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.
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.
The article denounced Army officials linked to human rights violations. Some of those mentioned hold official posts in the current government. She left the country after the article was published and did not return for nine months.
``It's a scary situation to be in,'' Simon said, ``but it's small potatoes compared to what the Guatemalans live with. If you were a Guatemalan doing what I'm doing, you'd either be in exile or underground or disappeared.''
Simon's work has involved not only a great deal of personal risk but also a high emotional cost. Several of her friends have disappeared or been killed since 1980.
One was Lucrecia (Lucky) Orellana Stormont, a 35-year-old psychology professor from an upper-class family.
``I got this call in the States that Lucky had been kidnapped,'' Simon said. ``The first thing I thought of was how Lucky herself had called me a few months before to tell me about the kidnapping of a mutual friend.''
Lucky died five months after her abduction. Word got out that she had been tortured to the point that she could not use her hands, and her fingernails had been ripped off.
``What was so frustrating was the knowledge that during this entire time, she was probably held in government bases within a stone's throw of the National Palace,'' Simon said. ``She wasn't at the end of the earth. She was right here in Guatemala City all that time, and here I was sitting in my hotel room totally unable to do anything.''
Simon says President Cerezo's civilian government has not fundamentally changed the human rights situation here, nor has it challenged the Army's authority on any one issue. Although the number of political killings has dropped since President Cerezo took office, assassinations and disappearances continue in the death-squad style of the past.
And no legal action has been taken against military officials for any of the assassinations or disappearances.
``Anyone who lives in Guatemala knows that the military controls almost every aspect of life here: political, economical, social, and cultural,'' Simon said.
Although President Cerezo has appointed a congressional human rights commission, a judge, and an attorney general to handle the human rights issues, not a single case has been cleared up.
Mr. Cerezo never said he would conduct military trials. Simon quotes him in her book as saying:
``We are not bringing anyone to trial, because Guatemala is not Argentina. In Guatemala, we are going to try and get along with the Army which considers itself successful and victorious and not with an Army that came out of a war with its tail between its legs.''
Nonetheless, Cerezo, an opposition leader who survived three assassination attempts under military rule, did raise hopes that the violence would stop.
From Guatemala, Simon will move on to law school to study human rights law. Her career, which was actually headed toward linguistics when she was an undergraduate at Georgetown University before she chose to become a photographer, will undoubtedly change direction again.
``Leaving won't be easy. I have friends here. Half my life is here, and Guatemala for me now is my work, but it's a lot more than a way to make a living.
``It's my life and in some ways, I feel more comfortable here,'' she said.
After law school, Simon said, she might come back to Guatemala, but she said she is also interested in working with the homeless in the United States. For example, before she even went to Guatemala, one of her first projects was taking pictures of bag ladies spending the night in the bathrooms at Penn Station in New York City.
``Homelessness is like Guatemala,'' she said. ``Hardly anyone chooses to be homeless. Hardly anyone chooses to live in a violent society. It's not inherent, it's not in anybody's blood.''
Whatever the focus, Simon is sure to be campaigning for human rights. As poet and journalist Charles Seibert wrote in an article on Simon for New York Woman magazine, ``It is as though she was a roving conscience looking to go wherever unconscionable acts were being committed.''