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Guatemala's `disappeared'...Where are they?

By Dennis Volmanstaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 14, 1986

Guatemala City

ONE Friday morning not long before Christmas, in the closing days of the militay regime of Gen. Oscar Mej'ia Victores, some 50 Guatemalan men and women stood together in Guatemala City's main square. Silently, they held up sheets of paper. Sheets covered with row upon row of small photos -- most of them of young men, some of them of women and children. There were so many photos, many of them so small, that the sheets were almost meaningless and it became difficult to conceive that the endless rows of shots represented real individuals -- living or once-living human beings. Nonetheless, foreign journalists and photographers crowded around the sheets, cameras clicking.

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The pictures were those of the ``disappeared'' -- Guatemalans who have disappeared, most of them picked up in their homes or on the street by Guatemalan security forces or privately financed death squads. After their abductions, nothing more is known of their whereabouts. Neither their families, nor their friends, nor their lawyers -- if they have any -- are told anything about their fate. The vast majority of them are almost certainly dead.

The people standing in the square in front of the National Palace, mutely holding up photos, are the mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, and sisters of the disappeared. They want to know for certain.

Some of them desperately cling to the hope that their desaparecido (as the disappeared are called in Spanish) is still alive. Others simply want to know for sure if those they have loved are dead and, if possible, to bury them.

All of them want an answer from the government. All of them expect one from the incoming democratically elected President, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo.

``There are no disappeared,'' said one mother of an abducted boy. ``They have to be somewhere, they are not smoke or dust, they haven't disintegrated into nothing.''

Nothing, however, is precisely what most political observers here expect Mr. Cerezo to do about satisfying this mother's sorrowful demands to know, or about bringing to justice the Army, security, and right-wing civilian groups, which diplomats and foreign human rights observers here say are responsible for the deaths and disappearances of about 50,000 Guatemalans since 1980. Organizing to be heard

Some 800 of the anxious relatives formed the Mutual Support Group (GAM) in early 1984 to press the government more effectively for an answer.

Cerezo's probable lack of response will not be because he does not care about the horrors visited on his country's population, these diplomatic and other analysts say. It will be rather because, as one diplomat said, ``he cannot even touch the issue of past human rights abuses and survive. If the Army even suspects that the crimes are going to be investigated and its officers tried, it will topple him instantly. Between the first and second rounds of the election, when Cerezo was negotiating with the armed forces, the Army said it would only let him assume power if he pledged to turn a blind eye to past abuses. In terms of human rights Cerezo will have to concentrate on present and future abuses -- if he can bring them down a bit he will be lucky.''

In the meantime, the members of GAM, mostly wives and mothers of the disappeared, stand in front of the National Palace once a week and hold up their photos.

They are the first Guatemalans who have dared to speak out about the massive bloodshed. They have paid a price for breaking the silence. In the spring of 1984, when most Guatemalans were celebrating Easter week two GAM leaders, Rosario Godoy de Cuevas and Hector G'omez, were assassinated within a few days of each other. Rosario Godoy de Cuevas was killed with her 21-year-old brother and her two-year-old son.

Mourners who viewed the bodies noted that the little boy's fingernails had been pulled out. Torture of children in front of the parents, followed by the murder of the whole family, is a common occurrence in Guatemalan death squad activities, say Western diplomats.

Such horrible details are difficult to hear or to think about, yet they are present in the consciouness of most Guatemalans. Outside of Central America, the news media speaks of death squads and of death -- 5,000 deaths, 10,000 deaths, 50,000 deaths -- as all numbers.

In Guatemala, it is a question of concrete acts, a terrible, slowly spreading knowledge of unspeakable things occurring to people in the next village or down the street.