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Access to Justice

A testimony of survival and dignity in the face of genocide

A CIDSE delegation of European bishops and priests has travelled to Guatemala to show their solidarity with survivors of genocide, Aisling Walsh reports. 

“It takes effort to reach heaven” said Don Tiburcio, with a big smile as we puffed and panted our way up the short but steep path leading to his house. When we reached the top we were rewarded with what was certainly a heavenly view: a 360 degree panorama of the lush green hills of Quiche, Guatemala, glowing in the morning sunshine.  
 
Don Tiburcio welcomed us warmly into his home in the village of Xix, an hour’s drive along a dirt road from Nebaj, Quiche. Of course it was not the first time that he had been visited by Trócaire. 
 
Don Tiburcio, of Maya Ixil origin, was one of the protagonists of Trócaire’s 2003 Lenten campaign that aimed at raising awareness about land rights issues in Guatemala and advocating for justice for those that had lost their lives, their loved ones and their land in Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict. 
 
Over 22,000 Irish people wrote letters to the Guatemalan government demanding justice for victims and survivors of the conflict and ten years later, in 2013, Don Tiburcio finally had the opportunity to give his testimony to the Guatemalan Supreme Court as a survivor of and witness to genocide. 
 
The former head of state, General Efrain Ríos Montt was found guilty for genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Ixil indigenous community and sentenced to 80 years in prison. 
 
A year has passed since the sentence was handed down and unfortunately there has been a series of actions taken by powerful sectors of Guatemalan society to annul the judgment, deny that genocide ever took place in Guatemala and to attack many of the key figures and local and international organizations that were involved in taking the case to court. 
 
Monsignor Hugh Connolly meets Don Tiburcio Utuy
Monsignor Hugh Connolly meets Don Tiburcio Utuy, survivor of genocide, at his home in the village of Xix, Quiche. Photo: Delmi Arriaza
 
In light of the increasingly hostile environment for human rights defenders and social justice advocates in Guatemala, CIDSE (the international alliance of Catholic organizations working together for global justice) organized a delegation of European bishops to visit Guatemala and demonstrate their solidarity with the Guatemalan people and their struggle for justice and equality. 
 
The director of CIDSE, Bernd Nilles, Father Peter Hughes of the Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM) and Monsignor Hugh Connolly, Director of the Seminary in Maynooth, accompanied staff from Trócaire and our partners CALDH (the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights) and AJR (the Association for Justice and Reconciliation) who were the plaintiffs for the genocide trial. 
 
Monsignors Juan Antonio Aznarez Cobo from Spain, Aloys Jousten from Belgium, and Felix Gmür from Switzerland visited partner organisations based in the region of Alta Verapaz were Trócaire has been advocating for the rights of 769 families forcefully evicted from their lands in 2011. 
 
Bishop Antonio Aznarez Cobo guatemala
Bishop Antonio Aznarez Cobo of Spain celebrates Mass at protest camp against La Puya mine, Guatemala. Photo: Courtest of CIDSE
 
It is the second tour of this kind that united high representatives of the international Catholic organisations in their will to fight against the deterioration of the human rights situation, conflict around access to land and against poverty, and in favour of peace and reconciliation in Guatemala. 
 
Don Tiburcio, a catechist and the director of Catholic Action for the village of Xix, was gratified by the opportunity to share his testimony and his reflections on the trial with the members of the delegation. 
Over the course of nearly three hours he recounted with incredible detail the story of the persecution of him and his community. 
 
“When the conflict began in the early 1980’s my family and I were just salespeople. We travelled between the different towns around Nebaj to sell our products in the markets.  Once the army entered Nebaj they began to harass us and confiscate our products. They accused us of helping the guerrillas. We were considered the enemy just for being Ixil, for speaking Quiche. They treated us like animals.” 
 
The first massacres in the Ixil communities surrounding Nebaj began in 1981. In February 1982 while on watch with other community leaders Tiburcio raised the alarm that the army was coming and the whole village fled to the mountains. There he lost his first wife and children who died from malnutrition. 
 
Tiburcio was captured by the army in 1983, accused of being a guerrilla and was kept prisoner for three years. 
 
During this time he was subjected to repeated torture, interrogation, starvation and incomprehensible levels of cruelty at the hands of the Guatemalan military. 
 
Tiburcio described how he came so close to death three times that he thought he had actually died: “I prayed to God to take me if it was my time. I thought I would die, but by the grace of God I managed to survive.”
 
An estimated 200,000 people were murdered or disappeared during the conflict, 83% of whom were indigenous people. The genocide of the Ixil community was the most extreme expression of an ideology of racism that has festered at the core of the state; they were deemed an ‘internal enemy’ that must be ‘annihilated.’ 
 
candle for disappeared guatemala
Lighting a candle in memory of the victims of the internal conflict. Till this day families are still searching for the location of their relatives and continue to look for justice. Photo: Delmi Arriaza
 
When the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, Tiburcio returned to Xix and immediately reassumed his role as the community catechist, providing spiritual support to his traumatized community. Tiburcio also found love again and started another family with his wife Catarina.
 
 In 2013 Tiburcio was one of the key eye witnesses at the trial of Ríos Montt: “The trial was an important achievement for all our Ixil brothers and sisters. We were able to speak to the nation about our pain and suffering, all that we lived through and all that we felt. The sentence is an important moment of change for our country; it means that our children will never have to experience what we did. But it never would have been possible without international support, especially Trócaire.” 
 
As our meeting concluded Father Peter Hughes thanked Don Tiburcio for his honesty, sincerity and his trust in sharing his testimony, “All that is left for us to say is that we are now witnesses to your testimony, we will carry your words in our hearts, and we will share your story with the world, so that the crimes that were committed here in the past will never be repeated.”
 
 
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