Documenting oral testimony to create a written history to help people in isolated communities understand the full extent of the war crimes suffered in their country

As part of the ongoing REMHI (Recovery of Historical Memory) Project, several dioceses of the Catholic Church in Guatemala mobilized their members to collect testimonies from victims of state violence. These testimonies were compiled in a report used to return that history to the affected communities and individuals.

During Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, nearly 200,000 people were killed, disappeared or suffered other human rights abuses, primarily by state security forces. The REMHI Project began in 1994, one year before the 1995 Peace Accords, as an initiative of the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala, under the leadership of Archbishop Juan Gerardi. While a truth commission had been outlined as part of an earlier Peace Accord, it had not been established, and the church felt that the commission would be unable to meet expectations due to ex­treme divisions and the degree of violence suffered by the society.

REMHI therefore decided to use the structure of the church and the enormous network of people associated with it to open a space for dialogue on the violence, and to facilitate the work of a future truth commission. The church publicized the project through posters, flyers and radio spots. Each participating parish nominated two parishio­ners as “facilitators of reconciliation.” REMHI’s approach differed from other reconciliation efforts in its grassroots mobilization of individuals, especially victims of the violence, who often served as facilitators. Across the country, close to 800 facilitators collected and analyzed testimonies from 5,000–7,000 people who had suffered violence, torture or the loss of a family member. Since the violence was ongoing, the collection of testimonials was carried out at great risk to the church and its members.

Analysis of the testimonies demonstrated that state security forces were responsible for most of the human rights abuses during the war. A final report, Guatemala: Never Again, was released in four volumes and presented to the public on April 24, 1998. Tragically, Archbishop Gerardi was assassinated two days after the report was released; military personnel were later convicted for his death.

Despite the Archbishop’s death, many of the same facilitators have continued the project. They have presented participating communities with project results, helping place individual and community experiences into a histor­ical and national context. When translations become available in local languages, participants are given copies of a popularized version of the report, meant to be read aloud in group discussions. From the report, they learn that what happened to them was not their fault and that it happened to many throughout the country. Facilitators have also assisted communities in their reconciliation efforts, contributing to the construction of a culture of peace by promoting nonviolent methods to resolve conflict. This process has occurred in conjunction with the ongoing ex­humations and reburial of victims’ remains, which form an important part of the healing process in Mayan culture. REMHI has also contributed to work of the Guatemalan truth commission (the Commission for Historical Clarifi­cation), supporting witnesses and the participation of community organizations and providing testimony.

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

History is traditionally written by those in power. Victims of abuse — whether they are poor communities or civilians caught in the middle of a civil war — rarely have their say, even after the abuse has ended. A group in Guatemala brings isolated communities ravaged by war into the process of writing that war’s history. The con­crete outcome of the work was a written report, but the report’s creation began a process of reconciliation at the local level and gave a voice to people who would otherwise have remained silent.

REMHI’s tactic could be used to facilitate or contribute to the work of a truth commission in other countries, or could be used in situations where no truth commission exists, or where those most affected by human rights abuses cannot participate in processes like commissions and litigation.

In Guatemala this tactic was effective largely because of the extensive institutional structure and reach of the Catholic Church. Without a pre-existing, trusted network it would be difficult to gather personal stories on this scale. Funding is also necessary; in Guatemala, financial resources were limited and work was distributed among the individual dioceses.

This tactic can be risky. Many of the human rights violators remain in positions of authority in the army and government, and the army and paramilitaries have responded with threats and even assassinations of those associated with the project.