By Keren Escobar
It’s said that when war breaks out you hear a child’s crying and when it ends you hear a woman’s scream. This scream subsides and inflicts a silence — until that silence can no longer be hidden. Hundreds of women have begun to scream and their voices are resonating across borders.
Last year, for example, 15 Q’eqchi’ Maya women from Sepur Zarco, Izabal, went to court and convinced the Guatemalan government to do something that no other modern nation had ever done: convict its own former military officers of using sexual slavery as a weapon of war. These women who suffered rape and physical, social and psychological abuse at the hands of the army for six years in the 1980s gave the world a legal precedent after a long, painful trial. Their voices resound around the world.
The UN’s Commission for Historical Clarification, formed after Guatemala’s 36-year civil war came to an end in 1996, has reported 1,465 incidents of sexual violence related to the war. 88.7% of the victims have been identified as Maya and 35% as children. Not all of the victims have been identified, as many remain silent and others have never been found.
The women from Sepur Zarco are not the only ones to have sought justice for crimes against women. The voice of Myrna Mack, the Guatemalan activist and anthropologist, was silenced by the military for doing just that. Considered an “enemy of the state” for her field work in rural communities displaced by war, in 1990 she was murdered, shot 27 times. Myrna’s voice was taken up by her sister Helen Mack, who founded the Myrna Mack Foundation Myrna’s memory. In addition to its activism and social work, the Foundation relentlessly sought a criminal sentence for Juan Osorio, the intellectual author of Myrna’s assassination, and was granted it in 2002. Helen Mack’s scream was heard 12 years after that crime.
Mayarí de León Gonzáles, in a workshop about historical memory, described forced disappearance and other hideous features of war that create fear, silence and resentment. These emotions stretch through generations, but Mayarí de León Gonzáles has decided to break the chain. “When they killed my father, all they did was trim back a tree,” she says. “We carried on with the Luis de Lión School and Museum, and we continue to support artists. Over 36 years we lost a great deal, including the value of talking, we lost the ability to communicate amongst ourselves. It’s important to speak about memory to weave a new, more communicative and conscious societal fabric, so that we don’t repeat the same horrors.”
Luis de Lión, Mayarí’s father, was a Guatemalan poet, professor and writer. In 1984 he was kidnapped and assassinated by the intelligence services of the Guatemalan army.
Mayarí was a teenager during the war in Guatemala. In shock and in pain, she led a long struggle against the state, which she accused of murdering her father. In 2005 she won her case, and the state had to recognize the crime. Further, the government of President Oscar Berger issued a pardon and compensation to her family, although the latter was never delivered in full. As a woman Mayarí knows that the war represented endless pain and struggle, but no longer does it represent silence. Today she runs the Luis de Lión School’s marimba band, gives tours in the museum, and facilitates workshops as often as she can. And she continues to use her voice to advocate for justice.
Many lives were broken during Guatemala’s 36 years of war. It’s impossible to measure or label the suffering caused by such a dark conflict; pain is unmeasurable. But in this pain women’s struggles have sown seeds of hope. Today many women give their time, experience and knowledge to the peace process, and to restorative justice. Women continue to fight the war every day. As women, we fight a constant battle, discussing and re-contextualizing our society, advocating for a horizontal social structure, and respecting and accepting our beautiful diversity, so that we never go backward toward the darkness, and so that we might finally today halt the ripples of war.