You Are Not Alone
By Barbara Fullerton
Barbara Fullerton is an ordained minister serving with St. Paul’s United Church in Paris, Ontario. She serves on the communications and executive committees of the United for Mining Justice network.
Roosters crowing in the distance and a dove-like bird call gently roused me at 5:30 from nine hours of much needed sleep. A diverse chorus of other chirping birds gradually joined them, reminding me that I was in a bird-lover’s paradise. Workers arriving at the hotel compound on motorbikes stirred other creatures; a cheerful cacophony of barking erupted as our room began to brighten. I pulled back the curtains to let in the fresh breeze and headed to coffee on the dockside open-dining patio, where glistening reflections from the waves on Lake Izabal danced on the roof thatch.
The idyllic setting was a surreal counterpoint to the stories we were about to hear; stories of people in this and nearby communities impacted by international corporations that gained access to their ancestral lands through concessions or licenses arranged with the Guatemalan government. After breakfast, we heard a quick history lesson on a succession of mining companies, beginning with Canada’s INCO, followed by Vancouver-based Sky Resources, then Hudbay Minerals, which eventually sold to a Russian company which is now gearing up to begin operating.
We met in the home of Maria Choc, a member of the El Estor human rights defender work team (equipo defensora). We gathered in a circle, under a tin roof awning supported by wood posts, with about a dozen leaders from surrounding communities. To one side, young women washed and cut up newly slaughtered chickens at a utility sink.
Maria welcomed us to her home and introduced us to her children who were busy making lunch and doing laundry. Shortly after, one of them emerged from the bush with an armload of sticks gathered for the cooking fire. They worked quietly on the periphery of the circle or in the kitchen, just off the open-air meeting space.
Before opening the tri-lingual meeting with prayer, Pastor Lorenzo la Union greeted us in Spanish, though he speaks mostly Q’eqchi. This was followed by a Pentecost experience as nearly thirty of us – women, children, and men – each prayed in our own language, most of us unable to understand the loudly-voiced supplications and expressions of gratitude swirling around us. The wood fire smoke wisping over us likely helped keep mosquitoes at bay, but being bathed in it also reminded me of Aboriginal smudging ceremonies, giving me a sense of being in a holy gathering, in a holy place. For me, it was a deeply spiritual experience.
The welcome and introductions led by Maria and her sister, Angelica Choc, took an hour and a half — precious, but necessary, time for all of us to have a sense of who was gathered there. Both women and their co-worker Raul are well-known (and harassed) for their roles in the equipo defensora. The names of those who risked attending from communities are not listed here to avoid the possibility of reprisals.
The pastor expressed appreciation for the name of our “United” church several times that morning. He said the name is significant since religion is so often used to divide people.
During the morning, we heard stories of assault, rape, and killing beginning over fifty years ago when mining first arrived in El Estor.
We heard testimonies of a series of events on Sunday, 27 September 2009, the day Adolfo Ich, beloved teacher, community leader, husband and father, was killed in front of his son.
As we heard of desperate mothers foraging for food for hungry kids, our young guide and his cousins – the hungry kids of that awful time – climbed the ladder to the luggage rack on the roof of our bus. I thought “kids being kids,” a sort of comic relief to the tragic account we were hearing. But no, the ring leader was on task as photographer of the gathering and had climbed up to get a better view of the whole scene, snapping photos from his lofty vantage point. Later, he and two other boys returned to the roof of the bus just for fun, dancing and showing off, the two older ones protecting the younger from getting too close to the edge.
As her sister talks, Adolfo’s widow Angelica combs through another woman’s long hair, pulling it up in a bun to be cooler as the heat of the day increases. They carry on caring for each other in every day acts of kindness, even as they relive life-shattering moments of horrific violence.
The women tell of an alleged gang rape by nine to eleven police men on each of eleven women. These women eventually decided to seek justice in Canada since no case was ever heard on their behalf in Guatemala. When the police to whom you are to report violence are the same police who evicted you from your home, where do you turn? Some of their husbands were with us in the circle.
I will share accounts of the achievements of this committed work team; of the eleven women and others working with them who have lost their fear as they prepare for their testimony in a Canadian court; of Herman, who was paralyzed on that fateful September Sunday and has launched his own case in Canada; of Adolfo Ich, who was killed that day.
We were commissioned to take these stories and others we have heard during our time here: “Go to your communities like we went to ours.” We are already doing that through this blog, even before we go home. And we will use other means of sharing their stories and advocating for justice, including the new United for Mining Justice network. Check out our Facebook page and new blog to connect the situation in Guatemala with that in the Philippines, Tanzania and other African countries, as well as across Canada.
In words that begin and end our United Church of Canada “New Creed”, we are not alone. Friends in El Estor, you are not alone. We are in this together.