In 1995, I was on a bus in Guatemala. It was crowded. Not rush-hour-A-train-in-NYC crowded. No, this was inhaling-the-air-the-person-next-to-you-just-exhaled crowded. Whole-families-to-a-seat crowded. Crushed together so close, you could count the ribs of the person in front of you. School-bus-meant-for-50-children-carrying-200-people crowded.
The family in the next seat up had a little girl. She was five or six months old, very serious and very beautiful. She wore a red-polka-dotted kerchief and a cotton dress. Pinned to her smock was a large live beetle. I asked why and was told the beetle attracted any bad spirits in the area, consuming them to protect the little girl.
The country was full of wandering spirits. At that time, Guatemala was just beginning to emerge from more than three decades of armed conflict. Human rights organizations estimated that 200,000 people had been killed and another 50,000 disappeared. These were conservative figures. The vast majority of the killings were carried out by the military and paramilitary groups — which enjoyed political, economic and military support and training from the United States. The war had ended and the United Nations had begun a peace and reintegration process, bringing combatants from both sides back into civil society.
I was there as part of a delegation visiting the sites of military and paramilitary massacres. The mass graves that scarred the country were being exhumed, survivor testimonies were being recorded and funerals were being held. I was working with the Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean (EPICA), and we had raised money to fund exhumations and the construction of monuments bearing the names of those killed in massacres.
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It was a tough trip. We listened to story after story after story. We wept endlessly. We were reminded again and again of the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic, military and political support doled out by Washington over the decades to repressive oligarchs in Guatemala City. We heard about human rights violations and crimes carried out by Guatemalan soldiers trained at the U.S. School of the Americas. We visited modest monuments inscribed with the names of men, women and children slaughtered by government-backed death squads. Some of these concrete and rebar structures had to be rebuilt again and again. As soon as they were erected, soldiers came with dynamite or bulldozers or sledgehammers and knocked them down. Despite enjoying almost complete impunity, the military was threatened and destabilized by these simple truth tellers. We saw one monument that was as big as a tank, built up with stones and concrete, fortified with rebar dug deep into the hillside, surrounded by rutted trenches. The villages boasted that the military had not been able to get rid of it yet.
The Guatemalan Catholic Church was supporting a massive truth and reconciliation process, interviewing survivors and telling the harrowing stories of violence experienced mostly by indigenous and poor people during the war. The interviews were conducted in more than two dozen languages and testimony collected from thousands of people. They were planning to produce a detailed and unimpeachable report that would “name names” so that crimes could be prosecuted at some point when political will and courage asserted themselves. Two days after that report — Guatemala: Nunca Más — was released in 1998, Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, the man who spearheaded the effort, was beaten to death.
It was hot. We traveled by bus, plane, pickup truck and foot. I got sick and for months afterwards, I could not eat eggs or chicken. I had a recurrent dream that I was digging up bones, out of dirt, out of concrete, out of carpet and wood floor. I made high and teetering piles of bones, but there were still more and more and I could not stop digging.
It has been years since I thought about my brief time in Guatemala or the people I met there. But since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, I keep thinking about the beautiful baby girl on the bus deep in the Guatemalan countryside and her creeping beetle protector. School has resumed for the boys and girls targeted by Adam Lanza’s arsenal in December. How do we protect them? How do we protect our children? How do we protect all children? With beetles, maybe… but also with truth and memory and justice and disarmament.