Benjamín survived – now he’s demanding justice
Benjamín Manuel Jerónimo in Guatemala is a passionate change maker who is working courageously alongside others so that people living in poverty can gain power over their own lives.
It’s a miracle that Benjamín Manuel Jerónimo is alive. When his neighbours and family were annihilated, he was hiding on the edge of the forest, watching. Despite all he’s lived through, he still has the strength to fight for justice. Here is his gripping story.
The army came
The soldiers came at lunchtime. They ordered the villagers to crowd together in Benjamín’s sister’s house. The women who had young children on their backs were forced to lay them down in the courtyard outside. Girls aged between 12 and 18 were forced into a different house.
At five o’clock they started shooting inside Benjamín’s sister’s house, with the guns not falling silent until eleven in the evening. At that time, there were still people alive in the house. The children outside in the courtyard were screaming. The soldiers threw petrol on the house and set it alight. Then they lifted up the children by their legs, bashed them hard against the ground and threw them into the fire. After that, the soldiers went to the house where the girls had been locked in. One by one, they were taken outside to be raped, tortured and finally murdered.
Benjamín heard the screams
The whole time, Benjamín and his brother were hiding in the forest, 75 metres from his sister’s house. They heard the screams, smelled the burning. In the night, they fled up to the mountains and returned to the village at around eight in the morning. A few of the people in the house had ended up with parts of their bodies outside the building and were alive. They were moaning in agony, but soon they were dead as well. Among the dead were Benjamín’s wife and 14 other close relatives. Only 20 villagers survived. Benjamín was one of them.
Bloody civil war
The civil war in Guatemala raged for 36 years. Two hundred thousand people were killed, most of them by the country’s army. The bloodiest period was when the dictator Ríos Montt was in power, 1982–1983, which was when the massacre in Benjamín’s village took place.
“From 1980 to 1984 we lived in constant fear. We men never slept at home – we fled to the mountains and slept on the bare ground each night. It was cold, and when it rained, we got soaked,” says Benjamín.
Benjamín works for Diakonia’s partner organization AJR and was the legal representative of the 98 survivors from the Ixil area who testified in the trial against Ríos Montt, which was held in the spring of 2013.
In May, Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years’ imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity. But as is so often the case in Guatemala, the country’s economic elite put a spanner in the works. Historically, those high up in the social hierarchy have escaped from justice. In May the Constitutional Court claimed that a procedural error had been made and that part of the trial would need to be repeated. For this reason, the case will be re-examined in January 2015. Ríos Montt is now 87 years old.
Justice must be done
“Thirty years have passed since the massacre took place, but we’re tireless in our fight for justice,” says Benjamín. “It can’t be possible that everything we experienced will remain unpunished. We are people. We’re entitled to life. We have the right to see justice done.”
He thinks it’s vital that the truth comes out.
“The youth of today need to know about our history so that our experiences are never repeated.”
We’re telling the truth
“Unfortunately, impunity exists in Guatemala. What we’ve been working for for fifteen years was torn apart in ten days. But we won’t be stopped. We’re telling people what happened. This is our story. And it’s true,” he says.
He tries to explain how crucial the support from Diakonia is.
“The case will be taken up again in 2015 and we ask for solidarity – we ask for your support. We need you to accompany us and support us during the rest of the trial.”