GUATEMALA: Memory of Silence (1999)

GUATEMALA: Memory of Silence (1999)

As we consume life’s quota,
how many truths elude us?
Augusto Monterroso
Movimiento perpetuo

Silence lost its way
when a hand
opened the doors to the voice.

Francisco Morales Santos
Al pie de la letra

Let the history we lived
be taught in the schools,
so that it is never forgotten,
so our children may know it.

Testimony given to the CEH


cease to do evil
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
defend the fatherless,
plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1, 16-17




Guatemala is a country of contrasts and contradictions. Situated in the middle of the American continent, bathed by the waters of the Caribbean and the Pacific, its inhabitants live in a multiethnic, pluricultural and multilingual nation, in a State which emerged from the triumph of liberal forces in Central America. Guatemala has seen periods marked by beauty and dignity from the beginning of the ancient Mayan culture to the present day; its name has been glorified through its works of science, art, and culture; by men and women of honour and peace, both great and humble; by its Nobel Laureates for Literature and Peace. However, in Guatemala, pages have also been written of shame and infamy, disgrace and terror, pain and grief, all as a product of the armed confrontation among brothers and sisters. For more than 34 years, Guatemalans lived under the shadow of fear, death and disappearance as daily threats in the lives of ordinary citizens.

The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) was established through the Accord of Oslo on 23 June 1994, in order to clarify with objectivity, equity and impartiality, the human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed confrontation that caused suffering among the Guatemalan people. The Commission was not established to judge – that is the function of the courts of law – but rather to clarify the history of the events of more than three decades of fratricidal war.

When we were appointed to form the CEH, each of us, through different routes and all by life’s fortune, knew in general terms the outline of events. As Guatemalans, two of us had lived the entire tragedy on our native soil, and in one way or another, had suffered it. However, none of us could have imagined the full horror and magnitude of what actually happened.

The Commission’s mandate was to provide an answer to questions that continue to be asked in peacetime: why did part of society resort to armed violence in order to achieve political power? What can explain the extreme acts of violence committed by both parties – of differing types and intensities – in the armed confrontation? Why did the violence, especially that used by the State, affect civilians and particularly the Mayan people, whose women were considered to be the spoils of war and who bore the full brunt of the institutionalised violence? Why did defenceless children suffer acts of savagery? Why, using the name of God, was there an attempt to erase from the face of the earth the sons and daughters of Xmukane’, the grandmother of life and natural creation? Why did these acts of outrageous brutality, which showed no respect for the most basic rules of humanitarian law, Christian ethics and the values of Mayan spirituality, take place?

We received thousands of testimonies; we accompanied the survivors at such moving moments as the exhumation of their loved ones from clandestine cemeteries; we listened to former heads of State and the high command of both the Army and the guerrillas; we read thousands of pages of documents received from a full range of civil society’s organisations. The Commission’s Report has considered all the versions and takes into account what we have heard, seen and read regarding the many atrocities and brutalities.

The main purpose of the Report is to place on record Guatemala’s recent, bloody past. Although many are aware that Guatemala’s armed confrontation caused death and destruction, the gravity of the abuses suffered repeatedly by its people has yet to become part of the national consciousness. The massacres that eliminated entire Mayan rural communities belong to the same reality as the persecution of the urban political opposition, trade union leaders, priests and catechists. These are neither perfidious allegations, nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala’s history.

The authors of the Accord of Oslo believed that, despite the shock the Nation could suffer upon seeing itself reflected in the mirror of its past, it was nevertheless necessary to know the truth and make it public. It was their hope that truth would lead to reconciliation, and furthermore, that coming to terms with the truth is the only way to achieve this objective.

There is no doubt that the truth is of benefit to everyone, both victims and transgressors. The victims, whose past has been degraded and manipulated, will be dignified; the perpetrators, through the recognition of their immoral and criminal acts, will be able to recover the dignity of which they had deprived themselves.

Knowing the truth of what happened will make it easier to achieve national reconciliation, so that in the future Guatemalans may live in an authentic democracy, without forgetting that the rule of justice as the means for creating a new State has been and remains the general objective of all.

No one today can be sure that the enormous challenge of reconciliation, through knowledge of the truth, can be successfully faced. Above all, it is necessary to recognise the facts of history and learn from the Nation’s suffering. To a great extent, the future of Guatemala depends on the responses of the State and society to the tragedies that nearly all Guatemalans have experienced personally.

The erroneous belief that the end justifies the means converted Guatemala into a country of death and sadness. It should be remembered, once and for all, that there are no values superior to the lives of human beings, and thereby superior to the existence and well-being of an entire national community. The State has no existence of its own, but rather is purely an organisational tool by which a nation addresses its vital interests.

Thousands are dead. Thousands mourn. Reconciliation, for those who remain, is impossible without justice. Miguel Angel Asturias, Guatemala’s Nobel Laureate for Literature, said: “The eyes of the buried will close together on the day of justice, or they will never close.”

With sadness and pain we have fulfilled the mission entrusted to us. We place the CEH’s Report, this Memory of Silence, into the hands of every Guatemalan, the men and women of yesterday and today, so that future generations may be aware of the enormous calamity and tragedy suffered by their people. May the lessons of this Report help us to consider, hear and understand others and be creative as we live in peace.

Christian Tomuschat

Otilia Lux de Cotí

Alfredo Balsells Tojo