Genocide in Photographs

American chronicles effects of right-wing hit squads

Once in a while

I walk backward:

it’s my way of remembering.

if I only walked forward,

I could tell you

how to forget.

De vez en cuando

camino al revés:

es mi modo de recordar.

Si caminara sólo hacia adelante,

te podería contrar

cómo es el olvido

—Humberto Ak’abal

The girl’s stare is an unfaltering gaze––a matter of life and death expression––as she holds an unexploded mortar shell the Guatemalan army fired at her community during an attack in 1989. Precocious Ana defiantly grips the shell with both hands, a baby strapped to her back.

“Our people are innocent,” her testimony reads. “Pregnant women, children, men, adults, elders and young people were killed––assassinated in the massacres.”

Full of wisdom, remembrance as well as resistance, that stare––the first photograph of Jonathan Moller’s book “Our Culture is Our Resistance: Repression, Refuge and Healing in Guatemala”––is just one of the 147 black and white portraits shedding light on recent events in Guatemala.

“Our Culture is Our Resistance” also includes essays written by Ricardo Falla, Francisco Goldman and Susanne Jonas; trilingual prose and poetry—English, Spanish and Quiche—and testimonies by the survivors of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. The preface was written by the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Rigoberta Menchú Tum.

“To ensure that the genocide will never be forgotten and that the perpetrators be brought to judgment and punished some day, the content of this book becomes a chapter in the collective memory of a history that has been officially denied,” she writes. “In the official chronicles, the events captured by Jonathan Moller’s camera never occurred. There was no ‘scorched earth,’ there were no massacres, no body dumps and no genocide. But the bones of the dead prove the opposite. The bones of the dead don’t lie.”

Moller’s lens starts with the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPRs) in the Sierra, a mountainous region, and then the areas of Ixcán and Petén, lowland jungle areas. The CPRs are self-governing Mayan communities, which in response to the violence directed at them mainly by the Guatemalan Army in the 1980s, organized and took refuge in the remote mountain and jungle areas of the country.

The book next moves onto the permanent CPR communities, where the members resettled after the signing of the peace accords on December 26, 1996.

The final photographs are a disturbing yet hopeful collection of photographs and testimonies during the exhumations of scores of indigenous people assassinated by hit squads, an unearthing of clandestine cemeteries that reunited families with lost loved ones.

In this way, as suggested by the subtitle “Repression, Refuge and Healing in Guatemala,” the book serves multiple purposes––a form of collective history for Guatemalans who survived this brutal civil war, a revealing look at one of history’s most horrific and yet ignored acts of genocide and a presage of healing and reconciliation.

“The historical and collective memory is really important for Guatemalans,” Moller said. “There is a recognition that there can’t be true and lasting peace, that there can’t be reconciliation without an official recognition and a valuing of the collective memory of the Guatemalan people of the last 50 years… at the same time, I don’t want the book to be all about tragedy. I want it to have some signs of hope, signs of humanity.”

For Moller, it is also very important that the book serves as an education tool, especially in the United States: “The U.S. was very involved in that situation and played a big role in it, a dirty role in it.”

In stark contrast to the impressive legacy of the Mayan civilization and against the backdrop of breathtaking and overwhelming landscapes, Guatemalan history has been marred with violence. After the country won independence from Spain in 1821, the Mayan communities were repressed and displaced, losing large tracts of land and creating a country where today 62 percent of land is firmly grasped by just two percent of the population. In the l950s, President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán tried his hand at agrarian reform, breaking up large estates and expropriating lands controlled by foreign companies, including the United Fruit Company. In 1954, Guzmán was ousted in a CIA-organized military coup and he was followed by a succession of military dictators who eventually plunged the country into a civil war.

The 36 years of violence, reaching their peak during the 1970 and ‘80s, had devastating effects, as the Guatemalan army targeted Mayan communities that typically had little or no connections to the guerrilla and revolutionary forces. According to the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), established through the Oslo Accord in 1994, more than 200,000 persons were killed or disappeared, and 440 communities were completely wiped out. Half a million Guatemalans became refugees and a million were displaced internally. The country is home to 50,000 widows and 250,000 orphans. Of the victims, 83 percent were Mayan.

“Thousands are dead. Thousands mourn. Reconciliation, for those who remain, is impossible without justice,” reads the CEH report.

For photographer and activist Moller, “Our Culture is Our Resistance,” a culmination of an 11-year journey, is his contribution to that end. A photographer by trade, he studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Tufts University in 1990, during which time he developed an interest in Central American human rights work. That interest quickly became a passion. During a trip to El Salvador in 1993, he was invited to Guatemala where he visited the CPR Sierra area.

“I really kind of fell in love with the country,” he said. “The indigenous people in Guatemala are really open, really giving people. People would open their homes to you. They are people who would give you two of the four bananas they had… when I go there it’s like going home.”

At that point, Moller became involved with the National Coordinating Office on Refugees and Displaced of Guatemala (NCOORD) where he worked as a human rights observer and as a staff person. In 1996, he also became coordinator of the Guatemala Accompaniment Project. From 1997 to 1999, he served on the board of directors for the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, leading delegations to the country and doing research for political asylum cases. But it was between 2000 and 2001, as staff photographer for the Forensic Anthropology Team of the Office of Peace and Reconciliation created by the province of Quiche’s Catholic diocese, that Moller really witnessed the depths of the Mayan tragedy and at the same time, the possibility for a new Guatemala.

“Even though I had heard all these stories and had a pretty comprehensive idea of the level of atrocities, it was pretty intense to experience and to be a witness of that––to see the exhumation of people who had been killed violently and to be there with family members who had often been there,” Moller said. “[But] there was also a lot of joy for people to be reunited with their loved ones.”

Moller, 42, said that working on this project has made him grow “a little older a little too fast,” but he is currently in Guatemala promoting the book. An exposition was held at the National Palace of Culture in the capital, Guatemala City, ironically the seat dictatorships and military high commands, from February 19 through March 1. It moves on to Antigua, the former colonial capital; Mexico City; Managua, Nicaragua; and San Salvador, El Salvador, among other venues.

Moller says he plans to move on to new projects, but he is currently working on an educational publication for and about rural Guatemalan communities uprooted by the violence and civil war tentatively titled “Our Collective Memory: The Repression, Refuge and Healing that We Lived.” Moller is also donating his royalties from “Our Culture is Our Resistance” to the Association for Justice and Reconciliation in Guatemala, the plaintiff in two collective criminal cases in the Guatemalan national courts representing more than 100 massacre survivors.

Near the end of the book, in the section on exhumations, there is a haunting photograph. It is the scene of a large church in the Quiche region where mourners are remembering and honoring the memory of 120 exhumed corpses. The caption informs readers that the remains were unearthed from more than 50 clandestine cemeteries from 22 villages over the course of a year and a half. The church is filled to capacity––hundreds of families struggling to come to terms with unspeakable tragedy. Twenty years ago they also came together, organizing and resisting to survive. Now, although the resistance is far from over, they face a new challenge – remembering the past yet moving forward.

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