Jean-Marie Simon: A foreign witness to Guatemala’s war

Jean-Marie Simon lived and worked in Guatemala as a photojournalist between 1980 and 1988, a period of extreme violence and brutality in the country. Recently, Jean-Marie ‘s donated 1,000 copies of her book Guatemala: Eternal Spring Eternal Tyranny to schools and universities in Guatemala, to keep the truth of what happened alive.Here, she talks about life and work in one of the most dangerous times in Guatemala.

Guatemala is deceptive. I know people think that in the 80’s it was a war zone.

But the country was very different from that. You knew things were going on, you sort of arrived in the capital and you did see soldiers all over the place but it was not like they were sand-bagging the main streets and car bombings and green zones and people running around in flak jackets.

In Guatemala City the army was targeting student leaders, unionists, and university professors. Picking them off one by one or in small groups. In fact, I think the word “desaparecer” (“to disappear”) as a transitive verb, first originated in Guatemala back in the 1960s.

The press conference that announced the coup in 1982 was more dramatic than the coup itself in terms of images. There was Ríos  Montt gesticulating all over the place, saying “from now on there won’t be any bodies by the side of the road, from now, we’ll kill legally” doing this in his camouflage uniform flanked by his two subordinates.

What was actually striking in the first few days after the coup was a sense of euphoria and relief. There was a huge rally in the park in front of the National Palace and people waving posters saying “we believe in the army”, “we want peace” because urban repression had been so intense under the previous government headed by Lucas Garcia that people thought – it turned out wrongly – that anyone, even another military man, had to be an improvement on what they had suffered previously.

In fact, Amnesty International published in 1981 a booklet, which I consider seminal “Guatemala: a government programme of political murder” which really said everything about Guatemala under Lucas Garcia, so really the first few days of Ríos  Montt were just sheer happiness and then what followed, of course, was a progression of repression, both in the capital and in the countryside.

In the countryside, the level of massacres escalated under Ríos Montt.

That was a pre-technological era in many ways. There’s no digital photography, fax machines were in their infancy. There were no cell phones to speak of and so when things happened in the countryside under Ríos  Montt, news did not disseminate, sometimes for days or weeks or even months.

It’s important to remember who the real heroes in this war were. It wasn’t us, it wasn’t the foreigners. We had a huge amount of protection that locals didn’t.

I was working on a film with a Finnish film crew and we hiked on to Nebaj, a town about about 7 hours from Guatemala City. At that time the now president of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina, was the base commander in Nebaj and the area was known as the “vortex of the war”.

The town was completely occupied by the army as were dozens of other communities. Armed soldiers occupied the main plaza, the bell tower, they had taken over the convent and the local rectory, the nuns and priests had fled a year or two earlier.

It was Independence Day and there was a parade in the centre of town.

At one point, this man came up to us. He was a school teacher there and asked us if we were with the State Department or the CIA. When we said no, he explained he wanted to tell us a story but that he couldn’t do it there because it was full of soldiers, including many in plain clothes.

We agreed to meet him on the outskirts of the town a few hours later and we filmed him with his back to us while he told us he had personally witnessed a massacre that had taken place in early April that year, just two or three weeks after the Ríos  Montt coup.

He was teaching in Acul, a town near Nebaj when the army came in and rounded up all the men there. The army arbitrarily assigned them to “heaven or hell” and then shot the half who went to “hell” and ordered the ones who were saved, including the teacher talking to us, to bury their fellow townsmen.

“This is the new law of Ríos  Montt,” they were told.

The war is now over, the peace accords have been signed and 30 years on, a lot of people feel some comfort in telling these stories.

How can you anticipate a healthy social and political future for a country where there has been no closure on this? Tens of thousands of people have lost relatives, and there has been no explanation, they haven’t even found their bodies and they’re expected to move on.

I would still be obsessed, I’d be thinking every day about the crime that affected my life and the life of my family forever, and it hasn’t been resolved. Because although there have been convictions of a few military leaders, it was only the tip of the iceberg.

After my experience in Guatemala I would say remember who the heroes are.

It’s so easy to forget how we were able to do our work in the first place and the only reason we had access to these events, whether documentary filmmaking or photography or reporting is because somebody in Guatemala risked their neck to show us something they wanted the rest of the world to see.

I think we should keep the focus on Guatemalans who risked themselves during this decade and many whom have never been recognized for this, that’s the most important thing to me.

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