The Bones Still Speak: The War in Guatemala

This is a critic of the book Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny.

If the bones of the dead speak why should the living be quiet?

-Humberto Ak’ abal, K’iche’ Maya poet (1952-2019)

By Jason Klarl

It’s dawn, or maybe dusk.  A young guerrillero in the EGP holds a machine gun and climbs over a wire, apparently setting a trap for the army.  A young girl in a blue dress, maybe his sister, stands nearby with legs crossed, hands in mouth, her gaze cast downward.  The sense of uncertainty, dread, and horror captured in this image is well preserved throughout Jean-Marie Simon’s book Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny.  

The book, now in its third edition, is a collection of Simon’s photo-journalism work in Guatemala in the 1980’s, when the country’s 36-year civil war had reached unprecedented levels of terror and violence.  Simon spent most of the decade conducting interviews and photographing the various ways Guatemalans experienced the war.  Her outsider status gave her access to both sides: the young boys recruited by the army, the campesinos forced into the Civil Self-Defense Patrols (PAC), nuns bearing witness to acts of torture, students, and of course combatants in the various guerrilla armies.

“You got used to the climate of terror”, Simon writes.  “In the country ‘disappear’ became a transitive verb: ‘They disappeared him’, it was said.  ‘Who knows what he was involved in’ was the capital’s mantra back then.”

The book is important first of all for Guatemala’s indegenous communities who were disproportionately targeted during the war, and who are still seeking justice.  Indigenous people face various forms of state repression that have continued from the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996 until the day I write this.  The book also serves as evidence for anyone who has ever doubted that a civil war took place.

In 1988, as the Reagan era drew to a close, and the first edition of Guatemala was published, one LA Times critic wrote that Simon’s work was almost too effective:

“What sense can we make of this? In her determination to tell the whole story, Simon hurts her cause–and the integrity of this book–by adopting a tone of aggressive sarcasm that alienates the sympathetic reader. One gets the sense that Simon has seen and heard too much and does not yet have the distance to put it all into perspective.”

While no work of art is beyond criticism, I think this is an unfair jab at Simon’s work.  Instead I would argue, distance is exactly the problem.  Distance is what removes perspective.  If you’re too far away from something it’s impossible to see it clearly.  For this critic apparently, having to see the bodies of slain campesinos, and suspected communists, or “subversives” is too much to ask of the (sympathetic?) “American” reader.

This does raise a good point however.  How many of the gruesome details could have been spared in order to convey the true horror of the Guatemalan civil war?  Simon includes several photographs of the victims’ bodies in Guatemala.  There is one particularly disturbing image that shows a young member of the army, smiling as he pokes the corpse of one of the victims of a recent massacre.

Finally, the book’s value comes from the fact that it exists in the first place, as the author herself acknowledges. “I got worried I was going to go back with no pictures,” she says in a 2012 NY Times review. We should all be grateful that the pictures did come back.  Simon describes the following scene in Guatemala: “The only moment of dread happened a little later, when the bus I was travelling in was stopped by the army.  I was carrying 10 rolls of film and I didn’t want to lose them.”

I consider Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny a great value for the historical record in Guatemala and a missing part of my own education on Latin America.  Having grown up in the United States, I remember as a child hearing quite a lot about Nicaragua and the Contras on the evening news, but absolutely nothing about Guatemala.  It wasn’t until I arrived in Guatemala in 2017 that I even knew who Rios Montt was, or that there was a 36-year war here, or that such a crime as genocide took place in the same hemisphere.

Cover photo: Refugees brought to the city by truck, after the army finished the slopes of the mountains in Nebaj, Quiché. Photography by Jean-Marie Simon, Guatemala: Eternal Primavera, Eterna Tiranía.