The victim asks the bystander to share the burden of pain.  The victim demands action, engagement and remembering. … To hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and that joins victim and witness in a common alliance. … In the absence of strong political movements for human rights, the active process of bearing witness inevitably gives way to the active process of forgetting.

–Dr. Judith Herman, “Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence –from domestic abuse to political terror”

I was recently invited to Washington, D.C. by the Partners for Arlington in Guatemala (PAG), a project of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA (UUCA).   Reading Dr. Herman’s book on the way home, I was reflecting on the power of bearing witness and what that really looked like in the community I’d just visited. 

UUCA-PAG is one of nine Sponsoring Communities in NISGUA’s network that support accompaniers to work in Guatemala.  As a Sponsoring Community they contribute to the efficacy of accompaniment as a tool to dissuade human rights violations.  In addition to financially and morally supporting individual accompaniers, UUCA-PAG educates their local community, takes action in the face of ongoing human rights violations, advocates for just US policies in the region and agitates against transnational mining corporations.  If each of us is a granito, an individual grain of sand doing our part, then Sponsoring Communities like UUCA-PAG are buckets of sand, adding more volume and weight to the human rights and social justice movements.

Chris and John Sutton from UUCA-PAG

UUCA’s international solidarity work is made more powerful by the work they engage in locally.  VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) includes the church in a coalition of over 50 organizations organizing to build community power.  Their current campaign is affordable housing.  Visiting the church during a mid-week evening, one could see numerous meetings and study groups happening; the one I visited was a group formed to study the issue of immigration.  During Sunday service, the high school youth group talked about their upcoming national assembly and likened strategies of allying with immigrants to accompaniment work.  UUCA has also been developing a relationship with their neighbors in Buckingham Village, a housing complex with a large immigrant community.  As Buckhingham residents don’t have access to land for cultivating, a growing number of UUCA members have been loaning their yards and gardens.  Guatemalans who come from rural farmworker origins are growing corn and other crops in suburban Arlington, VA.

I was struck by the many different facets of solidarity the church is engaged in and was honored to meet the activists of this community who actively work in allyship with the Guatemalans we accompany. 

Almost everyone I spoke to had either visited Guatemala, met an accompanier or was otherwise educated on the issues facing Guatemala today.  Together, we were able to celebrate recent victories in the fight for justice for crimes of the past, while strategizing on how accompaniment will face the challenges presented by the current administration of Gen. Otto Perez Molina.  There was great concern expressed about President Pérez Molina’s statements denying that genocide had ever taken place in Guatemala.

After those discussions, on the plane back to Guatemala, this passage from “Trauma and Recovery” resonated with me:

In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting.  Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense.  If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of the victim.  If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.  To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blunt detail to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization.  After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on.  The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.

It is a powerful responsibility to bear witness and stand with survivors who today continue to fight against historical amnesia.  To hear the demands and testimony of Guatemalans we accompany compels us to amplify those demands, to counteract the secrecy and lies of the perpetrators and to build movements in alliance with them.  To honor this responsibility requires many levels of commitment and action, many granitos de arena, many grains of sand and we look forward to engaging in that work with UUCA-PAG in Arlington and all the people involved in NISGUA’s sponsoring community, former accompaniers and activist network.

To participate in a house party screening of “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” to support NISGUA’s work, please contact us.

Staff member Bridget Brehen works in NISGUA’s Guatemala City office.