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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 July 2006, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
Guatemala comes to terms with its past
By Nick Caistor
BBC News, Guatemala

Relatives of victims of the Guatemalan civil war attend a funeral, Guatemala  (2001)
The 1960-1996 civil war claimed some 200,000 lives

Guatemala, which suffered from a long civil war in which 200,000 people were killed, appears to be finally coming to terms with its turbulent past.

The main square in Guatemala City is not exactly beautiful.

As in many Spanish American cities, it is dominated on one side by the Catholic cathedral; on the other is the presidential palace, painted a faded but still shocking lime-green; a third side has the typical arcades which offer welcome shade in the sub-tropical heat.

But what is most welcoming as I walk through the square this morning are the signs of ordinary, every day life.

Some indigenous women - more than half of Guatemala's 13 million inhabitants are descendants of the Mayans - are setting out stalls of food or of their exquisitely woven clothing.

A man is busy laying out a plastic mat, and carefully placing five rusty weighing machines on it, so that curious passers-by can see how many kilos they have put on at breakfast.


Nearby, a couple is carefully setting up a photo booth.

Pride of place goes to three or four wooden fairground horses, carefully positioned in front of colourful backgrounds so that clients can have their photos taken as Mexican cowboys.

The events of the past, however terrible, need to be fully explored and explained

All at once, a man appears in the square, herding half-a-dozen goats: in the middle of a city of more than three million inhabitants. He seems to be part of a protest that's been going on here for several weeks now.

Peasant farmers are demonstrating because they have been thrown off their land, and they have brought their complaints directly to the presidential palace, camping outside and holding rallies and demonstrations day after day.

It is this peaceful protest which I find most encouraging.

Twenty years ago when I was in this same square people didn't dare come out and stroll around, weigh themselves, or have their photographs taken.

In 1986 Guatemala was only just emerging from a ghastly civil war which claimed as many as 200,000 victims, the vast majority of them killed or forcibly abducted by the state security forces.

A peace agreement between the Guatemalan military and the left-wing guerrilla groups was finally signed in 1996.

Accusations of genocide

An official government report blamed the state and its repressive apparatus for more than 90% of the human rights atrocities that had taken place over the previous three decades.

But in the 10 years since then, not a single person has faced charges for any of the acts of murder and torture that took place.

Recently though, the Spanish justice system, which was responsible for beginning proceedings against the former Chilean military ruler Augusto Pinochet, has decided it can consider accusations of genocide from Guatemala.

This particularly applies to a massacre committed by the security forces at the start of the 1980s.

Relatives carry the remains of victims killed in the civil war (2001)
Relatives commemorate those killed unlawfully

The massacre took place after a group of peasants, demanding very similar things to the group camped outside the presidential palace today, took over the Spanish embassy in another part of the capital.

When the police moved in to take back the building, a fire was started, and 37 of the peasant farmers died. The only survivor was taken out of hospital a few days later and shot, nobody knows by whom.


The names of all those who died in the burning of the Spanish embassy are among the thousands of people whose unlawful deaths are also commemorated here in Guatemala City's main square.

Twelve tall pillars enclose the atrium of the cathedral. On them are engraved the names of all those known to have died in the civil conflict.

As I look on, several people are kneeling and rubbing the names of their dead relatives onto pieces of paper as a reminder of loved ones whose bodies have never been found.

Guatemala is only slowly coming to terms with the violence that tore it apart for three generations.

It is one thing to commemorate the dead; it is quite another to return to such painful events and try to determine who was to blame for all the crimes committed.


The Spanish judge investigating the embassy massacre has so far been refused permission to talk to the military officers allegedly implicated in the atrocity.

The normal life of a peaceful morning in a Latin American square needs to be based on justice, which in turn means that the events of the past, however terrible, need to be fully explored and explained.

As I walk back past the photography booth, a young boy is being lifted onto one of the wooden horses.

The painted background shows a paradise, Guatemala style: a huge scarlet parrot perched on the branch of a tree in a jungle landscape, with a Mayan temple in the distance, on the banks of a wide and fertile river.

If only it were so simple.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 July, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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