Thanksgiving is a day to reflect on what we are thankful for and to think about our history as a nation and the good and bad it has done. This year, I’m thinking about a Thanksgiving far from home 34 years ago in the Guatemalan highlands where the army was a war.
It was late November, 1985. We had been in the town of Nebaj, in the Ixil Triangle, for only an hour when an undercover military soldier wanted to question us, two bearded men and a woman with a video camera and microphones in hand.
The military had undoubtedly watched us wind our way down the twisted mountain highway, creeping along the rutted road in a rental car. They didn’t get many tourists in the Ixil Triangle since the region had been declared a war zone.
By the time we unloaded our gear at the Tres Hermanas pension, the authorities knew that strangers, perhaps journalists, had arrived.
The three of us had come to document what had happened to thousands of Ixil people who had been displaced or killed during the army’s counterinsurgency campaign. For three years, few outsiders had been allowed in to see the devastation caused by a sweeping scorched-earth campaign that tried to eliminate popular support for leftwing guerrillas by eliminating the villages themselves.
(Amnesty International estimated that over 10,000 indigenous Guatemalans and peasant farmers were killed from March to July of 1982, and that 100,000 rural villagers were forced to flee their homes. The atrocities committed were so great that President Rios Montt, who launched the campaign, would later be found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.)
When we arrived, the towns in the Ixil Triangle were completely under military control. Our stay would be short, so we went to work immediately, shooting images of the post-colonial stucco homes that hugged the narrow sidewalks. We had walked just a few blocks when a man dressed in a western shirt and tight pants popped in front of us. He demanded to know who we were.
“We’re journallists,” our director said, holding his camera like a weapon at this side.
“Your identification,” the man replied. “Do you have permission to film here?
“Do we need permission?” my colleague replied, with a false naivity.
The man pushed his hips toward us slightly, the padded protective device stuffed into his bulging pants. He was prepared for conflict.
“We have approval from the office of communication,” I said before there could be a misunderstanding. I snatched an authorization letter issued to us in Guatemala City from my bag and handed to the man.
He appeared to be momentarily appeased.
In situations like this, when you are in a remote town and outnumbered — and there were surely dozens of soldiers quartered nearby — the less that you say, the better. This soldier, too, may not have wanted to do the wrong thing in handling the foreign press.
I wanted to get what we needed from the. military, permission to visit one of the “reborn” villages where they said the displaced villagers were now coming home.
I explained that we would like to meet the local commander and find out what is going on.
We already had a clear idea of what was happening and why. A week earlier we had interviewed former residents of the Ixil Triangle now living in refugee camps in Mexico who told us they had fled burning villages. Their first-hand accounts left little doubt of the army’s role.
We knew the army was holding some displaced people who had been rounded up from their hiding places in the forest. Several weeks earlier the government described how 38 people had been brought to the military base, “peasants displaced by the delinquent subversives who sought the protection of the army.”
We had little expectation of getting a true assessment of the counterinsurgency campaign from the local commander, knowing he would focus instead on how, thanks to the investment of government funds, new roads and houses were being built so people could return to live in peace.
We’d heard a similar story the previous day at a settlement designed to re-educate the indigenous people the army had rounded up. Saraxoch was a military operation, like a fort, with two soldiers guarding the entryway and a military barracks in the center of the population.
At the entrance, a wooden sign announced that Saraxoch was an “Anti-subversive and Ideologically New Community.” The guards on duty looked at our passports, then sent us through, down a wide street lined by wooden homes where the civilians lived under their watchful eye.
In Saraxoch, the residents were lectured daily about the need to be loyal to the government. At public drills held every morning at dawn, they stood in formation, many shivering, until everyone was accounted for. Then they sang the national anthem and swore allegiance to country. “Como se llama la patria?” shouted the commander at each assembly (what is the name of our country?). “Guatemala,” came the mumbled response.
The commander, a former teacher, said he believed in repetition, and he drilled the same material several times a day. If the army couldn’t defeat the guerrillas in the jungle, this program aimed to drill their ideology out of people’s minds.
In the Ixil Triangle, two hamlets had been rebuilt as so-called model villages under military control. We wanted to get video of the newly-restored villages and get out.
At the military base in Nebaj, we watched through an interior office window as the commander looked at our paperwork and approved our request to go to Acul. His aide told us he had arranged an escort for us the next day.
We insisted on driving by ourselves while a military jeep led the way. The Ixil people of Acul wear distinctive hand-woven red and black garments and even when the men gave up their traditional wardrobe, they invariably wore white brimmed hats and sported loose trousers. Our minder for the day dressed in plain clothes but he still did not blend in.
People ducked out of sight as they saw us coming so we videotaped in silence as walked the grid of wide footpaths that looked freshly cleared.
We got pictures of some men unloading sacks of corn donated by U.S. Aid for International Development that was distributed as part of the army’s pacification program. Our minder pulled one of the men over and told him we had some questions. We asked where he was from and why he had come to Acul. The man said he lived hiding in the jungle after the guerrillas had destroyed his home.
It was useless to think we could interview any witnesses of our choosing. We knew there was another truth lurking just under the surface, but it was reckless for us to even ask.
When we returned to Nebaj, we checked in with the local command office, to inquire about our request for an interview with the officer in charge.
“You want to interview me?” the Lieutenant Colonel stepped into the room. He was tall, robust and dark-haired, of Spanish descent, and confident of winning people over to his views. He extended his hand. “Welcome to Nebaj.”
Many army officers in Guatemala had been trained by the U.S. military at its School of the Americas and learning how to work with the media was a required course. If the Guatemalan military wanted to keep receiving U.S. aid, its officers would have to learn to handle pesky U.S. reporters who wanted to know how the aid was used.
This officer clearly excelled in his media-handling class. We made small talk for a few minutes, then asked again if we could sit down for an interview the next day.
“But it’s Thanksgiving,” he exclaimed, “don’t you get the day off?”
When you’re three thousand miles from home and just 48-hours away from leaving a violent, dangerous country, a day off is the farthest thing from your mind.
“No, we’ve got work to do.”
“You must join us for a Thanksgiving dinner,” he pressed us. “It’s your national holiday. I insist.”
I looked at my colleagues and our eyes locked as we tried to read each other’s mind. Then we nodded in agreement. We had to go.
We didn’t feel safe to discuss what was happening until we returned to our room at the Tres Hermanas. Even then, behind closed doors, we couldn’t agree on a strategy except to leave the dinner as soon as we could.
The next day we showed up and the lieutenant colonel and two junior officers joined us at a long table. Two women hurried back and forth, setting out plates of steak, beans and tortillas.
I smiled and nodded as we sat there, unable to come up with a conversation starter. We had nothing in common. I was unmarried, no children, and estranged from my parents — and I had a deep antipathy to the war they waged every day.
In truth, the officers may not have noticed my silence. In a macho society like that of Guatemala, they may have taken it for knowing my place.
My director was able to break the ice with small talk about his own military experience and I was thankful for that.
“It’s good to have members of the press come up here,” the commander said, pausing between bites of food. “So many lies have been written about the army, but you can see for yourselves how we are helping these people rebuild.”
I stared at my plate, unable to answer, barely able to breath.
The officer continued with a story about a New York Times reporter who they had showered with hospitality and who repaid them with more lies. He feigned disappointment that the story included reports of military atrocities.
“We’ve had to protect these people from the guerrillas who tried to destroy their way of life,” he said. “You Americans know about that.”
I picked up a piece of the corn tortilla and nibbled at its edge. It didn’t take long for the commander to remind us that America had its own troubling past.
“You knew how to handle your Indian problem,” the lieutenant colonel continued. “You should just let us handle ours.”
On this Thanksgiving Day it was hard to deny that American settlers had shown no mercy when they occupied Native American land. The Guatemalan army officer had raised this violent history in America to justify their own bloody campaign. The comparison was jarring, with its shards of truth, though at the time I believed that we had risen as a nation to expect greater respect for human rights.
For a few seconds, no one spoke. Then one of the junior officers appeared with a bottle of Scotch and poured us all a drink. The Guatemalans started to relax, smiling, and joked about whether we cared about missing the New York Jets game being played back in New York that day.
I watched, incredulous that it was possible to be jovial knowing the ugly truths of the counterinsurgency campaign.
After one drink, my colleagues begged off another, eager to escape before our tongues got too loose. For almost two hours we had managed to feign collegiality with men who were just as likely to want to see us dead.
The officers probably had a good laugh after we left, thinking they had successfully convinced us of the good intentions they had.
We returned to the Tres Hermanas, thankful on that Thanksgiving that we were still breathing and able to bring a slice of the Guatemala reality to the rest of the world.