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“We cannot forget. This is for life, it will always be in our memory.”

Blog / Guatemala 30 May 2023

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Woman kneeling in front of altar dedicated to victims

Earlier this year, we had the chance to travel to Guatemala where we participated in a retreat for women survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) and genocide with our partner Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH). We joined the survivors and echoed their calls for justice during the National Day for the Dignification of the Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict, celebrated every February 25. It was both a privilege and a call to action  to witness the strength, resilience, and commitment of more than 60 women that still fight for justice, remembrance, and reparation. But our hearts also felt heavy with this stark reminder : there, in front of the altar prepared to open the retreat, were pictures of all those survivors who  died in the past years and never realised justice for the violence that they suffered.

The war in Guatemala started in 1960 and ended in 1996. It’s been more than 25 years since the peace agreement was signed, and during all this time, ssurvivors and civil society actors continuously pursued justice  as their situation only worsened after so many years of neglect. Most of the women are now at least 60 years old, and live in precarious situations, where reparation is urgently needed. Survivors not only deserve to obtain justice and reparation, but it is their right and it must be fulfilled before they too pass away.  

The retreat took place in the town of Santa María Nebaj whereIxil women were joined by representatives of the Q'eqchi', Poqomchi' and Achi' indigenous Mayan groups, as well as mestizo women. They came together to share the difficulties they have encountered and reflect on strategies and prospects for the future. “It is a tiring struggle, but I continue because I want to be heard,” shared one of the survivors. The women reiterated their commitment to continue to fight together.

Coming together like this means a lot to them: it provides an opportunity not only to discuss future actions, but it also  contributes to their healing process and consolidates support networks. In the words of our partner CALDH: “With these meetings, it is possible to strengthen the networks, to strengthen the demands that emanate from the different territories. By being together, by listening to each other and being part of the same story, they feel strong, they lose their fear and also their hopelessness.” Another survivor said, “Being able to speak is justice for us.” 

But seeing this gathering also means a lot to us: it reminds us that the struggle continues and that it is our responsibility to keep the memory of what the survivors endured alive and accompany them in their fight. 

The strength, resilience and commitment of survivors are sources of inspiration and the driving force of this relentless struggle. There is a deep and powerful sense of dignity and solidarity in their fight. At the end of the retreat, the survivors united their voices in a Public Declaration that was presented on the Day for the Dignification of the Victims, where they emphasised: “The State must guarantee reparations with clear policies in favour of survivors.” 

Although Guatemala has a National Reparation Programme that covers CRSV victims, there is growing concern as the programme’s mandate is ending in 2023. There is no commitment from the government –and not much hope from civil society– that it will be renewed. The Programme has not yet fulfilled its mission: it has been largely ineffective, under-budgeted, under-staffed, and institutionally dismantled; and it has reached few victims and systematically neglected forms of reparation beyond compensation.  

With the closure of the National Reparation Programme, only judicial avenues remain available. But these may also be ineffective: they are costly, lengthy, and many victims fear the stigmatisation and re-traumatisation. Decisions are also rarely implemented as they should. To add to these difficulties, the next months are marked by an electoral scenario that increases uncertainty regarding the future of transitional justice in the country. 

To better understand the situation, GSF used this trip to also  initiate a study in Guatemala aspart of GSF’s Global Reparation Study project, which covers more than 20 countries across the globe. This study will identify the perceptions and needs of survivors of CRSV in terms of reparation, including voices that have been traditionally forgotten, such as those of the LGTBQIA+ population, children, and men. It will also propose a roadmap and recommendations to continue articulating the struggle for reparation in Guatemala. 

Despite everything, survivors continue to ask the State to act, "We demand that the government pays for all the damage, because the women are elderly, and some are dying. The State must repair all the damage it has done."  The victims are only getting older, and they are tired. For us, it is clear: reparation is urgent and there is no time to lose. Survivors are dying, and they deserve to do so in peace having finally obtained the justice and reparation to which they are entitled.  

One survivor at the retreat claimed, "We must remember that one firewood does not burn, but if we unite, we will be several [pieces of] firewood, and we will be strong." And so now it is our turn and our responsibility to show that their pain is not forgotten, and that their struggle has not been in vain.

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