Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 7 No. 1 | Spring 1985

reaching the edge of town. He made it clear to us that the countryside is by no means secure, even if the surrounding hills are completely defoliated. No one is permitted to live outside the model village area, giving the army a tactical advantage in the hills. There is an.impressive new road that links the model villages of Acul and Tzal- bal with the larger center of Nebaj. The Guatemalan Army Engineer Brigade is responsible for the project. They are using heavy equipment to carve a road along the steep, severely-eroded mountainsides. In order to complete the road quickly, the army is using modern construction technology instead of relying on the physical labor of local civilians, as it has in other communities. Progress is substantial. Road construction from Tzal- bal began in February and already extends about four kilometers. There are serious problems with washouts caused by heavy rains and defoliated hillsides. Plans are to extend the road to Barrillas, Huehuetenango, through the burned-out Ixil communities of Palob and Sumal, which are also slated to be recontructed into model villages. Because there are few civilians working on the road construction, the guerrillas who remain in the hills are constantly har- rassing the army brigade construction crew with gunfire. At times the harrass- ment has been crushing. Salquil lies 12 kilometers north of Tzalbal. We left for this remote hamlet with a civil patrol at 7:00 a.m. A squad of six soldiers joined us on the new army road and took us down the valley to the Rio Sichel. The terrain got rugged as soon as we left the road. We descended a few hundred feet to the riverbed. No one liked being down by the river any longer than it took to cross the rocks. An ambush was very possible. Earlier in the morning, the squad had exchanged gunfire with guerrillas. We stopped well above the danger zone, about 150 feet beyond the riverbed. Here we would wait for- the patrol from Salquil to take us there. Civil patrol members took defensive positions along the hillside, and the soldiers sat with us at the lead. We waited and talked for two hours. We fought off the ants and learned about the G3HI rifle, the Israeli-made standard issue in the Guatemalan Army. We talked with Miguel, the squad leader, about the mountain war and asked if they had managed to capture any subversives. “Oh yes,” he said. “We've gotten a whole bunch. The population too. Refugees. Each time we go out we take maybe 50 or 60 away from them. You know, the ones who have helped them by working.... Well, this is what we’re living. We’ve got to take the population away from them. That way they don’t get any help from the people. Because the people are the ones who feed them and all that. These people are foolish. All the people from around here. They’re always with the guerrillas, you know. But other people, like those from the Oriente or the coast, those don’t. It’s very rare that you’ll find people there with the guerrillas. Only in the province of Quiche.... Well, maybe they don’t understand. It's very easy to fool them. But yes, we have taken away much, much of the population. And then when we take them, we do an investigation. And they talk. And then they take us and show us where the other family members are. Right?” Miguel got on his radio to find our escort. He told us that the trip from the river to Salquil would be grueling. The next seven-kilometers would be straight up and done quickly. The escort finally arrived. We were surprised to see thirty soldiers. We had expected half a dozen.' They were heavily armed with automatic weapons, grenades and mortars. We left the civil patrol behind and started our ascent to Salquil. The trail was a vertical plane from the river to what seemed to be the heavens. We hiked quickly, in total silence. If one of us fell behind, a handful of soldiers would fall back, urging us on. Evidence of the earlier days appeared along the path—rural dwellings now burnouts, farmland cut down into wasted fields. Nobody anywhere, except for a single farmer we saw along the way. He was tending a field with a few tufts of corn, working low to the ground with a machete. A soldier dropped back to observe him as we passed. That he could be part of an ambush crossed everyone’s mind. The platoon halted. Starting with the point man, Children in army-control Tzalbal assembled to sing the Guatemalan National Anthem. the patrol counted off by passing consecutive numbers back to the rear which stretched about 200 feet down the trail. We came up one number short. The count was repeated. They had miscounted. We continued upward, too exhausted almost to let the fear of taking our last step get the better of us. We made it to the top in two hours and could see our destination in the far distance. The new town of Salquil is strategically located on a saddleback hill about one kilometer northwest of the old town center. As we approached we could see the burned-out shells of the old town church, the auxiliary municipal building, the charred frames of other dwellings that stood nakedly as a testament to a darker period in Salquil's_ history. The physical evidence is disappearing quickly, since refugees living here scavenge the ruins for possible construction materials. Our physical exhaustion gave way to a quiet marvel at what lay before us. Clusters of straw and cornstalk huts dotted the peak in the distance. A blistering afternoon sun kept dropping behind a heavy windswept fog. Everything felt extreme. At the 9000-ft. altitude there was no cerTHE MAN WITH THE BAD HANDS I t was raining as in the Old Testament, an Indian farmer reminded us when we talked to him in Tzalbal. He believed in the Apocalypse, and that it was happening now. Another man invited us into his house to talk. We noticed the scar on his face. It stretched from the right corner of his mouth about three inches horizontally across his cheek. His hands were bad too. “Our house is no longer there,” he said. “Everything was burned.” “Who burned it?” we asked. “The soldiers, because the soldiers would pass by and see that no one was living in these houses. And just like that, the shots came. The guerrillas would shoot at the soldiers, and the soldiers would think that we were the guerrillas. And that’s why they would burn the houses. Well, when they burned the houses what were we to do? Where were we going to live? Under the rain? Under the sun? When the soldiers began to slash down our cornfields, what were we going to eat? But when we came here, we came to learn the truth, that the subversives misled all the people.” “When the people died, who was doing the killing?” “Well,” he said, “there were a lot of people the soldiers killed because they fled. Suppose, let s say, if the people were hiding in some ravine, and the guerrillas were shooting at the soldiers, and the soldiers were shooting back at the guerrillas and dropping bombs, then the people who were around the area had to die. Many people died at the hands of the soldiers, and the guerrillas too. Many people died because of hunger also. People no longer had medicine or food. Women and children had nothing to eat. And sickness, there was no medicine for that. There was nothing. People were living in the bushes. All the vital things were gone. People got thinner and thinner. Many died. Many came into town very sick. Oh, how they suffered. “The guerrillas would wait for the soldiers by the rivers. Sometimes, they would kill them. Many soldiers were killed in the hamlets—everywhere. And then afterward, more soldiers would come, very angry. When the soldiers thought that we were the ones giving food to the guerrillas, that’s when they decided to kill us. There were four helicopters that came down over on Chabuk, my village behind that mountain. Thirty-two people died, 32 just like that. Quickly. But that was just one hamlet. Then the helicopters moved on to another hamlet. Who knows how many died there? “I think it's because of the subversives, it’s because of them. They said, ‘You people, don’t worry. We are here to defend you. When the soldiers come, we are going to battle them. And they will either die here, or will have to retreat. You will be able to continue your lives in tranquility. Then we’re going to the town, and we’ll kill all the soldiers there. And then little by little, we’re going to do this until we arrive at the capital city. And then we re going to finish with all of them. And the government is going to be thrown out—the soldiers, the foreigners, the rich people. We are going to throw them all out. We are Indians, and we have to know our own country, our own land, Guatemala!’ We believed them." tainty in the elements, as if by'some subtle weather game, the gods were welcoming us to a blackness in the soul of this country no outsider had ever before witnessed. We had finally reached the front line in this war. Unlike Acul or Tzalbal, there were no government pretensions for Salquil. The army had no one to impress here. Why they allowed us to make the trip, we were never quite sure. T h e army established its small garrison at Salquil in January of 1984. The de- stacamento there is maintained by 100 soldiers. The garrison sits high above the village, where guards can easily observe activity and protect the military installation from guerrilla attack. .50-caliber machinegun bunkers guard the perimeter. The surrounding hillside is lined with rows of sharpened wooden spikes that lace the few patches of corn. When we entered Salquil, we were brought directly to the garrison, a mountain tree fort dug into the peak with great expertise. Tunnels and trenches criss-crossed the pine-covered camp. The trees growing inside the garrison were the only ones standing for as far as one could see. Everything else had been cut down. We were brought to the Commanding Officer's headquarters—a grass hut with thatched roof and mud floor. Inside the cook had a fire set up under two old machetes and a pair of empty steel ammunition boxes. The company first lieutenant greeted us. We sat at the hand- hewn table and talked about the war. The platoon commander who brought us into Salquil joined us. Before long, he pulled a Sony short-wave pocket radio from his fatigue coat, and the conversation turned to Miami. Miami was a fantastic place, they thought. We listened to the news coming from Tegucigalpa. There was a report about the U.S. military installing a new spy center along the Honduras-Salvador border. We listened to Guatemala City Top 40, the Civil Patrol National Anthem, lots of white noise. We waited for the captain to arrive. We were surprised to find these soldiers so friendly, so normal. We had heard of the infamous shock troops, the butcher battalions that Ijad come through here in 1982. They wore white aprons and carried machetes when they came through a village like this one. We heard reports of civilians being hacked to pieces, human bonfires, babies being used as target practice, disemboweled pregnant women— death as a terror tactic. The kind of killing required of these earlier soldiers demanded a certain mind-set that no longer fits the situation in Salquil. The Army is now concerned with resettling the countryside. Hired killers in uniform have been replaced with crack troops who are both well-trained and highly disciplined. They are all ladino (non-lndian) with the exception of one or two indigenous soldiers—drafted to help in communication with the Ixil Indians. Their advanced military training is essential to fight the remaining elusive guerrillas, but more importantly, they are apparently not as abusive to the civilian population as the earlier soldiers. Most of the 2,000 people living in Salquil were inhabitants of the old town. In August of 1982, survivors, who had been living like animals in the hills, trekked down to Nebaj under the leadership of an evangelical pastor named Tomas. They remained in the refugee settlement known as La Pista, or Ak Tzumbal for almost a year and a half before the army resettled them here. Then the army began adding new refugees to the settlement. Some came voluntarily, but more often they were routed from the hills by the army and civil patrol units. There is a basic pattern to army pacification of this region. First a garrison is established in hostile guerrilla-controlled territory. Then patrols are sent to rout out civilians hiding in the hills. At the time of our visit, civil patrol units from Tzalbal were sweeping the hills around the Salquil area. The army couldn't rely on the Salquil men. Either they were too weak from malnutrition to go on the difficult patrols or army commanders were not fully convinced of their loyalty. The army has complete control over the movement of people in Salquil, even though the area is surrounded by guerrilla territory. No one leaves or enters the model village without the army knowing it. Villagers who travel this route must present legitimate reason for doing so, and soldiers often accompany larger groups traveling between Tzalbal and Nebaj. We heard most of this from the captain after he arrived. A small, thin, almost delicate man, he seemed to be an odd choice for a post like Salquil. He could have been a librarian, if he wasn't already the leader of an elite combat company. He was educated and spoke very clearly. He lied only when forced to. We asked him what a 15-foot pit was doing in the middle of the garrison. He told us a bunker had caved in. We all knew it wasn't a bunker and that it had another purpose. We knew the army had ways to make people talk. This hole in the ground was a water pit used on civilians under interrogation. They would stand waist-deep in water for as long as it took them to talk. He took us on a walk around the camp. We walked to the edge and looked out across the valley. He pointed to the cornfields tended by the “uncommitted” Ixil Indians, the corn that feeds the “enemy.” It was also the only corn around. The captain encouraged us to go down into the village and talk with the people. It didn’t take long to hear about the food supply once we left the garrison and walked freely throughout Salquil. Much of 6 Clinton St. Quarterly