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Exclusive Update

Chiapas Front Report

by Wendy Courtemanche


I arrived in Chiapas in late July just as Subcomandante Marcos broke his silence of nearly five months with the release of several comuniques, including the Fifth Declaration of the Lacandon Selva [jungle]. This declaration calls for a national consultation over the COCOPA proposal to implement the San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture, and put to rest rumors promoted by the Mexican military that the EZLN was preparing an imminent military offensive, rumors obviously useful to the Mexican government in justifying the militarization of a state where 70,000 soldiers are currently deployed.

On the heels of this news, I left San Cristóbal for the Las Abejas community of Acteal, site of the December 22 massacre of 45 unarmed indigenous men, women and children, where I would spend two weeks as a peace camp observer. The anxiety of this early morning journey, heightened by a stop at one of the many military and immigration checkpoints along the winding mountain road, was dispelled as we arrived in Acteal at daybreak. I was immediately impressed by the remarkable beauty of the surrounding countryside, with the view of seemingly endless mountains receding into hazy blue, enveloped by the morning mist. Somehow I had not expected to encounter such beauty here, in this place whose name has come to be associated with such terrible grief and loss.

I was also surprised to discover that the small house for the campamentistas (peace camp observers) was the very same building that had served as the chapel during the time of the massacre. Its rough walls are still scarred by bullet holes from the shooting that began here as the community was gathered in prayer. In this site at the far end of the village where the ravine sharply slopes down to the river, I would spend two uneasy nights alone, grateful for the subsequent arrival of additional campamentistas.

During this two week period, various community members would come forward to share their stories of the massacre and its impact on their lives, including some individuals who had lost as many as nine family members. It was obvious that many people in Acteal are still unable to move beyond the memory of this tragedy. They spoke of their continued tristeza (sadness) and their difficulty sleeping at night. They spoke of their inability to work, living here as desplazados (displaced persons), separated from their homes and their land. They spoke of their fear of the paramilitaries who still live only a mile away.

The daily life here, in a community comprised of 400 displaced persons (in the municipality of Chenalhó one-third of the total population is made up of displaced persons)is not easy. Rough shelters of wood and plastic house as many as 30 persons, four family groups, together. Nonpotable water is trucked in by the Mexican Red Cross, and intestinal and respiratory infections are commonplace. In a region with a 51% illiteracy rate, the children have been without a functioning school since December. Throughout the day frequent truckloads of soldiers and seguridad publica pass on the road in front of the community, evidence of the existing ratio of one soldier for each 12 persons living in Chenalhó.

In spite of all this, life here is not characterized by a sense of despair. There is a strong religious faith, expressed through frequent services of prayer, music and singing. The children, shy but also playful and industrious, were willing teachers of their native language, Tzotzil. The women continue to weave their distinctive traditional dress with plans to open a weaving cooperative in the near future. And one of the highlights of life here for us as campamentistas, were the hikes down the steep path to the river and its rocky waterfalls to bathe and wash clothes, as indigenous women still do in much of Chiapas, where running water is often an unknown luxury.

I came away from this experience feeling privileged for the chance to share in the lives of these people who have suffered so much but continue to have hope for the future. They spoke to us of their gratitude for our presence there with them, which they see as providing a measure of protection to their community as well as tangible evidence that they are not alone in their struggles. In a small way I felt that we were able to help carry with them their burden of uncertainty and sadness as well as their flame of hope for a future in which democracy, freedom, and justice exist.

  Wendy Courtemanche is a nurse living in the Triangle area.  

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