War and peace in Guatemala
posted on Tuesday, March 31, 2009 01:45 AM
Have you ever wondered what a country looks like after it has been in a 36 year civil war (1960-1996) in which 200,000 people were killed and over 90% of which died or disappeared as a result of actions by security forces? Well, such is the case with Guatemala.
I am visiting to attend the GKEN health conference 1st to 3rd April in Antigua but as always when I go on a long trip to a conference or something, I try to add some days before and after to get to know the place better and in this case, will go on to Costa Rica where I plan to have a vacation or “well earned rest!” as I prefer to describe it to my friends – much to their bemusement and mockery I should add.
Guatemala City has at its centre, an extraordinary green palace built in 1943 to satisfy the vanity of one of its many dictators. The `pargue central and cathederal are pretty fine too and would be more so, were it not for the constant smell of wee streaming out of the underground sewage system. But despite the much publicised crime which makes it difficult to go out especially in the evening, I quickly developed a liking for the City and like many things about this country, you get a powerful sense that the country is on the turn, and very much for the better.
A downside about the city is the numerous shops, stores, garages all designed to service in one way or another, the motor car. Official statistics show that agriculture is by far the biggest sector in the economy and others like tourism is on the rise but if anyone bothered to isolate figures for servicing vehicles, I am sure they would discover this is the boom business in Guatemala. The black soot steaming from the back of every bus shows this country has a long way to go to help win the battle against climate change, or public health for that matter.
After the capital city, I went north to the beautiful island town of Flores which acts as the perfect hub for seeing the magnificent Mayan ruins at Tikal. This is a must see for everyone interested in ancient history and they are the best such temple ruins I have seen anywhere outside Ankor in that other war torn country, Cambodia. Best of all, it is thought that less than half of the Mayan peoples heritage has yet been discovered with most still hidden away in the vast jungle region of Petan.
Often when I go to a new country for the first time, I get a sixth sense of it being like somewhere else I have been to, almost like a flash back. For me, Guatemala feels a little like Java in Indonesia. The villages look a little similar and both countries have a deep history and seem to be somewhere on par when it comes to their level of economic development.
Beauty and indigenous culture aside, how, I wonder, did the long war, the torturing, the disappearances affect the people of the present day. I grew up in Northern Ireland where we had our own long conflict which lasted for 30 years and at the costs of over 3,000 lives. I know what a strain this had on my country, the engrained fear that almost numbs the senses of its people. Indeed it was only after the troubles ended did we realise just how much pressure and even depression we were collectively under. But what, I wonder, must it have felt like to lose not 3,000 plus people in a conflict but 200,000 in a full blooded civil war? The 1996 agreement between the government forces and guerrillas must have been tough to negotiate but the long term affect of such a conflict could surely not be easy to blow away.
Today, Guatemala is steeped in crime, drug trafficking and poverty. Its people are serious and conservative and whilst fun and friendly, somehow lack the happy-go-lucky spirit that you find amongst many peoples of the Americas. I am not sure I yet know the answer to my question but I do sense that for all its difficulties, things here are getting better. This is a beautiful country with a long deep history and definitely given me a desire to learn more. Tomorrow I go to the city of Antigua which has been recognised as a UNESCO Heritage site. I am sure it will be quite special too.