Guatemala: This is (not) your land


The stars filled the sky that night. The night where eleven of us sat in plastic chairs in a circle on a wooden porch at almost 8 pm. Overlooking the Chixoy Reservoir in central Guatemala. The town in which the porch was a part of is called Rio Negro, situated on a mountainside. The only way to get there is to walk over a mountain or by boat. We chose the boat. It was isolated. It was quiet and among the quietness and the sound of the river, we listened to a story of Don Sebastián from Sebastian himself.


(Photo credit to Lindsay Maizland

The story he told was a witness to a massacre that left his town destroyed.

The pain we all felt while listening to his story was indescribable because his story left nothing to the imagination. It was raw, it was real and it was absolutely heartbreaking.

We wanted to cry, we wanted to cringe, and we wanted to do something because what else do you do when you hear a story of a massacre from the perspective of a survivor.

Before I tell his story, here is some background.

It was 1982 in the midst of a civil war in Guatemala. The civil war was between the military and rebel groups. The rebel groups consisted of Mayan indigenous people and ladino peasants. While not all indigenous people in Guatemala were in a rebel group, they were assumed to be. Many scholars and organizations refer to the war in Guatemala as a genocide rather than a civil war due to the victims consisting (almost all) of Mayans.

Many specific towns were targeted. One of which was Rio Negro. The government alongside the World Bank (with support from the United States) built a dam on the Rio Negro river which flooded the majority of Rio Negro, the town. The dam destroyed all agriculture and destroyed many of the lives of those who lived in Rio Negro who were dependent on growing crops to survive. The whole town was forced further up the mountain where the land was not meant to grow crops.

The people were not given a say in the building of the dam nor were they given any assistance on how to restructure their lives once the dam was made. Members of Rio Negro stood up for their land and fought back. The people there had defended their home and their land. Which inevitably led the government to believe that they were part of the guerrilla army so the military attacked.

Now for the story.

Don Sebastian was Mayan living in Rio Negro.


(Photo credit to Lindsay Maizland

Don Sebastian was 16-years-old when dogs began to bark. The barking was a cue to him to run. Because when the dogs barked, that meant the military were coming and they were coming for him. He was told by his mom to run and leave the town on March 13th, 1982.

So, Sebastian ran and his mom and siblings stayed.

As Sebastian ran as fast as he could into the mountains and away from his home, the military came into Rio Negro. They gathered everyone in the town: women, children, and priests. They gathered them in the school’s courtyard, tied their hands behind their backs and asked them questions about their husbands. The military men asked, “Where are your husbands? Where are the guerillas hiding?”

You see the military had told all of the men in the village prior to March 13th, 1982 to go into a neighboring town to get new identification cards. So, all the men left and no men returned.

If I was being optimistic I would say that the military assumed the men of Rio Negro were in the guerilla army because they were Mayan. That is why none of the men returned. If I was realistic I would say the military wanted to destroy the community of Rio Negro because they were Mayan. That is why none of the men returned.

The women did not answer the military. The women did not have answers because they did not know where their husbands were. One brave woman told the military that all their husbands had been killed after being tricked to go to the next town to get ID cards.

After no one else answered. The military lined the women and children up in a single file line and begun to march them up the mountain. As I mentioned before Rio Negro is a town on the mountainside. The town of Rio Negro is at the base of the mountain, just above the river. The mountain itself is large. Probably at least three miles to the top.

As they marched, two women managed to escape the line with their sons. Another woman escaped and avoided the gunshots of the military as she rolled herself down the mountain and fled into the mountains. Other children escaped the line as well. Some hid in bushes so they could be unseen by the military. Mothers frantically strapped babies to toddlers backs and demanded that they run.

**graphic detail**

While some escaped, many did not. 177 women and children did not. As the military marched the women to the top of the mountain, Sebastian could hear screams from nearby. He heard the women screaming which signaled that the military had started to kill his family, neighbors, and friends.

Women were strangled and thrown in a hole. One on top of another. Children would be held by their feet and swung against trees. Killing them on impact. Girls, young girls were taken 100 feet away and raped. And then killed. Everyone was piled on one another, some still breathing.

The military took several children aside to keep as slaves.

The same hole that held over 150 dead women and children was the same hole Sebastian found several days later. He marched up the same path that his mom, siblings, and neighbors marched. He followed their last steps which led to a hole covered by branches and leaves. He saw the bodies. And that same day he vowed to never let the military win again.

When we were in Rio Negro, Sebastian led us up that very same mountain. Stopping and showing us where different women escaped and where different members of his community were killed. He told us his story again, but this time with a visual. A visual that held witness to the 177 lives lost on March 13th, 1982.


(Photo credit to Lindsay Maizland

After Sebastian saw the hole, he escaped again into the mountains. He lived in caves and would go days without eating because he feared the military would spot a fire or him. The military would send helicopters to monitor the mountains, looking for people who had escaped. He saw children and seniors die because they went too long without food and were unable to travel.

After two years in the mountains and without any food, he found himself in Rabinal, a town that many Mayans fled to or were forced to relocate to during the civil war. While he thought he was done hiding from the military, that thought soon became a distant wish. On August 4th, 1984 Sebastian was taken into custody by the military. He was accused of being a guerilla. He was tortured. He was told the torture would not end until he gave someone answers about where the guerillas were. However, he knew nothing.

Sebastian was left in the latrine for six days, with his hands tied. If you look closely on his wrist you will still see the marks that the rope left. People would come in with the pure purpose to cause him pain. He was kicked, starved and given nothing to survive.

Inevitably, Sebastian was put on a list to be killed. This thought was not shocking or sad to him. He and his brother, who he met up with in the mountains decided that they would rather die from a gunshot while running away than be tortured. That is how his brother died.

The day Sebastian was supposed to be killed, an officer that Sebastian had known came to the camp and allowed him to be released. He stayed with the officer for one night in his room before six military officers escorted him to Pacux.

Sebastian took his wife and nephew to the Southern Coast of Guatemala where he worked and saved. Finally, in 2001 Sebastian came back to Rio Negro where he is still living today. He was and is part of a movement to rebuild Rio Negro. To rebuild the town that holds witness to a tragedy. To rebuild the town that he and his family are from.

(Photo credit to Lindsay Maizland

As Sebastian told us this story we sat in silence. Absorbing every single world. His Spanish was beautiful and though I could not understand every word, I could understand the passion that he spoke from. While Sebastian does not have much, he does have his voice. His voice is the most important thing he has because he is a rare witness. He, the mountains and a handful of people have the perspective that he has.

Currently, the Guatemalan courts are consumed with hearings in the attempt to bring justice to the Mayan communities. Families are fighting for reparations. Families are fighting for justice to be served for those responsible for the massacres. Families are fighting for a fair and equal Guatemalan government that prioritizes its people before invasive development projects like the Chixoy dam.

The civil war in Guatemala is over, however, the fight for transitional justice is still ongoing. The stories embedded in the civil war are on the front lines for that fight for transitional justice. In an attempt to be in solidarity with the Rio Negro community, we will tell their stories and we will make sure that Rio Negro is never forgotten.



(Photo credit to Lindsay Maizland




Special thanks to GHRC for leading us to Rio Negro and facilitating our time there.

Thanks you to Lindsay Maizland for her incredible photographs of our time in Guatemala, to see more of her pictures click here and here.



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