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So that it never happens again

For 19 interminable audiences they were imprisoned in their colourful shawls. Faces, hair and hands, everything was covered up. The heavy material hid every centimetre of skin and humanity – they resembled motionless Maya bundles. Once again, and for the last time, they appeared to the world in the image which 34 years ago their tormentors had violently attached to them. 

For as soon as Judge Yassmin Barrios finished reading the verdict they spontaneously raised their arms. One after another, the mantles opened, freeing their faces. Lips and eyes leaped out. And the cry: “Mak´al li qa xiw” (we are no longer afraid) rang out in the hall. Then last 26 February the nightmare for the 11 heroines of Sepur Zarco was truly over – as the local press reported – and new hope was born for the thousands and thousands of Guatemalan women raped, tortured and reduced to slavery during the civil war (1966-1996). It was one of the most ferocious conflicts of the 20th century, in which even women’s bodies were transformed into battlefields in the general silence. So great was the silence that for a long time after the peace agreements were signed, a people had difficulty in seeing sexual violence as part of the strategy of systematic terror inflicted on the population by the armed groups – particularly the army. On that day in 2016, however, Guatemala’s High Security Risk Tribunal A put an end to decades of impunity, sentencing Steelmer Reyes Girón and Heriberto Váldez Asij to 120 and 240 years in prison. They were found guilty of the mass rape of dozens of indigenous women, as well as of the disappearance of their husbands, since it was they who were in command of the garrison of Sepur Zarco. The verdict is historic: for the first time sexual abuse committed during a war was judged and condemned in the country in which it was perpetrated. In Yugoslavia and in Rwanda – the two points of reference for this subject – it proved necessary to have recourse to international courts. In Guatemala it did not. Here, a group of women of the Q’eqchí ethnic group obliged the national judicial system to look the truth in the face.

“I don’t know how to read or write. Perhaps if I did I would speak with greater ease. But everything I said is true. I was there, I saw and lived through those days. God is my witness”, said Petrona, 75 years old, at the end of her deposition. In the hall she spoke in the Q’eqchí language, the only one she knows and in which she feels authentic. Because horror frequently demands precise words.

She was 41 years old when the army arrived in the village of Panzós in the Polochic valley, on 25 August 1982. The soldiers interrupted the festivities for the day of St Rose of Lima and began the “hunt”. They were looking for Mario, Petrona’s husband, “guilty” of having claimed the ownership of his small plot of land. The official version was obviously different: Mario and another 17 farmers of the neighbouring communities had supposedly provided the guerrillas with food and protection: a pity that there were no guerrillas in this district; hard for the armed forces to have been ignorant of this detail. It was, however, more likely that the tactic of “burned land” was used in a “flexible” way to settle the score between landowners and farmers. That time Mario escaped, fleeing into the mountains with his family but shortly afterwards he was found and killed. Or rather made to disappear. When Petrona with her four children went to ask at the new Sepur Zarco outpost for his body she herself became a “prey”. Indeed, she became a slave. The army obliged the “widows” – but also sometimes the daughters and sisters – of the assassinated farmers to serve it. In all senses. The women, in rotation, had to wash uniforms, cook, mend and clean the interior of the garrison. And above all they were forced to let themselves be raped by the troops without saying a word. Had they refused, they would have suffered the same fate as Dominga Coc and her daughters, Anita and Hermenilda, beaten and tortured for weeks before “disappearing”. For six months – until 10 October 1983 when Steelmer Reyes Girón was replaced by a new commandant – the indigenous women of Polochic were compelled “to guarantee service”, as was the expression at the time changing “shifts” every three days. “You left knowing that on your return the same treatment awaited you. Or a worse one. They raped me over and over again. And they also raped my daughter”, Petrona recounted. “It would often be many of them who did it…. When I had haemorrhages, I had to treat myself with herbs. They frequently gave us injections to prevent us from conceiving”. Rosa, another of the 11 heroines, echoed her. “However, many more women passed through the outpost”, Rosa emphasized. There were certainly several dozen “slaves”, at least sixty. The majority, however, opted for silence. Out of fear, first and foremost, of a retribution by the army, which remained in Sepur Zarco for the following six years, continuing to claim “services”, although less regularly. 

A demonstration of solidarity with the women of Sepur Zarco

The greatest fear, however, was of the judgement of others. How was it possible to explain to them that they were victims if the communities themselves considered them prostitutes, or worse, traitors? The reports Guatemala Nunca Más, coordinated by Bishop Juan Gerardi, assassinated for his commitment to human rights – and the report of the United Nations Commission, Memory of Silence, paved the way for the buried truths to re-emerge. Nevertheless, to overcome the stigma of rape required many more years of patient work by the activists of the Union nacional de mujeres de Guatemala, (unamg) Mujeres transformando el mundo (mtm) and El Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial (ecap), gathered in the Alliance to Break the Silence and Impunity. In 2011, 15 indigenous women presented the first denunciation of the “Sepur Zarco case”. Five years later, the time had come for justice. This was not only for the eleven remaining survivors. The sentence was destined to make history in the trials of war rapes so that what happened in Sepur Zarco might never happen again. Nunca más.

Lucia Capuzzi




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 16, 2020