By IPJ Program Officer Elena McCollim
Escaping the Fire: How an Ixil Mayan Pastor Led His People out of a Holocaust during the Guatemalan Civil War
By Tomás Guzaro and Terri Jacob McComb
University of Texas Press, 2010
In August 1982 at the peak of the violence in Guatemala’s highlands, an Ixil leader led 200 of his people out of their village where they were increasingly in danger for their lives, through rugged mountain terrain and ultimately to safety. Another 1,700 soon followed. The village they fled was under the control of leftist guerrillas, and the place he led them to was a refugee camp under army control.
Tomás Guzaro’s autobiographical account of these events runs startlingly counter to the more familiar narrative of the war years, and deserves to be read and grappled with for that reason if no other. A deeply devout evangelical pastor, Guzaro asserts his neutrality regarding the two contending forces, army and guerrilla. Yet the de facto effect of his actions was to deprive a principal guerrilla faction of support. His account of life under guerrilla control abounds with denunciations of it. In contrast, his description of his subsequent years in the town of Nebaj, the principal of the three towns in what was then called the Ixil Triangle, is one of comparative peace, even though the town was essentially following the notorious model village/development pole pattern used by the army to forcibly pacify the highlands: service in the “voluntary” civil defense patrols required of all able-bodied men, a strictly regimented way of life and anti-communist political indoctrination.
The events chronicled in this account were briefly mentioned in David Stoll’s Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala.[i] They took place in the department of Quiché, where 344 out of 669 massacres took place during the peak of the genocidal civil war in Guatemala, the majority of which were committed by the army. [ii] In Escaping the Fire, Guzaro gives us a highly personal narrative of intense emotions and collective action in search of peace and security in the midst of this horrifying conflict.
The book pivots on the question of how Mayans in one community perceived the guerrilla movement and whether their initial support of it was voluntary or forced, and to what extent their defection to the army was a product of desperation or ideological affinity. The book also touches on themes of judgment versus reconciliation, or at least coexistence; whether government legitimacy rests more on providing security or justice; the role of religion in economic advancement; and finally the validity of testimonio, that classically Latin American literary form.
The first-time visitor to the highlands of Guatemala may be startled to see the logo of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) seemingly on every tree and lamppost. After all, the right-wing FRG was founded in 1990 by Efraín Ríos Montt, who as general from 1982 to 1983 presided over some of the worst of the genocide in those very highlands.[iii] But the choices presented to Mayans during that period were stark. The overwhelming ferocity with which the Guatemalan army responded to popular organizing and guerrilla activity forced some into the mountains, where they became part of the legendary Communities of Population in Resistance, remaining there for years. Others accepted the amnesty offered by Ríos Montt even though it meant living in model villages and serving in civil patrols. The latter was the choice made by Guzaro and the villagers who followed him.
Escaping the Fire is a compelling if in many ways difficult account of faith, survival and ultimate flourishing despite great suffering. As an alternate account of a crucial period in Guatemala’s recent history, it is highly worthwhile. It is recommended reading for anyone wishing to grapple with the complexity of responses to the war and a challenging postwar environment.
For the full book review, please contact Elena McCollim at email@example.com.
[i] Stoll, D. (1993). Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala. New York: Columbia University Press. Stoll’s later book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of all Poor Guatemalans, provoked a well-known controversy when it was published in 1999. This review is not the space to revisit that controversy, except to acknowledge the contrasting political perspective and experiences of Guzaro and Menchú – differences that mirror some larger splits in a divided society.
[ii] Commission on Historical Clarification, 1999, Guatemala: Memory of Silence. Available at: http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ceh/report/english/graphics/charts/page86.gif [Accessed July 30, 2010.] According to the CEH report, 93 percent of human rights violations were committed by agents of the state; 3 percent by the guerrillas; and 4 percent by civilian elements or other armed groups.
[iii] Ríos Montt stands today accused of genocide before a Spanish court. The Guatemala Genocide Case. Center for Justice and Accountability. [Online] Available at http://www.cja.org/article.php?list=type&type=83. [Accessed July 30, 2010].