Ana in Guatemala helped get ex-dictator convicted
May 2013 saw many Guatemalans celebrating when ex-dictator Ríos Montt, who was in power during the bloodiest months of the civil war in 1982–1983, was sentenced to 80 years’ imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity. The trial came about thanks to Diakonia’s partner organizations AJR and CALDH collecting witness testimonies and providing survivors with legal assistance.
Ana de León López was one of the witnesses at the trial. The memories she has are so horrific that many people don’t want to hear them. But Ana refuses to keep quiet. By testifying against ex-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, she has made an important contribution to bolstering the legal system in Guatemala.
Wants to tell her story
Six months after Ríos Montt received his sentence, Ana was abroad for the first time in her life. She was at the MR-dagarna human rights forum in Stockholm to give an account of her experiences. Before starting to talk, she takes a deep breath and closes her eyes.
“I’m going to tell you my story – what happened in 1982 and 1983 in my village near Nebaj in El Quiché, Guatemala. When the army arrived, they said ‘You’re a guerilla’. Then they started shooting.”
Ana, her family and everyone else in the village started to run for their lives. Ana made it, but her three children aged 2, 7 and 9 were killed. Her brother and several other close relatives met with the same fate.
“I was not a guerilla. I was a housewife. What had I done? And what had my children done?”
What happened to the children’s bodies?
Ana flings her arms wide. She doesn’t know whether her children were buried or if their tiny bodies were left to the dogs.
“These thoughts give me no peace. I can’t stop thinking about it,” she says, burying her head in her hands.
The women were raped – young girls and old women. All of them were raped.
Ana and all the others who had survived the massacre fled to the mountains. For several years, they lived in constant fear of the soldiers. They lived like animals, with neither clothes nor food. They drank rainwater and ate leaves and stalks that they found. For eight years, they survived without salt. They slept straight on the cold ground of Guatemala’s freezing highlands, in the mountains above the town of Nebaj.
“I don’t want to fight with anyone. But I want justice to be done. Ríos Montt was the president. Knowledgeable, educated. I’m not educated. I can’t read or write. I don’t know anything. I haven’t been to school,” says Ana.
Ana tells her story in broken Spanish. She belongs to one of Guatemala’s indigenous groups and Spanish is not her native language.
Thirty years have passed since Ríos Montt was president, and it was under his leadership that the massacres in Ana’s village and several other villages took place. Thirty years is a long time, but it makes no difference to Ana. She can’t forget what happened. It is crucial for her that Ríos Montt is sentenced. Although Ana doesn’t like to leave her family, she decided to travel to Guatemala City and testify in the trial against Ríos Montt.
“I can’t let it rest. I can’t forget. We need justice.”
Years of work
Like many survivors of the genocide, Ana is a member of the Diakonia partner organization AJR. Along with another of Diakonia’s partner organizations, CALDH, AJR has collected witness testimonies. They worked for almost fifteen years to compile material that would hold up in a trial.
Massacres and genocide took place all over the country during the 36 years of the civil war, but to ensure material that met the requisite legal standards, they limited themselves to a small geographical area and to the bloody period when Ríos Montt was at the helm. And they were successful. Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years’ in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Unfortunately, it took just ten days for the Guatemalan economic elite to overturn the sentence. Guatemalan society is characterised by impunity. The Constitutional Court claimed that a procedural error had been made, the sentence was overturned and a retrial is scheduled for January 2015.
Throughout the process, Ana and the other witnesses who testified about their terrible experiences have been ridiculed and belittled. The Maya people make up more than half the Guatemalan population but are subjected to extensive discrimination and oppression.
“During the trial they said, ‘That disgraceful Maya woman. She’s lying!’ But why would I lie? How could I have made all this up?
She lists the names of her three children. She says the names of her brother and several other relatives who were murdered in the massacre, as if to explain that this is not a figment of her imagination.
“Even if Ríos Montt is punished, he’ll never be forced to lived like an animal, as we were. He’ll never need to eat leaves and roots – he’ll be fed every day. He’ll have a proper chair to sit on. Sleep in a proper bed.”
Thousands of dreadful memories
Ana is not alone in her suffering. Many thousands of Guatemalans have similar memories.
“There are a lot of us out there. Everyone who has experienced this has suffered as I have.”
Ana will carry on telling her story – she’ll carry on testifying, despite being threatened and disbelieved.
“If I don’t, maybe the same thing will happen again. I can’t let that happen,” she says.
Ana is so keen for the world to know what happened in Guatemala that she left her family and her country for more than a week to visit Sweden, where she talked at the largest Scandinavian human rights forum about her experiences.
“Thank you for listening”
“Thank you for listening to us,” says Ana, and a hopeful smile spreads across her face. “I ask you to keep supporting us. What Ríos Montt did was unjust. We need to demand justice.”