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12,000 Women Against an Army : Guatemala: Widows' groups are defiantly exercising one basic human right: to bury their dead.

December 10, 1991|VALERIE MILLER and KENNETH F. SHARPE | Valerie Miller is the human-rights education director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, based in Cambridge, Mass. Kenneth F. Sharpe is a professor of political science at Swarthmore College who writes frequently about Central America

"Your husband was kidnaped last year? But you said the military kidnaped him in 1981."

Rosa's intense eyes were sad. "That was my first husband," she told us. "My daughter was only 1 month old when they came to our village and took him away. And then a few weeks later they killed my father, and later that month my grandparents. They thought they could quiet us by eliminating the whole family."

"And now?" we asked.

"My second husband, Luis Miguel--they kidnaped him last year and he is still missing. He was a leader of the Displaced Persons Council" (a citizens' group founded to help victims of the Guatemalan military).

Rosa sat with another woman, Lucia, in their spare, clean office in downtown Guatemala City. We were speaking about Conavigua, an acronym in Spanish for the National Committee of Guatemalan Widows, a group founded three years ago by Indian women from the Guatemalan highlands whose husbands had been killed or "disappeared" by the military. Conavigua now had 12,000 members. There were, they said, at least 60,000 widows like themselves.

Today is International Human Rights Day. Many grand statements will be made, many politicians will speak out for the rights of the oppressed with forceful--or not so forceful--words. But human rights begin with human beings. Listen to Rosa's story, and remember it as the politicians speak.

No one would go looking for democracy in Guatemala, a country where a vicious military barely tolerates a weak elected government. Yet new voices are being heard. Rosa and Lucia spend every day on the front lines of democracy, fighting for human rights. They do not measure progress in terms of candidates elected or reform legislation passed. Elections alone cannot give a government enough power to challenge the rich oligarchs and reactionary officers unless there is a base of organized citizens. Democracy means organizing to control their own lives and communities and to hold leaders accountable.

Identifying with Conavigua is itself an act of courage. The women are continually harassed. "The military stop you on the back paths and say: 'Watch out, we've already got a grave dug for you.' The city police have stormed our offices twice. They come late at night to frighten us and our sleeping children, shining flashlights in our faces, demanding to see our papers."

Yet these women continue to take small steps with the knowledge they are not alone. Every new Conavigua group is a great victory. And so are the self-help projects, like the women from the village of Solola teaching their techniques of irrigated farming to women in Nebaj.

"But our most important work has been the exhumations," Lucia explained. "We have succeeded in exhuming 27 bodies from clandestine cemeteries. We received help from Argentine doctors and the press. There are hundreds of these secret burial grounds, and the army is not pleased that we want to dig them up."

"This is one of our main objectives," added Rosa, "to know where our husbands are. We want to bury them properly. We want to bring flowers to their graves."

The widows of Conavigua are only one of many groups that fight daily in Guatemala for democracy and human rights. Labor unions, peasant organizations and refugee communities have organized despite continued disappearances, kidnapings and murders of their members. They work for land reform, minimum-wage policies and an end to forced recruitment into the "civil patrols," which are used by the military to control Indian populations.

Such organizations were hopeful after conservative President Jorge Serrano took office in January. He surprised human-rights critics by moving more forcefully than expected to investigate military abuses and negotiate with the leftist guerrillas.

But a few months ago, powerful forces in the military began a counterattack, assassinating a reform leader, killing a police investigator who was getting too close to uncovering military complicity in the murder of Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack, releasing officers accused of murdering American farm owner Michael Devine, placing a bomb in the offices of a critical foreign press agency and strafing a refugee encampment minutes before a U.N. human-rights investigator was about to land.

The political space for advancing grass-roots democracy and human rights is thus still precarious. And it exists only because the elites fear economic sanctions. The United States cut off military aid last December, and there are signs that desperately needed economic assistance from other international sources will also depend on better human-rights conditions. Meanwhile, Rosa and Lucia continue their struggle.

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