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Ramiro Cristales was raised by one of the soldiers who allegedly helped slaughter Cristales' entire family.
When he was 18, Cristales made an unexpected decision for someone whose family had been killed by the army. He joined the same army. He explained that he joined up for two reasons: to get away from Alonzo and his family, and to see if he could find out anything about the massacre at Las Dos Erres. Tentatively, he asked some officers about the massacre. No one had any information to give him. In October 1998, a senior officer told him that another part of the army had called to inquire about him.
The inquiry was prompted by the investigative work of Aura Elena Farfan, the head of a Guatemalan human rights organization named Famdegua. Farfan and a government official quickly helped him secure refugee status in the country where he now lives and worked with him to prepare his testimony.
On the morning of Feb. 23, 1999 Cristales walked into a room at the Famdegua offices. Inside were an elderly couple with graying hair. They were his mother’s parents. He had learned only days earlier that he had any living relatives. It was a tearful reunion. And they hugged him tightly in their arms. “You look like your mother and your father,” his grandmother told him. All around him were other relatives, including a half-brother through Cristales’ father.
Relatives produced the only known photographs of his mother and father, faces Cristales had not seen since they were dragged away from him. Yet Cristales knew that the next day, only hours after he had met the people who made him feel he was no longer alone in the world, he would have to leave them.
Cristales now has regular work, is a citizen of his new country and lives in a comfortable home with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. He went to see a therapist when he first arrived and took anti-depressants and pills that made him sleep. He didn’t like the effect they had on his mood so he stopped taking them and hasn’t seen a therapist since. Sometimes he dreams about the massacre. The memories are haunting, but they are also perhaps his best weapon in a struggle for justice.
“They can’t erase my memory,” he said. “I will live all my life with these memories.”
GlobalPost correspondent Larry Kaplow contributed reporting from Guatemala.
Read about the U.S. investigation of these accused war criminals.
Read about Guatemala's ongoing investigation of the Las Dos Erres massacre.