by Lynne Jones, OBE FRCPsych
Chichicastenango, 22nd May 2018
How do you set about finding two people you last saw in the middle of a war in the highlands of Guatemala in the early nineties? Christina (1) and Maria are both indigenous Maya women, astonishingly brave human rights activists, who allowed me to interview them for my doctoral research on nonviolent activism during the Cold War. Yesterday in Chichicastenango, I thought I had found one of them. I was standing in a woman’s cooperative and mentioned the name Maria Morales, to the man behind the counter.
‘Maria Morales? I know her, she is part of this cooperative. I will ring her now.’
I could not quite believe it. Nothing was that simple. But he was talking on the phone and the woman said she would be there in an hour. Asmamaw and I went out to find a coffee and I told him how I had met the women.
1989 might have been the end of the Cold war in Europe but in Guatemala, US backed government forces were still engaged in very hot war against so called ‘Communist Guerillas’. This was the excuse for waging a genocidal war against the majority Maya indigenous population that had begun in 1961. The Army’s favoured tactic in the early nineties was to militarise the countryside by recruiting indigenous villagers into ‘civil patrols’ (PACs) whose job was to report on and confront any suspected ‘guerrilla’ activity. Sometimes villagers were forced by the army to shoot other villagers. One of the worst affected areas was in Quiche in the Western highlands. Christina belonged to CERJ, (the Council of Ethnic Communities “Runujel Junam” or “Everyone Equal”) which educated illiterate highlanders on their constitutional right not to be forcibly recruited, whatever the army said. Conavigua was a sister movement of widows and other women who worked to empower women and also to find, exhume and identify their disappeared husbands.
I hung out with both women on and off for three years, sitting in on lectures and meetings, watching them work. I remember walking along a highland path with Christina one day. Whenever she met a villager, she would pull out her battered blue copy of the constitution and ask them if they knew their rights; a bit like a secular itinerant preacher. CERJ was effective. At the time I was there at least 8000 villagers were refusing to Join PACS. All the activists faced death threats, 2 CERJ members were abducted, one CONVIGUA member was murdered while I was there. They kept going.
‘How old would Maria be now?’
‘In her fifties I think.’
We walked back into the Coop. The large bleak concrete garage like space was lit up by the tables full of beautiful handmade embroidered clothes and bags. A young woman with long hair in plaits, traditional skirt and embroidered blouse, was bent over one table.
‘This is Maria Morales.’ She turned and smiled, possibly she was 25. Not my Maria.
‘I am so sorry there has been a misunderstanding I should have given your friend more details.’
‘Don’t worry it’s a very common name!’
We chatted some more about her Coop: local women working together to support one another. The other Maria would have approved, but this Maria had not heard of her.
‘Ok let’s try Christina.’ I said to Asmamaw. ‘We must find her. If it was not for Christina, I would never have met you.’
It was true. Christina was happy to be interviewed for my PHD, and even happier when she discovered that I was a psychiatrist. She asked me to help her. Would I please come home with her to see her brother who had been mentally ill for some years? We took a battered minibus further up into the Quiché highlands, switch backing over steep-sided pine-covered ridges, then walking the last two miles to the cluster of cane and adobe houses that made up Christina’s hamlet.
It did not take long to establish that her brother had a severe psychotic depression. He had once taken the two-day bus journey to the mental hospital in Guatemala City, but had long ago run out of the medication they gave him. She had not taken him back because they had no money. But now he was obviously severely depressed again, refusing food, and scarcely speaking or moving. This had gone on for months. I had nothing to give him. All I could do was advise that he really did need reassessment, medication and cognitive therapy, although the latter was unlikely to be available. I listed the possible drugs that I hoped might work, explained their side effects and the nature of the illness, and the things they could do as a family to help him recover and stay well. I gave her money to take him to back to the city and pay for the drugs.
We walked down the path between small patches of corn, vegetables and fruit trees into the village square. The landscape fell away from the plaza and the houses, in fold after fold of blue-grey mountains. Coming towards us was a young woman in a torn huipil, stage-lit against this astonishing backdrop by the horizontal afternoon sun. The dirty embroidered blouse had fallen off her shoulder, exposing half her breast. Her skirt too was ragged. Unusually for a Guatemalan woman, her hair was uncombed and unplaited, hanging in dirty threads around her face, which was cut and bleeding. She was crying and shouting. I instinctively went towards her, thinking something terrible had happened. Christina pulled me back, shaking her head and making the familiar gesture of a finger pointed at the head. This was the local ‘mad’ woman. And then I noticed the small children running after her, laughing and pointing and gathering up small pebbles to hurl at her.
‘She is crazy,’ Christina said, ‘there is nothing you can do.’
‘What about her family?’
‘She has none.’
I remember that familiar surge of rage, the ‘I cannot bear it – this is impossible– we must do something’ feeling which is what has pushed always me into action. I would at least talk to the children. I stomped over to them as they stood giggling, fascinated by an irate white woman who obviously could not speak Quiché. I asked Christina to translate my basic Spanish:
‘This lady is sick, you should not hurt her. That will make her worse. You have to be kind.’
‘She shouts at us and she says crazy things. She is a witch!’
‘So just leave her alone, then she won’t bother you.’
The children giggled some more. It seemed unlikely that my two-minute homily on being nice to crazy people would change anything.
The medical anthropology lectures in my psychiatric training had focused on the exotic: the ‘culture-bound diseases’ such as ‘semen loss syndrome’. Our professors had taught us that traditional societies coped much better than our own with the severely ill, and that their rates of mental disorder were much lower than ours. Yet here in one tiny hamlet in the highlands of rural Guatemala were two people who had been ill for years and who were untreated because of poverty, or stoned and taunted because people were afraid or thought they were evil or bewitched. The asylum in Guatemala City was fourteen hours away by bus. How could it possibly help, and who would want to be left there, miles from friends or family?
It was that encounter with madness in Christina’s village that made me want to practice psychiatry in countries like Guatemala. (2)
‘That is the beginning of the long thread that led me to working in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. So, if I had not met Christina, I would not have met you,’ I concluded.
‘So why did you not come back to work in Guatemala?
‘War in the Balkans, I was married to a Slovene philosopher at the time. It was our war. Then more War, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Sierra Leone. Too many wars, it was hard to get away.’
In 1996 there was finally a negotiated peace in Guatemala. 200,000 people had been killed and 40,000 disappeared. 90% of the victims were civilians and more than 80% were indigenous Maya. CERJ work came to an end. I lost touch with Christina. I tried to find her on two occasions in the last 15 years when my agency had sent me back to Guatemala. There were odd mentions on the internet- photos of her at international conferences- a short video of her work with women – a blog about her excellence as a teacher. But no face-book or web page that let me connect with her.
This time I am determined. I cannot remember the name of her village but I keep combing and combing the internet, googling her name, Finally I find a council document- minutes of a meeting for the community of G, a few years back, which listed her as a councillor. G, I remember the town near to Santa Cruz where the CERJ office used to be.
So, on Monday we take two more microbuses from Chichicastenango to G. It is a much more crowded country than I remember: Single story white pained adobe and red tiled roofs have given way to two- and three-story concrete houses that clutter the landscape. Dirt roads are now concrete and tarmac. There far less pine forest and far more cleared fields, advertising hoardings, and phone masts.
But G is still a small town with a large plaza and the council buildings and health centre on one-side. We walk into the town hall. There is a receptionist in a small booth.
‘Of course, I know Christina, everyone does. She works in that office on Wednesdays. She has a women’s association. I have her phone number.’
We call. Christina answers. She thinks she does remember me. She is in her village. She will be free at one. We should meet her by the school. It is that easy!
It’s no longer a two-mile walk. We can take another minibus up the dirt road to Christina’s village. This is the Guatemala I remember. A large primary school and a white painted small colonial church around a basket ball court. One ‘shop’ selling soft drinks and tortilla chips from a darkened interior through an open window; a scatter of the old-style adobe white washed houses around bare corn fields, all hand ploughed and turned into neat furrows waiting for rain. We sat outside the shop drinking soft drinks while school children, just let out, stared around the corner of the building, giggling to each other and pointing at Asmamaw.
Guatemala has a Garifuna population around Livingstone on the East coast, but indigenous Maya don’t travel much. We have seen no other black man in these parts, not even American tourists. When Asmamaw had his hair cut at the barber’s shop in G yesterday morning, the barber had no idea where Livingstone was, let alone Africa. And Asmamaw was his first black client in 26 years of work. He did a great job with the clippers and was delighted to hear that the leopards and elephants, visible on his TV as he worked, came from the same continent as Asmamaw.
Christina comes to meet us. Looking much the same as thirty years ago- dressed in beautiful hand embroidered Huipil, a loose blouse tucked into dark hand-woven skirt. She walks us up between the cornfields to the same house: a group of mud-brick buildings round a courtyard. There is one room made of cinder blocks with a corrugated iron roof.
‘It’s new’, she says, ‘our Association is helping women build these.’
We sit in the yard for a couple of hours catching up on 25 years. Her life has not been easy. She had travelled to the UN and UK as a guest of various NGOs in the early nineties. But after the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, the international Human Rights community had less interest in Guatemala. She had lost those connections, but gone on working with women, and as a teacher. A few years back an international NGO from Spain had given her a job coordinating local women’s health projects in the area. Things had gone well for three years. Then they had run out of funding and just left.
This is what happens to local people who work for international agencies. There is no job security and you are simply abandoned when funding stops. She continues trying to keep the women’s association going, working with small farming and housing projects in three or four communities, but they are struggling. She is not the President any more, and the current one is both controlling and inactive.
Meanwhile her own family have many problems. Her father is ninety almost blind and very frail. I watch him make his way painfully across the yard. Her mother is sick. The brother I met in 1991 died seven years ago. He had another admission to the mental hospital in Guatemala City. The conditions there were the stuff of nightmares. He was too ill to take care of himself and other patients would steal his food. Christina came to get him after a few weeks and saw that he was literally starving. He died at home a week later. Heart-breaking!
Christina introduced me to a sister I had not met before, who also has schizophrenia. Another tragic story, when she had been admitted to hospital as a teenager she had been raped by another patient, which had just compounded her illness. She understandably never wants to go back and a local psychiatrist had prescribed the right antipsychotic which, when she takes it, keeps the voices and hallucinations away. She came to say hello and appeared reasonably well. Christina showed me the packet of risperidone. She was on the right dose. But they have no money for more, there is no free secondary health care in Guatemala. I gave Christina all the money in my purse bar our bus fare home. It just happened to be 500 quetzals or fifty pounds, two months’ supply of medication.
Christina was heading off to the city the next day to collect materials for the building project and we had to return to our work in Belize, so Asmamaw and I promised we would return in our Christmas break to see how else we could help.
Guatemala City, 22nd December 2018
I am sitting in a Chinese restaurant with Maria Morales and Christina in a suburb of Guatemala City. It’s Maria’s choice. They are talking animatedly in Quiche. They have not seen each other for more than 20 years. If I do nothing else on this trip, I am so happy to have reconnected these women.
A friend working with environmental defenders in the Alta Verapaz told me Maria Morales was now President of Majawil Q’ij and gave me an email address. Majawil Q’ij (the New Awakening), began in the early nineties when I was first in the country. Its aim was to promote ‘the unity of indigenous peoples; to recover their history and develop and nourish their identity, culture and religious beliefs; and to unite in the struggle against discrimination, oppression and dispossession.’ It now has an office in Guatemala City and is primarily focused of empowering indigenous women, encouraging their participation in all aspects of political, social and economic life and defending their rights.
I went on line. There was a video of Maria making a powerful speech against the dispossession of indigenous peoples in Guatemala
‘Don’t listen to the gangsters who tell us sweet lies and then appropriate what the people have defended for a long time. The invasion of land has not ended. After five hundred years, they are still stripping us. […] Let us join our voices, let us join in resistance to say no to the mega projects and companies. Yes to life and yes to the fight to defend the future of our country.’
I wrote at once. She replied immediately: ‘come and see, me hurry up!
We returned to G. a few days ago and met up with Christina again in her office, as promised. She was exhausted. Her mother had died, her sister was sick again. The current president of her NGO was creating obstacles for any kind of action, and Christina had recently broken her glasses and had difficulty with her vision. That at least we could fix.
‘Christina please come and stay with us in Antigua. You can rest. Please let me arrange a proper eye check up there and get you some good glasses and then we can visit Majawil together. They can advise you about what to do with your Association. When were you last in touch with Maria Morales?
‘Not for many many years. I lost the connection’
‘Would you like to see her again?
I was dialling while I talked, and had Maria on the phone.
‘Here she is, talk to her’
I handed my mobile to Christina and listened uncomprehending as they chatted for next 15 minutes.
We all arranged to meet up in the city at the Majawil Q’ij office. Two days later here we sit eating chop suey along with two of Maria’s children, home from high school and college.
I watch both of these extraordinary women talking animatedly together and wonder if they remember the details of their lives that they shared with me a quarter of a century ago.
I know that Christina picked coffee for eight hours a day when she was eight years old, ‘every day in rain and fierce sun.’ Her father felt that ‘school wasn’t important for girls’. But she finally persuaded him to let her go aged 12. She was beaten and bullied as she was older than the others in her class but she made a speech, quoting from the Popol Vuh saying: “we all rise up and no one gets left behind.” (3)
Maria also worked as a child and had no formal education. She taught herself to read and write in Spanish and Quiche by listening to the sung words of the catechism in the catholic church, and working out their spelling, by a process of elimination, on the page.
It was the murder of the catechist who had encouraged her that had motivated her to become an activist. Like so many at that time, he had been tortured and killed with axes in front of the community. Maria wept whenever she thought of him
‘They had killed three other leaders in the cantons and there was no one left to take charge.’ She had told me ‘I said he’s dead, but I’m here and I’ve got to carry on the work, because we’ve been doing it. I had to give the people encouragement. So, I started to take charge and from that time I had the opportunity to teach my community.’
Christina had witnessed the direct impact of the Violence on her family. While she worked as a maid in Guatemala City they had been bombed out of their village and lived, near starving, in the hills. Then the army had tried to force her mentally ill brother to patrol. Christina joined CERJ because she wanted to stop them.
‘That struggle was very hard’, Christina says when I ask if she remembers those times. ‘We had no idea who would support us, we just had to stop the massacres and the violence and the forced recruitment. Both my father and brother patrolled. That’s what made my brother so sick.’
She smiles at Maria. ‘I am very happy to be here. You know Conavigua and CERJ worked side by side. Maria and I had identical ideals, we were both coordinators for our organisations. I was frightened we might lose one another then. The persecution was so terrible I thought one of us might die.
‘Is Guatemala better now?’ I ask them both. Maria shakes her head.
‘The armed internal conflict enslaved us, but the Peace accords did not make life better. They weren’t done for the people. They just helped transnational companies. Because now they can move everywhere freely but there is still no peace for indigenous people.
‘And now they want our forests and our rivers’, she continued. ‘Two teachers were killed in Huhue (Huehuetenango) a few days ago because they were defending territory against a hydro-electric dam.’ The old divisions have not gone away. The supporters of the Dam in that community were all former PACS.
‘The government promised to give land to those who did not have it, and that has never happened. They just gave it to former soldiers, not to the people. In Solola they took women’s land titles and never returned them. Widows lose land to their husband’s relatives and certificates just disappear. The assassinations, kidnapping and disappearances all continue. Women are imprisoned. It just goes on and on.
Corruption is the other big problem they both agree. ‘The deputies just steal and ignore ordinary people.’ Christina tells me. ‘They are just there for their families. Anyone else, they say ‘don’t bother me’.
‘The idea now is to change Congress, it is totally corrupted and going backwards,’ Maria says. Both hope that Thelma Aldana might run for the Presidency in the June 2019 elections. She was president of the Supreme court and a former attorney general, known for her work with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala that brought down the Presidency of Otto Perez Molina in 2015. She also set up special courts to deal with femicide: the epidemic of violence against women in Guatemala.
It is a long dinner but finally we all need to leave. We’ve agreed that Asmamaw and I should come back and do some training for Majawil Q’ij women, on our next break.
Guatemala City, 14th February 2019
‘My mother beat me so often and so badly that my grandmother came and took me away to live with her. I was very happy, I preferred it.’
‘My husband was beating me very badly. All the time. The neighbours saw what was happening, they advised me to leave and they helped me find a safe place to live and gave me support.’
‘My son was murdered by gangs. Friends took me to make a denunciation.’
It is not quite what I expected. We are having a discussion session on ‘how to help others and ourselves’ and I always begin this by asking the participant to identify things that had helped them personally to feel better, in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy in their lives. The exercise almost always demonstrates that in bad situations, it is friends and neighbours and family, not professionals who take the most important actions: helping find food, taking care of children, being a shoulder to cry on etc… Such actions are a model for what the aid community calls psychological first aid. But usually the sort of events that come up are the loss of loved one, a fire, a traffic accident, an assault, or if it’s in a humanitarian context some aspect of the conflict or disaster that has affected them directly.
This is the first time that participants have brought up physical chastisement in childhood and domestic abuse. Together we lay out the details of what neighbours and relatives did to help. They saw what was going on, they listened and they connected the victim with what they needed. In all these cases: a safe place to live. The observe, listen, connect PFA model actually fits perfectly. But it brings home for me something I have been aware of for a while: if there is violence within the family that always trumps the violence going on outside the door. Perhaps because it is so hard to escape. Memo to self, tell PFA manual writers to include intrafamily violence in their ‘disaster’ scenarios.
Here in Guatemala there is, in theory, no ‘war’ going on (if you ignore the gang and criminal violence, and continuing attacks on human rights activists and environmental defenders). There was a volcanic eruption some months ago and an earthquake tremor last week, but none of the women in the training were affected. They all volunteer in their communities for Majawil Q’ij and have come from all over the country for this training in women and children’s mental and physical health, from Asmamaw and myself. What has come through both days of teaching is the devastating violence with which they live with every day, inside their homes and in their communities.
According to the prosecutor’s office at least 2 women are murdered in this country every day. And it’s less than a year since 41 children burned to death in a state-run children’s shelter. The girls had protested against horrific living conditions including longstanding physical and sexual abuse. 56 were locked up for the night in a space meant for 11. They had no access to water or toilet and when fire broke out the guards failed to open the door.
We don’t have answer to these problems except to be supportive to these individual women and share what knowledge we have. Yesterday I did a morning on early child development and the importance of love and play. At their request I also did a session on positive discipline. Everyone in the group told me how severely they were beaten as children. It was good to hear all of them say they would never do this with their own.
‘My mother and father did not want me. They sent me to my grandmother to live. She made me work and beat me every day. I don’t know why. But that’s why I will never beat my daughter.’
Rosa was in tears as she told this story, insisting that she wanted to discuss it. Other women too wanted to share their experiences, both in the group and with us individually afterwards.
Rosa sits with us as her daughter happily breast feeds on her lap. She comes from Western Guatemala. She tells us she works with other women in her community, helping them but recently she had been thinking a lot about her own life. Why would her parents abandon her like that? It did not end there. When she was 16 her parents had brought her home again, she had to work and then her father sexually abused her. She had screamed and he had stopped, but her mother did not believe her. They forcibly married her to another man she did not know when she was 18, and he was physically violent for many years. Finally, with Majawil’s help she left him. But sometimes when she thought about her life and all that had happened, she could not see any point in continuing
‘Perhaps I should give my daughter away and just end it’
‘Have you made any plans to do so?’
Rosa shakes her head. ‘I could not do it.’
‘What stops you?’
‘My daughter.’ She smiles and we both look at the little girl now playing happily with her mother’s embroidered blouse and necklace. She makes a cooing sound and wriggles. Rosa coos back and the child giggles in delight.
‘You are a very good mother,’ I say ‘and if such a thought comes again, you need to think how losing you would affect your daughter. She needs love just like you did. You did not get it but she can have yours and she will be a happy bright child because of that.’
I can see Rosa is listening intently. I know she is travelling back to her mountain village in the west tonight, I ask if she has friends there.
‘Do they know how you feel?’
She shakes her head.
‘Does it help you to talk?’
‘Then perhaps it would help if you told the friends you trust most, and spent time with them every day. It might help you feel better.’
I have another idea
‘Do you like writing?’
‘Sometimes some people like to write down everything that has happened to them. Maybe as a letter or a story. Sometimes that helps with making sense of things’
I can see I have caught Rosa’s interest. ‘If you wanted to write down any story about your life, you have the notebook.’ We had given everyone notebooks. ‘You can give it to Julia when you are next here and she can scan it, email it to me and I can read it.’ Rosa nods.
‘It is completely up to you, Rosa, and if you write it down and tear it up afterwards, that can help as well. It’s like saying that’s all over and I am a mother and a human rights worker now. I am a strong woman and lots of people love me, admire me and need me’
She smiles. It is all we can do at the moment, it does not feel like nearly enough. There are more stories. Luisa wants to tell us about her husband of ten years. She left because he drank so much and beat her and her two sons regularly. He promised to reform, she allowed him back, things went badly again. She asks us what she should do.
‘If you were one of the women in your community who came to you, as Majawil, for advice, asking what to do in this situation. What would you say?’
‘I would tell her to denounce him again, to leave him.’
‘So, why do you not give this advice to yourself?’
‘Because I love him.’ A tear runs down her cheek.
‘Do you think he will change?
She shakes her head.
We are just visitors. We have made it clear to the women we are not here as clinicians and can only discuss things as friends, and these women are more knowledgeable than me regarding the legal processes. All of us know how weak these are. That is one of the reasons Majawil Q’ij exists, to empower women. Yesterday, I shared the physical and psychological effect of living with long-term abuse. This afternoon we can just be listening ears.
What is interesting is that none of these women mention leaving their communities. None of them talk of migrating. I am glad. Not just because of the difficulties of the trip and hostility with which they would be greeted at the US border. Last June Jeff Sessions, then US Attorney general, declared that domestic abuse was a ‘private crime’ and suffering violence either at the hands of your partner or from a gang were not grounds for being granted asylum. The decision is being challenged in US courts as contrary to international law. But I am glad groups like Majawil Q’ij are trying to change things at home. They ask us to return to do more training. We promise to try and do so.
On my twitter feed in the evening there are multiple retweets of Rep. Ilhan Omar confronting an uncomfortable Elliot Abrams over US complicity in human rights abuses in the 1980’s in Central America, when he was Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs under Reagan. Currently he is Trump’s Venezuela envoy.
“Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if you believed they were serving U.S. interests as you did in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua?” Omar asks
Elliot refuses to answer the question.
“Does the interests of the United States include protecting human rights and include protecting people against genocide?”
“That is always the position of the United States,” Abrams replies.
Then I learn from local news that Conavigua was demonstrating yesterday outside the Guatemalan Congress against the Amnesty bill. The current law on National Reconciliation forbids amnesty for genocide, torture, forced disappearance and other crimes against humanity. But this bill, if passed will provide a blanket amnesty for everyone already in jail or awaiting trial. Some Maya women filed an injunction against it yesterday to try and ensure that a trial of six men who allegedly raped them on a military base in the 1980’s would still go ahead.
I have a sense of the past folding into the present. Some argue that the amnesty will contribute to reconciliation. What working with genocide survivors has taught me is that it is seeing justice done that makes reconciliation possible. And if the violence of the past is denied or minimised, how is it possible to properly address the violence of the present?
Christina rings. She could not attend the training. She is so sorry and she had wanted to bring women from her village, but people in her community have recommended she stand for the local council and she had to file her papers in Guatemala City. It took too long and she missed us.
‘We missed you too,’ we say. ‘But this is much more important Christina. We are so happy to hear you are standing for election! You have to win, the community needs you, we will see you next time.’
‘When?’ she asks.
‘I promise you it will not be twenty-five years!’ I reply.
1) Some names and personal details in this piece have been changed to protect identity
2) This story of my meeting with Christina’s brother is adapted from my memoir: Outside the Asylum: A Memoir of War, Disaster and Humanitarian Psychiatry, Orion 2017
3) The Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiche Maya. English version by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus G. Morley from the translation of Adrian Recinos. (Norman and London: Oklahoma Press, 1950).
For more by Dr. Jones on her work with migrants and refugees in Mexico see her Migrant Diaries on the HarvardFXB Website.
For more about the experience of children as refugees and migrants see “Migrant Child Storytelling”, a collection of photos and stories by the children themselves.
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