, a Guatemalan refugee, has just finished telling the story of the death of her father, which reached her two weeks previously, by the visit of one of her relatives who had walked the long and perilous way from Guatemala.

As the woman concludes her story, the Mexican priest turns to her and says, "But you see, all North American people are not your enemies and they are not evil. They do not want your people to suffer and die—it is their government which encourages this evil. Look at these brothers. They are North Americans, and they are your brothers. There are many more like them. Tell them what you want from them."

The woman's quiet voice is filled with feeling, "Brothers, tell your people that we are not communists—we are simple people, Christians like yourselves, who only want food and shelter for our families, a place to work and to live. Please, brothers, tell your people to stop your government from sending more arms that only kill and hurt our people."

Each brother promised to do what he could. Because I promised, because I still hear the voice in that hushed room, I write these lines at this time of prayer.

During the month of February in 1983, five brothers of Weston Priory in Vermont, took a journey to Mexico. They spent the month visiting Base Christian Communities with their Benedictine Missionary Sisters of Mexico. A visit with a small family community of Guatemalan refugees was for me the most moving event in our journey to Mexico.

As we drove along the dusty country road, ox carts filled with children and their parents met us along the way. It was a Sunday evening. Some of the peasant folk waved in friendly fashion as we passed; others looked suspiciously or fearfully at the van filled with North Americans and Mexican Sisters.

Darkness had settled in by the time we reached our destination—a two-room, cement-block building slightly removed from similar buildings scattered along this roadway. We hurried into the dwelling so as not to attract the attention of the neighbors.

The first room was almost completely bare of furniture. A young man greeted us. Soon a flock of children and three young women joined us. All spoke words of welcome, warmly, but almost in a whisper The children were surprisingly quiet—as though they had been rigorously trained to be silent, even in their crying.

We were led into the second room—the bedroom of the house. There were two hemp cots, a few benches along the wall—nothing else. The benches were offered to the sisters and brothers, the guests. The women holding infants sat on the cots; the father sat on the floor with the children. The Mexican priest lit the candle on the floor in the middle of the room.

The priest explained that we must speak very softly, as these people were not known to be Guatemalan refugees. They were marked by the Guatemalan death squads and had to be removed from the refugee camps at the border because their lives were in danger. I puzzled: but these are just young parents—and these little children?

The priest asked the family to share the story of their life with us.

Two of the women present said that their husbands were no longer able to be with them. The third woman was the wife of the young man seated among the children on the floor. He, along with a teenage son, was doing what he could to provide food for the family.

They described how they had all lived as simple peasant farmers in a small Guatemalan village. Their life was poor and they barely had enough to feed their children. Education and health care were luxuries granted only to the rich. Stories began to reach their village that the Guatemalan military was entering nearby villages. The stories became increasingly terrifying. They were told that in one village the military commanded the people to kill the five leading catechists or that the whole village would be annihilated. All the people met to talk together. The five Christian leaders offered their lives rather than to sacrifice the whole community. All formed in procession and went to the cemetery where the people shot their own leaders.

Word reached their village that the military were entering other towns, rounding up the women and children and asking for the whereabouts of the men. If the women would not tell, they were beaten and raped; children were abused and even dismembered within sight of their mothers. The young men, often just teenagers, were rounded up and conscripted into the army.

The terror became so intense and widespread that, at the news of the approach of the military, villagers of other communities fled in great numbers to the mountains. As they were fleeing, bombs were dropped on them from helicopters. The military would take over their villages, eating their food, killing their livestock and burning their fields. They would then wait while the people were starving in the mountains, their children often freezing to death in the cold of night. The women told of the anguish of mothers whose infant children were smothered to death in their arms as they tried to stifle their crying, so as not to be discovered by the soldiers.

As all these stories reached the village of this Guatemalan family, they became more and more terrified. Finally, the military arrived at their village. Two men were taken out of the village by the soldiers. The next day the bodies of those men were found beside the road not far from the village. A few days later there was another visit from a group of the military. This time they took five men. They stripped them and marched them off to a neighboring village where they were killed in front of all the people.

Realizing that they were to be next, the family gathered to see what they should do. Two of the husbands had already fled into the mountains in fear that they would be conscripted into the army on the next visit. The one remaining husband determined to take his wife and children with his two sisters-in-law and their children across the border into Mexico. The father of his wife chose to remain in the village to help those who could not leave.

The frightened family fled with whatever little they could carry. They managed to cross the border and found a refugee camp in Mexico. Guatemalan death squads were constantly crossing the border and seeking families whose husbands were suspect of being with the guerrillas or of supporting them.

It was then that the family was moved to a town farther away, where they would not be known or recognized.

The brothers asked the family how the soldiers, often taken from among the peasants themselves, could treat their own people so viciously.

The husband replied that one of his uncles had been in the military but had managed to leave it. He described the training of the young peasants. When a young man was inducted, he was first subjected to several days of starvation. Then a group of starving recruits would be gathered in a circle. A few tortillas would be placed in the center in front of them. They were then made to fight and brutalize one another to see who would get the tortilla to eat. Similar "training" would then be given with live animals for bait. They would be taught to dismember the animals and eat them raw. At night they would be subject to the blaring of loudspeakers telling them that the peasants were communists and the enemies of the country.

After months of this kind of treatment, soldiers would become like brutes with no sense of their humanity, and willing to perform any atrocities against their own people.

We asked why this was being done; for what purpose could the government of a people condone, let alone encourage, such action. Part of the answer came from the family, part from the priest, who was aware of more of the political reality.

The family said that the government wanted to be rid of the guerrillas and were unable to do so directly because they were able to hide in the hills. The guerrillas could only survive if the peasants fed them and supported them. Most of the peasants had no choice; and often the men would flee to the hills in order to escape the inhumanity of being inducted into the military.

The priest pointed out that 300 families control the wealth and resources of Guatemala. Two percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land. More than 60 percent of the people are indigenous peasants who hold extremely small plots, or no land at all. This Indian population has been exploited to the point of slavery, their families suffering from malnutrition and the deprivation of basic necessities at the hands of the large landowners.

The Church, especially the priests and religious sisters, have helped the people to be aware of their human rights and dignity as people. Because of this, priests and religious, as well as at least two bishops, have been either killed or driven out of their parishes and dioceses. They have been replaced by fundamentalist ministers, backed by U.S. funds and protected by the government. These ministers preach a gospel of submission and acceptance of the present situation as the will of God for these poor people. They tell them that they must hope for a change only in the next life. They try to destroy any sense of solidarity and hope that has been built up by the Church through the catechist leaders. Methodically, Christian leadership and influence on the social life of the people is being destroyed.

As this sad story was being recounted to us, my thoughts went back to the Jewish holocaust in Nazi Germany. I recalled how, after the war, I was discussing with a German monk the place of Christians and the Church in the extermination of Jews in Germany. The monk said, "Well, we didn't really realize what was going on right under our noses. We believed our government when they told us that what they were doing was for the good of our country."

I could not help but think of the parallel. There is genocide going on in Latin America. Our own government is supplying advisors, bombs, planes, spare parts—all being used to exterminate a people. Weapons made by our hands, paid for with our money. Our government is telling us that what it is doing is for the good of our country.

A few years from now, if the earth is still "civilized" and inhabitable, will a monk from Germany be asking an American monk, "How could that happen? What were Christians doing, thinking? Where were you? Where was the Church?"

The young mother concluded our visit telling us of the death of her father. She had received the news two weeks previously. He had been visiting with two young men in his dwelling in the village. A group of military arrived outside. One young man volunteered to go to see what they wanted. As he stepped outside, they shot him. The other young man fled out through the roof while the woman's father held the military off with a pistol. The young man escaped to the hills; the father was shot to death.

The woman with the infant in her arms told us with tears, without bitterness or despair, "We know that all your people are not evil. Please tell them to stop the government from sending arms they only kill our people."

This was the month of February, 1983. President Reagan has recently said that the situation in Guatemala is better and that we should increase military aid.

The story I have told is the simple story of defenseless people who had no reason to distort the truth. We promised to tell the story. I pray that their voice will be heard.

Postscript 1989

Six years have now passed since this article was written, and the tragedy in Guatemala continues. Thousands more have been killed. The indigenous people are even more severely repressed. Hunger, disease, poverty, landlessness run rampant. Four out of 10 children die before the age of 5, due to malnutrition and diarrhea.

At present, the government wears the outward mask of democracy with a civilian president, but the military still holds the reins of power. Together with the wealthy of the country, the army stifles any attempt at needed reform.

The refugees cannot return home. The Church in Guatemala and international human rights organizations warn that safe conditions for their return cannot be guaranteed.

Yet even in exile, their hope and faith remain strong. They ask us to stand at their side and to help stop the repression. They plead with us to exert pressure on our government to stop the arms flow, and to encourage all sectors of their society to begin a dialogue from which a new future for their country can be born.


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