The Color of Healing

By Friesen, Jeff | Americas (English Edition), July 1999 | Go to article overview

The Color of Healing


Friesen, Jeff, Americas (English Edition)


Central America's longest civil war cut into the heart of Guatemala's Maya people. For thirty-six years, fighting between the government-controlled army and peasant resistance groups stained the countryside red. The army enforced whims of the wealthy elite, judging the impoverished Maya as resistance sympathizers, whether they were or not. Race also played a role. Mixed-blood ladinos, forming the ruling class, saw themselves superior to indigenous Maya people--conditions were ripe for injustice. The Guatemalan government began a campaign against the Maya that earned it a reputation among the world's worst human rights abusers.

The same government that plastered photos of the Maya in tourist brochures now plastered them with bullets in their homes. Entire villages were massacred, subsistence farms burned in sick yellow light. Maya who survived were moved to "model villages" for ease of control or forced to join the army and fight for their oppressors. Maya children were "reeducated" away from traditional beliefs. They lived the brutal cliche of world history: The desire to eliminate entire races of people in flesh or spirit.

By 1996, 150,000 lives were lost to the war, not counting another 50,000 disappeared. Guatemala, already one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, was in an economic tailspin. With the collapse of the cold war, the United States stopped financing antirevolutionary armies in Central America. International pressure from human rights groups shined an increasingly brighter light on the darkness of Guatemala's government. On December 29, 1996, a peace agreement was reached between President Alvaro Arzu and the collective resistance groups.

Jeff Friesen is a photojournalist residing in British Columbia, Canada. Photograph cJeff Friesen. …

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