Anne-Marie O'Connor: Payments and Apologies for Victims of Guatemala's Civil War





[O'Connor is a freelance writer who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times and the New York Magazine.]

GUATEMALA CITY -- When army helicopters landed in his village in August 1982, Francisco Velasco was away in the cornfields with the men. Then they heard the screams. Velasco rushed back home and found his wife and two baby daughters dead.

Velasco lost 16 relatives, including his mother and father, in the army's scorched-earth campaign against leftist guerrillas. Five years after applying for compensation, his family received $5,400 from the state a few months ago and an official apology.

"You can't pay for a life," Velasco said. "But it is a gesture of support."

Since President Álvaro Colom took office in January 2008, Guatemala has stepped up payments to survivors of the estimated 200,000 people who died in the 36-year civil war. Begun in 2003, the program had compensated 3,000 survivors by 2007, according to its directors. But under Colom, whose family suffered a high-profile death during the war, the state has handed out 10,477 checks -- many for claims ignored for years, according to Cesar Davila, president of the National Compensation Program.

Survivors also get a letter from Colom asking for forgiveness for the losses they suffered as a result of the abuses committed by the state during the war, which ended in 1996. "The fact that the president signs it is very important," said Orlando Blanco, Guatemala's secretary of peace. "It is an official document that says, 'Here is the truth: My son was not a subversive or a delinquent. It was the state that killed him.' "

Many of the compensated survivors are Mayan. A truth commission report said Mayans were victims of genocide by the army, which feared that their poverty and marginalization would make them potential allies of the rebels. Seventy percent of the recipients are women who lost husbands, parents and children, Blanco said. Some were raped, a violation that recently became grounds for reparation, he said.

Officials say 64,000 requests are pending. The Colom government is trying to help the survivors most in need of the payments, which range from $1,500 to $2,500. The program has built more than 800 houses for war victims and plans thousands more.

"There are so many victims, there is not enough money for everyone," Blanco said. "What we look for is to benefit someone who is older and more vulnerable."

The stories of the past still haunt Guatemala....


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