RTÉ presenter John Creedon travelled with Trócaire to Guatemala to highlight this year's Lent appeal. These are his reflections on an extraordinary and powerful journey.
Like many people in Ireland, I’m familiar with reports about the caravans of displaced people moving through Central America to escape violence, poverty and oppression. But, during my recent week-long trip to Guatemala with Trócaire – ahead of the development agency’s ongoing Lenten campaign – I was struck by the sobering reminder of just how the indigenous Mayan people have been dealing with similar problems since the time of the conquistadors.
Generation after generation, these people have been pushed off their land. Today, many big businesses exploit the country’s rural natural resources, leaving many Guatemalans landless.
A bitter conflict was fought between the military and civilian forces from the 1960s through to the 90s. An estimated 200,000 people were murdered or ‘disappeared’ – 83 per cent of these victims were indigenous Mayans – and the scars of that conflict are still visible.
A long seven-hour journey led us to the community of Parana in the fertile and stunning Polochic Valley. This is home to a young lady who may become familiar to you - María (9), who features on this year’s Trócaire box.
María’s family were violently evicted from these lands – their ancestral homeland – in 2011. Their home was burned down by state forces and a private security firm working for a big plantation business. They returned here four years later with the backing of Trócaire and their partners CUC, although their long-term future remains uncertain.
Despite generations of displacement, the Mayan’s relationship with the land remains so gentle. They leave a very light footprint and have a very open farming system. They clearly have a real grá for Trócaire, CUC and those who are supporting them to stake their claim. Very few people here speak Spanish. They continue to speak their native Mayan tongue, which means they struggle to engage with the modern legal system.
Meeting 71-year-old Carmen Xol, one of the heroic women of Sepur Zarco, on the third day of our trip was a humbling experience.
Carmen was one of a group of 15 women who experienced sexual slavery at the hands of the military. Against the odds, this brave group brought a case against two military officials who were eventually held responsible for crimes against humanity.
The legal process can be slow and expensive. The Irish public, through Trócaire, helped to fund this case. It was moving to see the entire community come out and herald the 14 surviving women as heroes on the third anniversary of their day of justice.
The military’s brutal campaign of violence during the Guatemalan conflict – justified on the supposed premise of fighting rebel ‘guerrilla’ forces – essentially amounted to an effort to exterminate the indigenous Mayans.
The CREOMPAZ military centre in the city of Cobán is the scene from which much of this heartache stems. There has been a long wait for a scheduled trial to question the military officers alleged to be responsible.
Relatives of the disappeared are deeply frustrated at the delay. Speaking to one man it was obvious that, even at the age of 56, he is still traumatised by the abduction and murder of his father. Now there is an ‘amnesty’ proposed, which would mean that the perpetrators would never be brought to justice.
The Casa de Migrante (Migrant House) in Guatemala City offers support to desperate people attempting to escape violence and persecution in various Central American countries.
It was a full house again when we visited. I met a young man from Honduras, a gay rights campaigner who is under the threat of death at home. Another man, from El Salvador, told me that a gang will shoot him if he ever returns home. I met a woman who explained how she and her 10-year-old son had to leave home as he had come under pressure to work for ‘narcos’.
The Migrant House has, at times, struggled to cope with the numbers arriving at its doors. With beds for 60 people, they recently had to sleep 600 in this facility and a further 1,200 in nearby buildings.
On our final day we visited Abelino Chub Caal, who has been imprisoned without trial in a high-security Guatemalan jail for over two years on five spurious charges. In truth, he has stood up for local indigenous communities to organise and settle back on their land.
Abelino is now imprisoned in a gang-infested jail. Upon entering the prison we were informed that a gang murder had been committed that morning. Abelino is a remarkably courageous man, who works of his local communities. Hopefully, before too long, he will find freedom and justice.
It was a full-on week and a long road, but it pales into insignificance in comparison to the road travelled by the indigenous Guatemalan people in their struggles.
The communities welcomed us with open arms. They asked that we not forget them, and they also asked me to thank the Irish people for their kindness. One elderly man’s parting line still reverberates in my mind: ‘Please keep walking with us’.