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.
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.
Guatemalans have come to realize that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children, rather than simply being shot, were done to death in a variety of brutal and painful ways. This occurred mostly during Army massacres of Indian villages or some, like the Cuevas toddler, in death squad abductions. Thousands of adults have met a similiar fate, many of them after being tortured.
Although most Guatemalans cannot speak about this publicly, the knowledge of it festers in their minds and analysts here predict that the question of past human rights abuses will eventually be a problem for Cerezo.
The knowledge which most Guatemalans must silently bear, was evident in the expression of onlookers as, on this particular Friday morning, the relatives of the disappeared marched through the center of town to the Supreme Court still carrying their photos.
Some of those who walked with the marchers -- journalists and others -- will never forget the faces of the Guatemalans lining the sidewalks, mutely witnessing the march. Astonishment that some were speaking out publicly, compassion, often grief, discomfort at open manifestation of such suffering, sometimes guilt, but most often a sense of a bitter shared knowledge -- all these expressions reflected this country's tragic experience. A mother speaks out
Many of the relatives who do speak out do so because they are beyond fear. Blanca Rosa Quiroga de Hern'an-dez, with her straight black hair, dark complexion, and comfortably rounded cheeks looks too young to have a 22-year-old son. But on Feb. 23, 1984, her boy Oscar was picked up on the street near his home by 12 armed men in three vehicles. Mrs. Hern'andez is not afraid of possible reprisals for her GAM activity, ``They took away my son, they can't do anything worse to me -- he was such a beautiful thing. He was an electrical mechanic, he didn't smoke, he didn't drink, he didn't gamble, he was the one who helped support us the most at home.
``The desire of a mother is to see her children grow, to share her life with them, and when that is taken away from you in one moment, without any explanation, it is a pain so great that it cannot be explained.
``If my son had been killed in an accident, I would have known he was dead, I would have buried him, and with time . . . . You don't forget, you never forget, but as we Catholics say, you know that this is what our Lord wanted. But this way, they picked him up on the street, they beat him, and then he disappeared.
``It is terrible not to know where he is. It is terrible not to know to if he is eating or not, if he is hot, or if he is cold, if he has a place to sleep. How can I bear to think that my son might be in the hands of these corrupted minds, of what they might be doing to him.
``The road I have had to walk has been a long one in the last ten months. Looking for my son, I went to the morgue every day and when I saw the bodies of young people, completely tortured, everything destroyed, being taken out of the morgue everyday -- can you understand how a mother feels? I had to see hundreds of bodies. I have been to morgues in the cities. I have gone out to see them in the countryside. I would see other parents there. That is where I met this man,'' she said, pointing to the man next to her -- the father of a disappeared daughter.
``But since the group [GAM] was formed, my life has changed. Three months after my son was kidnapped, I was about to lose my mind, but then on the radio I heard an invitation to a mass for the families of the disappeared. Then I went to the cathedral and when I saw how many people were there I began to understand that one is not the only one passing through this pain, that hundreds, thousands of other Guatemalan mothers and wives were feeling the same thing.
``A person who hasn't felt this pain doesn't know what one feels. People say to me, `I'm sorry, I share your pain, I understand it.' But if it hasn't happened to them, it is only words. But here in GAM we do understand each other because we have been through the same situation -- all of us have felt the same pain.
``I have been helped because now I know that we are fighting together. At the cathedral, during the mass, the spirit of fighting was born in me. The fight to demand the freedom of our beloved ones.'' Mrs. Cuevas fell silent for a moment, then she continued, ``Maybe they are not alive, but it is necessary to have an answer to know what happened to them. It is necessary for one's tranquility.''