23 March 1982. 05:00am. Eleven-year-old Antonio Cava Cava is listening to the women of his community – the village of Ilom, in Chapul Quiché municipality, northern Guatemala – as they prepare food for the men, who are getting ready to go to work in the fields, growing maize and gathering firewood.
Meanwhile, in the country’s capital, a young Efraín Ríos Montt is preparing to take control of the turbulent Central American nation, which has been immersed in a long armed conflict since 1960. No-one yet knows it but the bloodiest chapter in this conflict is about to open, one that will result in more than 200,000 deaths and disappearances.
“Get up, son, the soldiers are here,” said Antonio’s father.
The boy walked out of the house alone and into a terrifying scene. More than 250 soldiers were entering the community and, with guns and physical violence, forcing men, women and children to walk towards the main square.
“I was walking with my dad, I saw the lieutenant, in uniform, talking on the radio, informing his boss that they’d rounded everyone up. ‘We’ll get rid of the lot of them’ he said,” recalls Antonio.
The soldiers took the men to a church and the women to an office, all of them accused of belonging to the guerrillas.
Inside the church, each man was killed with a single shot. In the office, many women were raped, some in front of their children.
“I could hear the shots, the cries of the people as they died. When they had finished, they forced the survivors to take the bodies out to the yard. We had to walk among the dead; some people were still moving, there were others with their eyes gouged out, their head caved in and their brains coming out.”
The farm After the massacre, the soldiers returned to set fire to everything that remained in the community. The survivors were forced to walk to a farm where they spent a long year, often with no shelter and under strict military control.
“Four days after we reached the farm, the children started to die. Some 200 or 300 had died within three months: from disease, because of the violence, the massacre, the consequences of that massacre,” recalls Antonio. One such child was his two-month-old sister.
A year later, the army allowed the Cava Cavas and the others to return to their land, on the condition that they were under almost constant supervision.
They had to start from scratch, just like dozens of other communities all over Guatemala.
The army stayed on for another eight months, saying they wanted to make sure there were no guerrillas in the area. When they left, they made the community take up arms in order to patrol the area themselves.
“I was 14 years old and they made me join the civil self-defence group. They forced me. If you didn’t want to, they took you for a guerrilla, so I had to agree. What’s more, you had to ask permission to travel outside the community. The soldiers give you a paper and stamp it when you leave. And if you don’t carry this with you, they capture you and torture you, murder you or make you disappear," recalls Antonio, as if it were yesterday.
Peace Accords At the start of 1990, Antonio – gun in hand – decided that he should learn to read. A lack of teachers in the area meant that he had to learn from old discarded newspaper cuttings that he found lying around. He bought a notebook and a pencil and began to draw letters, which someone later told him how to pronounce. At around the same time, someone told him about human rights and how there were organizations working to bring justice to the victims of the army's abuses.
The peace accords were signed during the period that Antonio was learning to read, officially bringing the conflict to an end. Many more years were still to pass, however, before anything would truly change for many of the communities affected.
In 1999, the country’s Office of the Public Prosecutor (Ministerio Público) sent the Guatemalan Foundation for Forensic Anthropology (Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala) to the community to open up the mass graves that the army had forced Antonio, his father and the other survivors to dig.
“People were scared because there had been so many threats; few of us were brave enough to be involved in the exhumation. It lasted 10 days. They only found 78 bodies and they took these remains away to the capital to study them, for one year. Afterwards they returned the bodies and the people buried them in the cemetery.”
But finding the remains of his neighbours was not enough for Antonio.
He wanted justice, pure and simple.
Justice, however, meant taking General Efraín Ríos Montt, former de facto president and still a member of parliament at that time, to court. David and Goliath.
Years of statements, threats and a lack of interest were to pass before Antonio decided to knock on the doors of his country’s Supreme Court of Justice to make his complaint.
At the same time, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International were pushing for investigations into the hundreds of complaints of massacres, disappearances and rapes that were reaching them from the Central American country.
The judge in charge of the case decided to summon Ríos Montt to give evidence but the retired general (who was incidentally one of the most powerful people in the country) did not turn up.
While this was going on, however, an unexpected stroke of luck occurred.
Almost by chance (as is often the case with these things) someone found what is now known publicly as The Military Diary (El Diario Militar) – a list of 182 people who had disappeared between August 1983 and March 1985, giving names, photos, details of the kidnappings and notes on the abuses they suffered. The list quite simply provided evidence of the planned and systematic abuse that had occurred under Ríos Montt’s command.
Antonio and his supporters went to court.
“When we were in the court building, we felt courageous because we had come face to face with Ríos Montt. For me it was an achievement and a victory because this is historic for a Maya person, for the Maya. Being in court, face to face with a soldier who can no longer claim immunity.”
The case was an historic one and, in January 2012, Ríos Montt was formally charged with ordering genocides at various places around the country. His lawyers, however, appealed the decision and the court is still considering the case.
At the same time, the country's current President, retired General Otto Pérez Molina, is trying to cover up the reality of the crimes, stating at the start of the year that no genocide ever took place.
“We hope that (Ríos Montt) is found guilty. They are trying to play for time. Ríos Montt has tried to lodge appeals and seek constitutional reviews to gain time but it is our hope that he will go to prison – even if only for five days -, because then it will go down in writing that General Efraín Ríos Montt was sent to prison by the victims of genocide.”