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Guatemalan survivors revel in their history

Years after massacre, villagers have chance to see their stories validated in print.

Maria Maquin was a 12-year-old girl at the plaza in 1978, standing with her grandmother who was a leader of the protest and one of the first gunned down. “I played dead. One of the soldiers touched me and said, ‘She’s dead.’” She lived in hiding in the mountains for years after.

Mayans couldn’t risk talking about their loss until the civil war ended in 1996. Other books have been written about Panzos but survivors were electrified by the chance to host the book presentation. “It is so excellent,” said Matilde Caal, who spent her childhood on the run after relatives were disappeared in the early 1980s. Now a rural health promoter, she bought two copies to give to nephews. “They had to present it [here] so children would know what happened. Not just in Panzos but all over.”

Several students interviewed among the about 500 people packing the concrete salon said they had not heard about the massacre until this event, even though they came from towns within a few miles. Some in Guatemala, especially in urban areas, deny the extent of the scorched-earth campaign during the 35-year war.

The event was a homecoming of sorts for author Sanford, an associate professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York. She joined a team of archeologists that exhumed the mass grave from the massacre in 1997. She has participated in research and investigations in Guatemala since 1990 but had not been back since death threats forced her out in 2007.

Her book was published with help from the Soros Foundation of Guatemala and a local teachers association invited her to present it in Panzos with a panel of authors and dignitaries, including a ranking government human rights monitor. The presentation was conducted in Spanish and the Mayan language Kekchi.

“As long as a society can continue to organize, there’s hope,” Sanford said in assessing what she found in her return to Panzos. “But building a military base [there] doesn’t support an ongoing organization of civil society.”