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Juana Sánchez Toma in Guatemala is a genocide survivor. In 2013 she was one of the witnesses in the trial against the former dictator Ríos Montt in Guatemala. Photo: Lucia Reinoso

Meet Juana - survivor and prosecution witness

Juana Sánchez Toma in Guatemala is a genocide survivor and prosecution witness in the trial against the former dictator Ríos Montt: "We have suffered a lot, but I still have hope. We have to keep fighting for justice for the genocide".

3/2/2015 Publisher: Aron Lindblom

From the Maya Ixil people in northern Guatemala

Juana Sánchez Toma was born in 1954 in San Juan Cotzal, a small town in northern Guatemala. She is a member of the Maya Ixil people, one of Guatemala’s many groups of indigenous Mayans. The Ixil region is rich in water and fertile soils but many villages and families have been forced off their land by invading large-scale farmers. Despite the wealth of the surrounding region, a majority of Ixil families live in poverty with no access to electricity, running water, basic health services or formal education. 

Civilians became military targets

In the early 1980s, the Guatemalan army installed itself in the region. According to the army, all members of the Maya Ixil people, including children, were considered allies of the guerrilla. The civilian population became a target for military operations.

It took 30 years before the army’s systematic human rights violations were investigated and debated before a judge in a Guatemalan courtroom.

Juana gave her testimony against the former dictator Ríos Montt

Juana Sánchez Toma was one of the women who came forward to give her testimony on the massacres, rapes and selective killings that the army committed during the 1980s. Her voice is strong but she has tears in her eyes as she speaks of what happened to her:

"On the 19th of April 1982, my mother and I were captured by soldiers from the army. They took us to the church in San Juan Cotzal where they kept us together with lots of other women. They raped us repeatedly. I bled uncontrollably for a year but managed to heal myself using medicinal plants. They army refused to give us any medicine or medical care", says Juana.

"The victims are too many for me to count"

Juana was forced to flee from her home and did not return to San Juan Cotzal for twelve years. She lost her mother and six other family members during the war. Her cousins María and Teresa were only eight and fourteen years old when they were killed by the army. She cannot recall the exact number of neighbours, friends and relatives that were killed by the army. She says the victims are too many for her to count.

Ríos Montt was sentenced for genocide and crimes against humanity

Thanks to the testimony given by Juana and other survivors, in May 2013 a Guatemalan judge was able to sentence the previous military dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity carried out in the Ixil region in 1982 and 1983.

The sentence, however, was later revoked by a different court instance. Despite the challenges, Juana is determined to keep fighting:

"Ríos Montt is guilty. He ruled this country and he gave the orders. All we ask for is that the law is respected and that justice is done", states Juana.

Supported by Diakonia's partner organizations

Juana and other women who testified about the army’s systematic use of sexual violence were supported during the trial by two of Diakonia’s partner organizations; the human rights centre CALDH and ECAP, an NGO that gives psychological support and accompaniment to survivors. The women survivors themselves also started their own group, choosing the name ”Flower of Maguey” which refers to the beautiful flower of the agave plant. In the future, Juana hopes to further develop the work of Flor de Maguey:

"We want to be registered as an independent association to be able to run projects to support our members", she says.