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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Historical memory 2: Cuarto de las Ausencias

When I started to plan out visiting memory sites in the capital, I wanted to go back to a small museum that I had visited about 3 years ago when I was starting to plan a study abroad program. Friends here had told me about a museum that had been established by the families of people who had been forcibly disappeared and whose names had appeared in the Diario Military -- the military archives that were made public in 1999, detailing the arrest and in many cases the ultimate fate of thousands of Guatemalans. The military kept records of many of these disappearances and extrajudicial killings, sometimes using code to indicate that they had killed someone. In most cases family members have not been able to recover the bodies, but the archives at least provide some degree of closure.

The museum was devoted to one man whose family had donated artifacts that they had kept -- clothing, books -- and I wanted to see it again. It was located in a small set of rooms just off the entrance of the headquarters of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation  (known as FAFG). FAFG are the people who have been documenting and exhuming the sites of mass graves and executions from the armed conflict. It is worth remembering that in Guatemala, being an anthropologist is often a hazardous occupation, especially if one's work relates to the armed conflict. Just ask the family of Myrna Mack Chang, assassinated by a military death squad in 1990 for her human rights advocacy. The staff of FAFG regularly receive death threats and there are armed guards at their headquarters (just for a reality check, there are armed guards at Café Barista, a chain of coffee shops). 

I asked a friend in Guatemala if she knew how to get in touch with the people running the museum. My recollection was that it was an all-volunteer operation. She couldn't recall the names but put me in touch with someone at FAFG. However, I decided to search through my emails, and it turns out one of the benefits of having tens of thousands of saved messages  is that occasionally I can find important information by trolling through my email. I couldn't remember the name of the museum or the name of the person who was staffing the museum and had given me a tour, but I eventually found an email exchange that included his phone number. I called Don Salomon but, like many Guatemalans, he was no longer using the same phone number that he had given me in 2014, and so after apologizing to the person who answered that number, I sent an email. I wasn't very hopeful because although it seems over half the country has smart phones now, but Don Salomon answered very quickly, gave me his new number, but sadly told me that the Museum had closed because of lack of resources. It was privately funded through contributions and was run primarily by volunteer labor -- principally the family members of people who had appeared in the Diario Militar, like Don Salomon himself. Both of his brothers were disappeared by the military, at different times during the conflict.

However, he told me, there was another small museum that was in Zona 1, called "El Cuarto de las Ausencias" (the room of absences), and he would be happy to meet me there. Some time back, the folks from Prensa Comunitaria had arranged an exhibit at the Museo de Ferrocarril (the Railway Museum) based on the case of one of the victims of a forced disappearance, Marco Antonio Molina Thiessen. This sounded like it was something similar, but I was eager to see it. So, we arranged a time and he gave me the address, and at the appointed hour I made my way there.  It's just one room, in a building that was purchased by a Christian-sponsored network of radio schools and community-oriented radio stations, FGER, to be used as a "centro capacitación" -- a training center, where different groups can hold classes and workshops. 

The one-room museum, Don Salomon told me, was devoted to Luis de Lión, a Guatemalan poet and teacher who was disappeared by the military in the 1980s, but also to the memory of Daniel Pedro Mateo, a Q'anjob'al leader who was a friend of mine, and assassinated in 2013 for his opposition to the hydroelectric and other extractivist projects.

The room contained objects and furniture that had been provided by Luis de Lion's family -- some of which were his, and others were donations that were meant to be representative. A manual typewriter; books; clothing; a modest bedstead covered with a woven blanket. Clothes hung on a hook. A graduation certificate. Fragments of a life that evoke, as the title of the exhibit indicates, both presences and absences.


On the desk, photocopies of pages from the Diario Militar that confirmed the military's role in Luis de Lion's forced disappearance. A life interrupted. A poet who would never publish another verse. A teacher whose students were robbed. A brother, son, cousin. 

There are over 40,000 cases of forced disappearance.  This was the tactic used by the military in cities like the capital. In rural villages, the scorched earth campaign articulated in Plan Sofia and other places involved large-scale massacres and in many cases eliminating the entire village from the map (burning all the houses and crops, forcing any survivors into resettlement villages). This obviously couldn't work in the cities, and so the tactic was to pick off individuals -- such as leaders of student organizations or unions, or those who had spoken out publicly. Very few of them have been adjudicated in the courts. 

Not everyone who was disappeared was a poet or a leader, but who knows what would have become of those 40,000 if they had not been disappeared and killed? What kinds of engineers, agronomists, artists, laborers, teachers, leaders, cooks, union organizers, did Guatemala lose? 

The challenge for small museums like this is lack of support --as the experience of the Amancio Samuel Villatoro Foundation Museum demonstrates. I made a donation to the Cuarto de las Ausencias, but obviously one donation doesn't provide a budget. But if you're in Guatemala City, it's worth arranging a visit. I'll be happy to provide contact information (I'm a little hesitant about publishing it here, and there is no webpage for the Cuarto de las Ausencias).
                                    




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