Page 5, 9th December 1994

9th December 1994
Page 5
Page 5, 9th December 1994 — A woman who fights injustice

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Locations: Queljel


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A woman who fights injustice

Mary Durran met with Maria Morales, the Catholic catechist who spearheads a group, which National Co-ordination of Widows of Guatemala that promotes indigenous women's rights in their country.

MARIA MORALES STII.L wears the brightly coloured, intricately woven "traje", the costume of the highland village of Queljel, her birthplace. Chased out by army soldiers f9r her work as a Catholic catechist, the 30year-old Guatemalan Mayan Indian woman left Queljel in 1988.

"Things are different now. People are still hungry, and babies still die of malnutrition. But the struggle for justice has borne some fruits, and at last we are seeing a loosening of the army's grip on society."

As a member of Guatemala's indigenous majority, which makes up over 65 per cent of the population, Maria's background has a horrifyingly familiar ring to those who know Guatemala. The Guatemalan indigenous rights campaigner grew up in similar circumstances to those of Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchu. She had no school education and two siblings died at an early age of malnutrition.

In desperation her parents turned to "guaro", the home fabricated hard liquor. Maria turned to the Church and became a lay catechist, where she soon become involved in promoting social justice and human rights.

In 1982, army soldiers, in 'front of the whole village, tortured the senior catechist who had trained her. With two other men, they were frogmarched to the village cemetery, forced to dig their own graves, and then summarily shot.

"Much of the repression in the village then was carried out by the civil patrollers," Maria recalled. The army organises villagers into civil patrols which are in theory voluntary, but in practice, in many villages, all the adult men are still obliged to patrol at least once every ten days, and report any sign of guerrilla activity.

On one occasion, one man in the village complained to the head of the civil patrol when boys as young as 12 were being recruited. As punishment, the civil patrol leaders forced him to patrol for 10 nights in a row, and to ten days' hard labour, gathering stones from the river and carrying them up the hill.

"Nowadays, the civil patrol leaders in Queljel are frightened to punish people. As in many places in Guatemala now, they realise their days are numbered."

Civil patrols are to be disbanded as part of a peace settlement between the government and the URNG guerrillas. Current UN-mediated talks are expected to bring a ceasefire next year.

For six years, although not a widow, Maria has worked promoting indigenous women's rights with the National Co-ordination of Widows of Guatemala (Conavigua) and with Majawil, ("new dawn" in the indigenous Quiche language) a coalition of indigenous organisations.

The widows have campaigned for an end to the military repression that took the lives of their husbands. One of the benefits of that struggle has been seen in recent weeks.

"The military no longer dares to go out press-ganging youths into the army everybody is condemning it." Much of the pressure has come from the Catholic Church whose human rights office has run a long campaign denouncing the abuses of arbitrary conscription of young indigenous men. Although, officially two years' military service is compulsory for every adult male, until recently, only Mayans have been rounded up arbitrarily and herded like cattle onto lorries. CONAVIGUA has campaigned to get new legislation introduced into the Assembly replacing military service with community social service.

Maria believes that some advances have been made in human rights, but still a deeply rooted anti-indigenous racism against the 23 different ethnic groups persists. The government and guerrillas are currently debating the issue of the country's indigenous population in the peace talks.

But there is no indigenous Myan representative at the talks all the top guerrilla commanders are "ladinos", or mixed blood descendants of Europeans.

"We would like to have more direct participation in the peace talks. We'd also like to see a Mayan Parliament, Mayan schools where our language, Mayan heritage and Mayan calendar are taught. And we want respect for our traditional forms of leadership in the villages." The Mayan traditions include a Mayan religion which has in many places merged with Catholicism.

According to Ms Morales, people are very frustrated with the slow progress of the peace talks. Still they live in poverty, in fear of human rights abuses and have seen no justice for those responsible for the atrocities of the last 15 years.

Such frustration has boiled over into at least three recent attacks by civilians, armed only with sticks and stones, on police and military incidents that would once have been unthinkable at the height of the military's terror.

For the widows, the exhumation of the remains of the victims of the era of terror is vital. Some 100,000 have been killed by the military and its death squads during the 34 year old war and about forty thousand people have disappeared. Thousands of victims have been buried in the so called "clandestine cemeteries".

Forensic teams are now starting to exhume the remains of peasants whose bones lie in shallow graves in almost every Mayan village. For Maria Morales and other relatives and friends of the victims this is essential.

"It will help to. bring us one step closer to justice for those responsible for their deaths" and the victims will at last be laid to rest with a Christian burial as has already happened in several villages around Guatemala. This means that on All Souls Day a big tradition in Guatemala relatives can take food, chocolate and flowers to the graves of their loved ones .

"For us, our companions who died struggling for justice aren't dead. They visit us in our drives and drive us in our struggles. But they have to be given a Christian burial. Otherwise their souls won't rest, and there will be no end to their relatives' mourning.

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