Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Full Story in Guatemala Is Bishops' Goal

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Full Story in Guatemala Is Bishops' Goal

Article excerpt

In Guatemala, the Catholic church has set out on a brave, risky and perhaps impossible quest. Alone among various churches, it has begun to recover the history of 35 years of civil war during which 150,000 died and 45,000 disappeared. The bishops have invited survivors or witnesses to tell their stories in confidence to pastoral agents. Their testimonies will be synthesized and interpreted, according to a statement released by the bishops, with the goal of finding ways "to repair the damage and assure that such a tragedy does not happen again."

Because the armed forces are against the process, it will take courage for witnesses to come forward. A visiting Guatemalan priest said that many will hold back for fear of retaliation. Then also, in many of the 662 villages totally destroyed by the army (that figure has recently been revised upward from 442 by the Guatemalan military), the entire population was killed.

The bishops went ahead because the truth commission, called for by the peace accords, is so limited it has little chance of success. It will not be allowed to identify those responsible for specific human rights violations. Despite the risk of retaliation by the military, the bishops (again in their statement) believe it is the only way "to conquer fear, break the silence and revalidate the experiences of the victims."

Maryknoll Sr. Bernice Kita, who works in El Quiche diocese, said people need to speak out to recover their physical and mental health. Moreover, as Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu said recently at a reception given in her honor at the United Nations, many Guatemalans think there can be no real peace until the victims are addressed.

Conquering their fear and breaking the silence is also the quest of two American women. Ursuline Sr. Dianna Ortiz, a missioner raped and tortured in Guatemala, has sought the identity of the American agent who directed her torturers. Jennifer Harbury -- a Connecticut lawyer whose husband, a rebel commander, was captured and killed by the Guatemalan military -- seeks her own truth about Central Intelligence Agency involvement in her husband's death.

Learning the truth of what is taught at the School of the Americas, which has trained many of Latin America's worst human rights violators, has been the quest of a small group of activists who call themselves the School of the Americas Watch. Clearly there is a need for a recovery of the full story of United States' involvement in Central America's civil wars in the last half of this century.

Many disturbing fragments of that history have come to light: the CIA-engineered overthrow of legitimate governments; the installation and support of military regimes that massacred civilians; the complicity of military officers on the CIA payroll in Guatemala in the murder or torture of Americans; and the training of military personnel in the School of the Americas in the use of torture, execution, blackmail and the arrest of relatives. …

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