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April 2001

SURVIVORS, NOT VICTIMS

by Adriana Portillo-Bartow

Travel poster from Guatemala
I am not a victim. I am a survivor of gross human rights violations. My presence, the fact that I am able to speak for myself, makes me a survivor.

I am from Guatemala, one of the most beautiful countries on earth, not only because of its breathtaking natural beauty, but also because of its culture and its people. I am also a mother who, for 18 years, has lived without knowing the truth about the whereabouts of her two oldest daughters, who were 9 and 10 at the moment of their kidnapping and disappearance by Guatemalan security forces.  I have made it my mission to find the whereabouts, not only of my children, but also of more than 5,000 other children who disappeared in Guatemala during 36 years of civil war.

Governmental Terrorism

One day in July 1991, while I was watching the news and doing chores around the house, I saw on TV how a house in a residential area in the capital city was being bombed and destroyed. That military operation involved over 1,000 officers of the security forces of the Guatemalan government, as well as tanks and helicopters. When the smoke of the bombs cleared, the press was let inside the house and presented with the bodies of eight people, five men and three women. The body of my 23-year-old brother was one of them. That night under cover of darkness, the army buried the bodies at a public cemetery in Guatemala City.

Six weeks later, my sister-in-law, her two young children ų babies really ų and I arrived from our hometown to my father‚s home in the capital to celebrate my nephew‚s birthday, only to discover that my 70-year-old father had been kidnapped from his former place of work and that my stepmother, my 18-year-old sister-in-law, my 18-month-old baby sister and my two daughters had been kidnapped and disappeared in operations carried out by the national police, the military police, the Guatemalan army and the secret police. They have never been seen or heard from again. They remain part of that long, long list of men, women and children who disappeared in Guatemala.

I do not remember most of what happened that afternoon, but I do remember, with incredible clarity, the interrogation by Guatemalan security forces at my father‚s house. They wanted to know who I was, where I was coming from, what I was doing there, who lived in the house, even if I had seen my father‚s dog before.

One minute they would tell me, „Please come inside, your family is inside the house.š The next, they would tell me, „To be honest with you, they aren‚t here. They are probably on the way back to your town, and you‚ve just crossed paths.š One moment they would say, „Please don‚t be afraid to come inside. We‚re not going to do anything to you because you have children.š The next, they would tell me, „You know what the truth is. We really don‚t know what you‚re talking about. We don‚t know about the people in this house.š

Later that day, we heard from the news the official version of what had happened at my father‚s house and at his former place of work Ų that a guerrilla house had been found full of arms, material to make bombs and subversive materials. My family was never seen again.

Legacies of the „Mistakeš

Guatemalan flag
The flag of Guatemala

The war ended three years ago (spoken in 1999) with the signing of a final peace accord. This war, the cruelest and longest war in Latin America, devastated the country at all levels: It destroyed the economy. It destroyed the social fabric. And it produced a legacy of more than 200,000 people either killed or disappeared.

In March 1999,  President Clinton was in Guatemala and acknowledged that the involvement of the United States in what had happened  in our country since 1954 had been a „mistakeš that must never be repeated. The „mistakeš President Clinton referred to had produced a horrible and painful legacy. In addition to those who were killed or disappeared, a million and a half people were displaced inside and outside the country. There were 626 massacres and a quarter of a million widows and orphans. Had that „mistakeš taken place on the same scale in the United States, it would have produced a legacy of 3.5 million people killed, 1.5 million disappeared, 37.5 million people displaced, 7.5 million widows and orphans, 15,650 massacres and more than 11,000 small towns destroyed, erased from the face of the earth.

The Internet as a Human Rights Tool/Anti-Human Rights Weapon

For a people whose suffering throughout 36 years of war was almost totally ignored by the international media, imagine what it means to have instant global communications. Imagine what it means to have the Internet. Long gone are the days when all the information that the international community had came from the Guatemalan military and its international allies.

It‚s hard for us, as survivors of the war, to get access to the economic resources that, in turn, allow access to the Internet. Even so, the impacts have been tremendous. These are the most important for us:

We have been able to denounce atrocities against human rights workers, professionals, students, teachers, journalists, labor union members, peasants ų pretty much everyone in Guatemala ų almost immediately after they take place. Many lives have been saved, thanks to the Internet.

Furthermore, we have seen miracles, thanks to the Internet. One example is a nun who was kidnapped by a death squad from her retreat house close to the capital and taken to a clandestine torture chamber. Because of the Internet, her kidnapping and disappearance were almost immediately made known outside the country. That same day, thousands, even millions of people all over the world were working for her release, and the kidnappers held her for only 24 hours. It is one of the few cases in which people have come back from death to tell the truth and share their ordeal.

Another good thing about the Internet is our ability to educate the international community and the general public on an ongoing basis about critical issues and to generate support for our plight. For example, the Where Are the Children Project is working to locate the children who disappeared in Guatemala. We are working on a Web site that will enable us to make the world aware of what happened to them, but it will also give us access to information about their possible whereabouts. It is believed that a lot of the children who were kidnapped by the army or who survived the massacres of their towns were given up for adoption illegally to families in foreign countries. Because of the anonymity the Internet provides, we hope some perpetrators and kidnappers will feel compelled to come forward and tell us what happened. Maybe there is someone out there who knows what happened to my children and baby sister.

In terms of the Internet, a third good thing is that anyone interested in human rights issues around the world can access information about a country of particular interest, including information that otherwise would not be available. For example, the United Nations Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification: Conclusions and Recommendations, „Guatemala, Memory of Silenceš is 3,600 pages long. There are only three copies in Guatemala, and people there could not have access if it were not on the Internet.

Another example comes to mind: Manuals used by the School of the Americas to train Latin American soldiers, officers and government officials in counterinsurgency campaigns. Because of the Internet, we know the extent of the training they received. We know about interrogation techniques they were taught. We know other means of control taught at the School of the Americas.

Of course, not everything about the Internet is wonderful, and  that problem is tied to the issue of privacy: The  Internet can be used against human rights activists. The oppressors, the killers, the kidnappers and the torturers also have access to the Internet. I subscribed to a bulletin board for Guatemalans, a place where everybody can send their thoughts, ideas, comments and criticism. Well, criminals also subscribed to the list, and it‚s common to read their death threats against human rights activists and people in exile.

Continuing Role of the Press

There still is a role for the press to play in the defense of human rights. Perhaps in some developed countries like Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, the Internet has pushed aside the media, but that is not the case in many other countries.

Most people in the smallest, poorest countries in Latin America do not have the economic resources to buy a computer. Their governments, of course, have such resources. In Guatemala, people rely on the responsible, conscientious press to know what is happening including those people who do not know how to read--they still have a radio and listen to the news. A lot of people have televisions, even if they are black and white, and they watch the news. Subsequently, there is a continuing role for the media to play in countries like mine.


Adriana Portillo-Bartow of Amnesty International is a lifelong advocate for human rights whose family fled their native El Salvador in the 1950s for Guatemala. Supported by the Sanctuary Movement, she came to the United States in 1985 after her children disappeared under the Guatemalan military regime. She heads the "Where Are the Children Project" that works to find the truth about Guatemalan children who disappeared.


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