If the mountains could talk in Guatemala, they would hold witness to the brutality land rights can cause.
During my time in Guatemala, I met with and stayed with the community of Rio Negro. A town on the mountainside. And there, I met Don Sebastian.
Sebastian was one of the only survivors of the Rio Negro Massacre. He held an eyewitness testimony to one of the deadliest days in Guatemalan history.
Knee deep in a civil war, a fight dominated by military forces and concentrated on indigenous populations. Some call it genocide. Some remain valiant that it was equally weighted. Yet over 86% of those killed were Mayan. Neither equal nor just.
But this story isn’t about the civil war. This story is about the little town of Rio Negro and Don Sebastian.
It was March 13th, 1982.
Don Sebastian was merely 16 years old when he fled into the mountains to escape the reality of what was about to come – the reality of a massacre.
Months before, the government built a hydroelectric dam on the river of Rio Negro which flooded the crops that the people of Rio Negro lived off of. The government claimed that land theirs, as the Mayans did not have proof that they’ve owned the land for hundreds of years.
Days before, the men of the village were sent to a neighboring town to get new IDs. The men never returned.
That day, on March 13th, military forces came into the town of Rio Negro over the mountains. They rounded up all the women and children in the school playground. The women demanded that they know where their husbands went.
No answers were given rather, the women were bound up in a line and sent to march to the top of the mountain.
On the 2-mile march up, some women escaped, a priest was shot and many children ran away holding their baby brother or sister in hopes of a better outcome than what was about to come.
In the mountains nearby, hiding in the bushes, was Don Sebastian. Hearing the screams. Holding his breath.
Once the remaining women and children, all 107, reached the top they were killed. To spare scarring details, they were brutally murdered and thrown, not gently nor strategically, into a hole dug by members of the military.
The same hole that Don Sebastian would return to days later. In hopes of finding someone breathing, only left to face the truth of what had happened.
We listened to Don Sebastian tell us these details over cold coffee at 9 pm. We huddled on a porch, sitting in broken plastic chairs overlooking the dam that caused it all. We listened, eagerly to his story.
Each word he said was spoken from a place of heartbreak. Breaking up stories with singular tears.
We sat in silence. Absorbing his account. Embracing his raw demeanor and vulnerability.
As he finished the story he smiled. A story of a massacre ended with a line of hope as he explained that his purpose now is to speak. To tell his story. To use his voice as a weapon against the perpetrators. To inspire others to speak out and to rebuild his community that was once destroyed.
While the civil war in Guatemala is long over. The stories of the people lost will forever be represented by the land – a testament of who they were.