The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Payments and Apologies for Victims of Guatemala's Civil War

Under Colom, State Steps Up Program

By Anne-Marie O'Connor
Special to The Washington Post

GUATEMALA CITY -- When army helicopters landed in his village in August 1982, Francisco Velasco was away in the cornfields with the men. Then they heard the screams. Velasco rushed back home and found his wife and two baby daughters dead.

Velasco lost 16 relatives, including his mother and father, in the army's scorched-earth campaign against leftist guerrillas. Five years after applying for compensation, his family received $5,400 from the state a few months ago and an official apology.

"You can't pay for a life," Velasco said. "But it is a gesture of support."

Since President Álvaro Colom took office in January 2008, Guatemala has stepped up payments to survivors of the estimated 200,000 people who died in the 36-year civil war. Begun in 2003, the program had compensated 3,000 survivors by 2007, according to its directors. But under Colom, whose family suffered a high-profile death during the war, the state has handed out 10,477 checks -- many for claims ignored for years, according to Cesar Davila, president of the National Compensation Program.

Survivors also get a letter from Colom asking for forgiveness for the losses they suffered as a result of the abuses committed by the state during the war, which ended in 1996. "The fact that the president signs it is very important," said Orlando Blanco, Guatemala's secretary of peace. "It is an official document that says, 'Here is the truth: My son was not a subversive or a delinquent. It was the state that killed him.' "

Many of the compensated survivors are Mayan. A truth commission report said Mayans were victims of genocide by the army, which feared that their poverty and marginalization would make them potential allies of the rebels. Seventy percent of the recipients are women who lost husbands, parents and children, Blanco said. Some were raped, a violation that recently became grounds for reparation, he said.

Officials say 64,000 requests are pending. The Colom government is trying to help the survivors most in need of the payments, which range from $1,500 to $2,500. The program has built more than 800 houses for war victims and plans thousands more.

"There are so many victims, there is not enough money for everyone," Blanco said. "What we look for is to benefit someone who is older and more vulnerable."

The stories of the past still haunt Guatemala.

Lucia Quila, 54, survived one of the best-documented massacres. Armed men led her husband out of the cornfield in the village of Xecoxol in 1982. He never returned.

Then soldiers came looking for leftist guerrillas. They found civilians: Quila's sister, whom they gang-raped and shot; her elderly father, whom they beat so badly they broke his back. Their bodies were dumped in the church latrine in a mass grave of 16 villagers.

"They were going to kill my little sister. She was 10," Quila said, wiping her tears with her skirt. "She started to cry. Another said, 'She's just a girl. Leave her.' "

A few years ago, Quila went to a ceremony at the presidential palace to pick up her compensation check. She cried when officials asked for forgiveness.

"It meant a lot to hear that yes, the state accepted responsibility," she said. "It wasn't just the money. No money can pay for my lost husband and the chaos we suffered. I won't forget that until I die. But at that moment, the government finally acknowledged the damage done to us."

In a country where many subsist on less than $2 a day, the money helped Quila remake her life in the capital, where she is a coordinator of a support group for war victims.

"Most people can't even imagine the kind of poverty these people live in," said Barbara Bocek, the Guatemala country expert for Amnesty International USA.

"Of course you can't compensate people for their village being wiped out. There's never going to be adequate monetary or personal human recognition for any of those deaths," she said. But "any amount of actual cash to folks in those circumstances is gigantic."

Colom recently apologized to a group of Mayan villagers in person. He had just attended an official ceremony for his own uncle, onetime mayor Manuel Colom Argueta, who was assassinated in 1979 during military rule.

"The money will not heal their wounds," he said. "But the fact that the president asks their pardon has an impact, in some cases, greater than the money."

Colom said he began to realize the depth of grief when he attended the unearthing of a mass grave after the war.

"People would spot the favorite toy of a child and find the body," he said. "It gave them such comfort to find their loved ones and give them a dignified burial."

One grave contained the remains of two soldiers who villagers said refused to participate in a massacre, Colom said.

Human rights groups say a thorough airing of the past is essential to healing a brutalized society in which war has ended but criminal violence is still endemic.

"Remembrance of the victims is a fundamental aspect of this historical memory and permits the recovery of the values of, and the validity of the struggle for, human dignity," the U.N.-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification said in a 1998 report.

The reparations program has critics. Ultraconservative Prensa Libre columnist Alfred Kaltschmitt wrote that the program was backed by former rebels who failed to "install their Marxist-Leninist Shangri-La."

"To insist on compensating victims of the armed conflict at this late date is a mistake that opens a deep and insatiable well of potential plaintiffs and a parade of 'witnesses' and 'victims' with horror stories against the military leaders of that era," he said.

But many Guatemalan survivors say the program should do more.

In May 1981, security forces pulled Julia Poyon Cumez's father from bed. She last remembers him weeping with fear.

Her mother, who was pregnant at the time, couldn't feed her children. Poyon, paralyzed by polio, grew up in an institution, and her brother lived in an orphanage.

Today, Poyon and her young son face life with no extended family -- an unthinkable dislocation for an ethnic Mayan before the war.

"We never shared together as a family," she said. "I have aunts and uncles who are strangers."

Like many survivors of productive working age, Poyon, a Guatemala City office receptionist who gets around in a wheelchair, has not received compensation. Her mother received a payment in 2007 and gave about $370 to each of her three children.

Her mother still suffers from anxiety, depression and insomnia, Poyon said.

"My mother needs therapy," Poyon said. "A whole generation suffered through this war. We need more support."