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Friday, August 26, 2005


One of the things that has most affected who I have become is my work with Volunteers in Mission (VIM), an outreach of the United Methodist Church. Between 1995 and 2000 I took three one-week trips to Latin America for construction projects. I helped work on a hospital in Costa Rica, two houses in Mexico, and a church in Guatemala.

The Guatemala trip was the biggest eye opener. That nation had recently ended a 36-year civil war. We traveled to a small mountain town called San Juan Cotzal to help rebuild the local Methodist church, which had been destroyed in the war. During the late 1970s and early 1980s Cotzal was one of the hot spots of the fighting. Guerrillas used the nearby mountains as a base of operations, and the villagers of Cotzal were caught in the crossfire as both the guerrillas and the Guatemalan army suspected the villagers of aiding the other side.

I've written about my Guatemala experiences in The Long Trip Home webzine, but I'm going to talk about something here that I only alluded to in that article.

[wall of martyrs]One afternoon we visited the Wall of Martyrs in the local Catholic church. Each cross represents one Cotzal resident who was a victim. The cross contains the person's name and age, the date, and one of the four designations: tortured, kidnapped, murdered, or disappeared. The victims were as old as 70 and as young as five. I counted more than 400 crosses, representing approximately one in every ten Cotzal residents. Almost everyone in that village can see a relative's name on that wall.

To have a relative kidnapped, tortured, or murdered would be horrible. I can't even imagine what it would be like. But even more chilling is to have a relative disappeared. To be disappeared is to be kidnapped by government agents and transported to an undisclosed location. In a very small number of cases, the person is taken to a prison and placed in solitary confinement for several years, then released back to the family. But in more than 99% of the cases, the person is murdered and the body disposed in an isolated area far from the kidnap scene.

Family members can hope their relative is still alive, but they will inevitably expect the worst. If the body is not found, they will never know. The police will not investigate, though they likely know the murderers. Appeals to courts will not be successful; the courts are part of the same corrupt government that ordered the disapperances. A disappearance makes victims of the entire family.

I'm grateful to live in a country where disappearances do not happen as a matter of routine. Millions of people around the world are not so fortunate.

I'd like to find a way to end this post on a hopeful note, but I'm not sure it's possible.


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