Noah Cohen-Cline’s article “Dammed,” from the Fall 2014 issue, has stayed with me for various reasons. One is because I am Guatemalan, and another is because, during my adolescence and in the early years of my medical career, I lived through the period of armed conflict that Cohen-Cline writes about.
Cohen-Cline’s article centers on the Rio Negro massacres, five separate government attacks in the early 1980s on the residents of the Guatemalan farming village of Pacux. The government wanted to clear the village to make way for a hydroelectric dam. When the villagers refused to leave their ancestral home, they were set upon by soldiers. In all, 444 men, women, and children were killed, and a way of life was lost.
The Rio Negro massacres occurred during Guatemala’s civil war, when government forces clashed for years with rebel groups that included large numbers of ethnic Mayans. The government troops committed unspeakable atrocities in a campaign that has come to be widely accepted as genocide. In all, more than 200,000 civilians were killed or went missing.
For many years I have not spoken about what happened during this time in Guatemala. Even now, more than 30 years later, nobody brings it up at family gatherings. In fact, today there is a trend in my country to deny that the whole thing happened at all. Many Guatemalans say that the conflict was actually just the Cold War playing out in my small country. They insist that there was never a genocide targeting the indigenous Mayan population. And that is why I am writing this letter.
There are thousands of stories and testimonies to be shared, but I want to tell just one—one that is part of what I lived as a young medical student during those terrible years.
As part of our rotations in pediatrics, a group of ten medical students and I were assigned for four months to a small hospital in Guatemala City called Children’s Hospital of Infectious Diseases. It was 1986 when we arrived, and we were all shocked to discover that although there were some children with vaccine-preventable infections such as diphtheria, whooping cough, and polio, most patients had been mutilated by war. For the first time in my life I saw children of preschool age without arms, without legs, with spinal cord injuries, and some with extensive burn scars, each trying to adapt to their prosthetics and lead a normal life. These war victims came mainly from conflict areas where the indigenous-dominated Mayan population lived.
What left the biggest impression on me was the testimony of a five-year-old boy who was under my care. He told me one day, literally, “My mom buried me.” I asked him what he meant, since many of these children did not speak Spanish very well. He repeated to me, “My mom buried me.” It turned out that, during an armed attack on his village, mothers buried their children, with the hope that in the end someone would find them still alive, and in this way they could possibly survive the slaughter. The boy kept himself alive by breathing through a bamboo cane—he showed me how.
Later, in the back of the hospital, I found a workshop where there were countless pieces of twisted metal that a group of workers were struggling to fashion into prosthetic hands and legs, and also wheelchairs. I asked the workers where the metal came from. “It is a gift from the Air Force,” they told me. At that moment it struck me that the remains of the airplanes and helicopters that had fallen during the conflict were being used to make prostheses for children who’d been mutilated by their bombings.
Yes, there was a genocide in Guatemala.
Mario E. Flores, N10, is a senior researcher at the National Institute of Public Health of Mexico.