CHRONICLE OF ANGUISH. Jean-Marie Simon spent seven years photographing Central America's largest country. Her book, `Guatemala: Eternal Spring - Eternal Tyranny,' documents life in a land of contrasts.
LIKE most other Americans, Jean-Marie Simon knew little about Central America's largest nation before she came to work here in the early 1980s when military oppression was its height. Ms. Simon's first trip to Guatemala, one she thought would be a three-month visit and a ``steppingstone'' in her photography career, became a seven-year obsession with the country.Skip to next paragraph
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Simon, now considered the leading authority on human rights in Guatemala, has compiled her work, both photographs and research, into a book called ``Guatemala: Eternal Spring - Eternal Tyranny.''
The book documents the most recent episode in Guatemala's violent history. It begins with the year 1980 - when the country was ruled by Gen. Romeo Lucas Garc'ia, considered the nation's most brutal head of state - and ends with 1987, the second year of civilian rule in nearly two decades.
The book opens with two aerial shots of Guatemala's western highlands, characterized by a plush mountainous terrain and towering volcanoes. The photographs take a closer look: One shows a man and a vulture at home in the Guatemala City garbage dump, while a mansion owned by a cattle breeder is featured on the next page. Another picture shows the mutilated body of a law student who was ``hacked to death'' a day after civilian President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo took office, and a third shows Army officers giving candy to children in a war zone.
Guatemala is a land of contrasts and complexities where nothing is black and white, and very little is what it seems.
Foreigners commonly say it is difficult to understand the country immediately, and Simon says that is one reason the international media have ignored it. But the main reason, she says, is the United States government's lack of attention.
``My frustration that it's not better known abroad, I think, is a very compelling reason to stay,'' Simon said.
Simon first came to Guatemala in December 1980 to do some work for the London-based human rights organization Amnesty International and to develop her photographic career. She was then, and still is, one of the few foreign journalists in the country, and she is the only person who has consistently monitored the human rights situation here.
Simon said she expected her first trip to Guatemala to be a three-month visit. She talked about her introduction to the country from her one-room efficiency in downtown Guatemala City.
``The first time I came here, I was really frightened .... I saw a gun under every pillow, every stone. I changed my hotel room 12 times in 12 weeks. It was a time when I didn't have a reason to feel endangered, but the situation was so bad you could feel everywhere just how tense it was.''
Although the government began its counterinsurgency campaign in the 1960s, it wasn't until the early 1980s that the violence reached its peak. Between 1978 and 1985, 500 university students and professors were killed and about 100,00 children orphaned. Since 1966, there have been 100,000 political killings and 38,000 disappearances. According to Americas Watch, Guatemala has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere.
Simon stayed in Guatemala working as a free-lance reporter and photographer and investigating human rights abuses for Amnesty International and Americas Watch. Her work has been published in Harper's, The New Republic, Time, and Geo. She has also written three publications on Guatemala for Americas Watch.
Because of the sensitive nature of her work, Simon faced a great deal of personal risk. From the early days on, Simon has been watched by Army intelligence and has been the victim of other intimidation tactics. After The New Republic ran a piece she co-wrote with Allan Nairn called ``Guatemala - Bureaucracy of death,'' armed men stood outside the entrance to her hotel room for days and a van like the ones commonly used in kidnappings was parked around the corner.