Shining Light Into Dark Corners

USC Shoah Foundation and FAFG co-launch a testimony project to shine light on the Guatemalan Genocide of the early 1980s.
ByRob Kuznia

USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education has teamed with La Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG), a Guatemalan forensics organization, to collect video testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Guatemalan Genocide. In the early 1980s, some 200,000 civilians were killed, mainly indigenous Mayans, at the hands of a military junta whose leader was convicted of genocide and war crimes in May 2013.

The partnership between USC Shoah Foundation and FAFG — which also goes by Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala — marks the first academic oral history project connected to this Cold War-era conflict, which is among the least publicly understood genocidal events in modern times.

In addition to the testimony project with FAFG, USC Shoah Foundation will host an international academic conference next year on the Guatemalan Genocide through its research unit, the Center for Advanced Genocide Research. Scheduled for Sept. 12-14, 2016, “Genocide and Resistance in Guatemala” will precede the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Guatemalan peace accords ending the civil war in December 1996.

USC Shoah Foundation and FAFG have coordinated a pilot project that to date has collected 10 video interviews from Guatemalan survivors and witnesses. These testimonies are now with USC Shoah Foundation and are being preserved and indexed. All the interviews in this collection are being conducted in Spanish and will be added to USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, a repository of 53,000 video testimonies of genocide survivors and witnesses available in full to scholars, educators and the general public at subscribing institutions.

The two organizations are raising funds to gather 150 additional testimonies from survivors and witnesses whose lives were upended by village massacres and mysterious “disappearances” carried out in the name of stamping out a perceived communist threat. The interviews will be conducted both in Guatemala and with survivors now living in the United States.

“This pilot project is a reminder to the Americas that genocide also happens in the Western Hemisphere,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of USC Shoah Foundation. “By capturing these stories,we are shining light into dark corners, and helping to prevent this history from fading into oblivion.”

FAFG has spent the past 20 years locating and unearthing mass graves and carrying out forensic investigations into the killings of the rural villagers. The organization is now broadening its focus to include oral-history collections with the help of USC Shoah Foundation because relatives of the deceased have long communicated to FAFG workers their desire to share the harrowing stories they’ve lived with for decades.

“Until we approached many of these families to fill out surveys for our fieldwork, no authority had ever asked them about the horrors they’d witnessed, so there has been a real hunger on their part to break the silence,” said Fredy Peccerelli, director of FAFG.

The Guatemalan Genocide happened between 1981 and 1983 during a civil war that raged from 1960 to 1996. At the time, the Cold War was at its peak, and military leaders waged a scorched earth campaign to wipe out entire Mayan villages under the guise of rooting out a rebellion of leftist Marxist guerillas. Bearing the brunt of the brutalities were the Ixil Indians, one of more than a dozen ethnic subsets of Guatemalan Mayans, who lost nearly 90 percent of their villages in the raids.

The international academic conference at USC next year is being co-organized by Professor of History Wolf Gruner — the founding director of the Center for Advanced Genocide Research — and Victoria Sanford, founding director of the Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies at Lehman College, City University of New York.

“The Guatemalan Genocide was a humanitarian catastrophe that has been forgotten and ignored far too long,” Gruner said. “We embark on these Guatemalan projects in hopes they not only preserve a measure of memory, but also bring overdue dignity to the victims — both living and dead. In addition, we hope our conference sheds more light on the conditions that lead to genocide, as well as on acts of resistance, so the world can better understand the development of mass violence.”