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Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala Essay

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During the late 70’s and 80’s, Guatemala experienced the wrath of Hades as the Guatemalan army conducted a genocidal campaign against the Maya through massive violence and terrorism. This campaign was known at first as “La Situacion” but after the peace accord was signed down in 1996 the persecuted Maya used a more appropriate terminology and called it as “La Violencia”. Because of the economic sabotage of several Guerilla movements, the government was forced to “cleanse” Guatemala. Two hundred thousand people, mostly Mayan, were persecuted and murdered and one and a half million people from six hundred twenty six villages were put out of place.

Victoria Sanford used the power of language in her book “Buried Secrets: Truth and Human rights in Guatemala” by gathering more than four hundred testimonies and interviews from forensic experts, human rights activists, military officers, government officials, guerilla soldiers and survivors that seeks community healing, truth and justice.

The book provides genuine perspective into the experiences of the survivors as they fight to rebuild their lives and devastated community and more importantly, it shows how these testimonials became evidence of finding truth and justice for the Mayans in Guatemala.

Also, the book gave emphasis on the new way of genocide the Guatemalan army carried out. People who agree with the notion that human rights are anthropology’s most important scholarly and political concern would admire Sanford’s book.

Sanford sympathetically and critically documents and analyzes one of the most inhuman events in American history, the genocide against the Maya population. She observed the participants with the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation as they disinterred concealed graves, which enabled her to execute what she calls as “excavation of memories” (p.17) through collecting testimonies from survivors. She used her multisided ethnography to argue persuasively the reformation of genocide from a violent intrusion of villages to the massacre of its inhabitants and to continuous experience of aggression. This point of view is carried out from five intertwined chapters – 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8 – in which Sanford explained genocide as a process rather than an event.

The first stage is the militarization of the villages where the army would intrude the villages and accuse its inhabitants as sympathizers of the guerillas, specifically the Guerilla Army of the Poor, the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People, the Rebel Armed Forces, and the Guatemalan Labor Party. Villagers are then massacred by the Guatemalan army. At first, only men are murdered but at the end of the reign of terror, children and women will also be slaughtered. The army will further punish the so-called sympathizers by burning all the structures and crops leaving no place for shelter and source of living. Survivors will then flee to the mountains to hide but the army would follow and hunt them.

Who ever they’ll see will either be killed or forced to join the army control. The intolerable difficulties that hiding in the mountains brings – starvation and diseases – would make the survivors surrender to the army. Those who joined the army would be sent to model villages. These are army controlled towns which came from the original lands that the Mayas possess. After being placed in model villages, the survivors would be brainwashed by the army to erase whatever sympathy with the guerillas they still have.

The final step is the lurking memories of terror the army gave to the survivors. Democracy and justice is taken away from the captives making them more vulnerable from emotional stress. Sanford shows that the redefinition of mass killing and the survivors that suffered a long way during that era and told their stories through testimonies could begin the healing process. At first, this would be simply a psychological help but as one goes on, he can get the sympathy of other people that can help them rebuild their destroyed lands and unsecured futures.

The author resists the desire to breakdown the stories of the survivors, but instead, she synthesized them creating a whole picture of violence and inhuman activities. The power of the book is that Sanford did not create the events and the characters. All are real events experienced by real people. Sanford’s gathered testimonies have the power to transform a private memory into a public space, where the survivors has the courage to speak. It gets away from the government’s negotiation of life-shattering events. (p. 12).

Although Sanford saw hope in her field work and analysis, the issue of impunity one of her informants raised is a critical concern. The author recounts a horrible experience of a doctor whose patient was murdered while lying down on the operating table. With the doctor plastered against wall, three men with guns shot the patient to death. As the doctor said to the author, it is all about privileges, the protection from punishment of the act itself when those gun shooters did not even wear masks so as not to be recognized considering that they live in the vicinity is so visible.

One of them actually lives on the same street as the doctor, and each time the doctor runs into him, he relives the moments of that murder. He sees that man every single day and the freedom is so great that the murderer does not even droop his head to express fear from justice. (p. 35). In a world where forensic anthropologists receive death threats and increasing criminal violence fills every published newspaper, a skeptic may ask, is speaking and gathering truth worth the risk just to empower equality among races?

The book demonstrates clearly how the power of testimonies can help transform a land of havoc and wrath into a land of democracy and peace. Language became a powerful tool in fighting the advocacy of violence. It was evident on many parts of the book. The Maya, by being able to tell their adventurous but somewhat horrific plight, took their persecutor’s remaining authority. Also, language has become a tool for both the political and physical of space for the resistors. Language helped the genocide victims by excavating their graves and giving them decent funerals.

But in order for an excavation to be carried out, it should be first decided by the court. If the court decides the approval of an excavation, testimonies are gathered to locate the mass grave and identify the found bodies. The act of excavation, which is aided by the power of testimonies, is then again a part of the healing process. The survivors who submit a petition to the court for the excavation of the bodies of their loved ones is engaged in a political process that was forbidden from them before. In this case, democracy at its least essence has become transparent. This shows that at the least, spiritual justice is obtained by those who have been brutally killed and by the relatives and friends of the bodies recovered.

In addition to the author’s intervention on international human rights by writing about the reformation of genocide, she highlights the importance of the Maya survivors as a tool in history for achieving freedom and justice for those who had experience the tyranny of the army. She directly challenges the people, like the Guatemalan army, who tried to discredit her informant’s testimonies. As in the original story on which it is based, it’s analysis is of the same racist theoretical foundation that resists political consciousness and free will to the Maya whose perception, being manipulated, means to remove the society, individual memory and organization. (p. 49). By gathering information from the survivors, Sanford shows how anthropologists can aid democratic social projects.

Now, though Guatemala failed to combat impunity, peace implementation and legislation to improve political awareness and participation, the current administration made progress by taking state responsibilities on some human rights violations that occurred during “La Violencia” and by supporting human rights internationally. Though the testimonies and the expertise of Sanford in anthropology did not fully helped Guatemala, evidence shows that improvements are being made to this country.

The book clearly explores the intersection of memory, history and testimonies as it emphasize that through it, power from language can give the survivors power to work within a larger political system. At the end, the survivors redeemed power by the use of judicial system to attain their long-lost aspiration of truth, justice and democracy and the courts played a major role for the survivors to regain power. They decided whether to excavate the graves of the victims of genocide, they have trials for the perpetuators of genocide and most importantly, they helped in uncovering the truth behind the long violence that happened.

Works Cited:

Victoria Sanford. (2003). Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. Palgrave Macmillian. New York


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