NumbJanuary 1, 2005
The chorus for a song from Linkin Park (a rock and hip-hop collaborative band) starts out, “I’ve become so numb….” This one, short line played over and over again in my mind as I sat in a small hotel room nestled amongst the streets of Antigua, Guatemala and listened as the group I was with spent time reflecting on their day. It was a rough day; a day where all of our emotions were tested and our hearts were opened bare to one of the pulsating pains of Guatemala.
Sometimes you just have to go numb to sift through and elevate yourself above the pain and suffering that, if allowed, will run rampant upon your soul. This thought first came to my mind as I sat surrounded by a group from the United States in the corridor-like office building of a Guatemalan human rights organization that works with what are most simply referred to as “desaparicidos” or, the English equivalent, people who just disappeared during Guatemala's 36 year internal armed conflict. The office’s walls are plastered with photos from the Guatemalan “cedulas” (documents of identification) that have been blown up and feature the date that person disappeared and the phrase “¿Dondé lo/la tiene?” (Where do you have him/her?). We had entered this office through a non-descript door that seemed appropriately all by itself adorned with only a number for the address. This portal as one might call it, resides in a building that does not bear any special features on the outside but when we entered, it was like entering another world, a world beneath the skin. It felt as if we were entering into a longing heart, a heart that for years has felt the pain of the world.
The director of the organization sat beneath two of those pictures of the disappeared and by his side, sat doña Emilia. If you had just entered the room you might have missed her sitting next to him for she is small and quiet but it takes only a few seconds to be able to feel her presence around you. And when she begins to speak her words are soft and gentle but carry a weight behind them that is undeniable. Again, I saw how the stature of a person has nothing to do with their strength and character. She has been looking for her son for 21 years ever since he disappeared from her life during the war. 21 years of torture, of not knowing whether he is dead or alive, of wondering in the night, of searching. With the great amounts of torture that were perpetrated during the war, this might be the worst one. The mental torture for those families who still don’t know what happened to their loved ones. The director of the organization spoke quickly as he tried to cram all the information that he could into the minutes that we had together. Images of families identifying their loved ones in mass graves by a shoe, or a jacket, or a belt danced around in my mind. His description of how a mining company in the 70s and 80s committed such heinous acts of violence and malevolence that they were looked upon as a “mancha de terror” (stain of terror) stabbed into my soul. There was so much to tell, so much to share, so many tears that can never be taken back. Again, sometimes you just have to go numb to hear these stories. But in many ways only “we” can do that. For these families, these individuals, for this entire country, this is the way of life. If the people knew, if they could see the bodies of their loved ones, if there were at least somebody who they could hold responsible, maybe they could find a little closure. but as the director said, “it is only the victims who can forgive but if they don’t know who is responsible…” and I will finish that thought, if they don’t know who is responsible then who can they blame or who can they forgive. It was amazing to me that he used the word forgive without hesitation. In Guatemala, after 36 years of civil war, no one has been officially charged with the massacres, the disappearances, the violence, the pain that so many still suffer…and yet, they still talk of forgiveness. If that is not the word of an incredible group of people then I don’t know any other way to describe so many of the Guatemalans that I get the privilege to meet and work with. Some things are so hard to put into words.
And so I found myself sitting on the floor back in Antigua and staring at the cracked lines etched into a small dresser while my mind, my heart went numb as we relived the words we had heard earlier that morning and as people shared. The room became full of emotions especially as one woman shared how her son-in-law had been killed on 9/11 but, as opposed to so many cases here in Guatemala, they had found his body, they had been able to say goodbye. It was so hard to hear that, to think about the correlation between that act of terrorism and the life here in Guatemala. To think about how 9/11 started a war in Iraq that I can’t help but find similar to the Guatemalan war in that, how many families in Iraq do not know where there loved ones are? How many have died and are buried in mass graves that years from now will be uncovered but currently are hidden from sight…and mind. The pain that this woman and every one of us shared that day, that evening was so colossal that again, I had to go numb.
It’s easy to just write about the amazing adventures that I have, to show pictures of my latest trek down to the beautiful lakeshores of Atitlan, to look at photos of the smiling children that I see all the time, to hide from the feelings that charge up behind me like a bull. Going numb is not an escape from those feelings, they are still there, and they still exist. It is just a strategic tactic for living life in the blood stained mountains, on the treacherous roadways, and in the longing hearts of Guatemala.
Paul Pitcher is a missionary with the Christian Action of Guatemala (ACG). He serves as a communication and youth worker with ACG.
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