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Bearing Witness In Guatemala

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As I reported a story this week on the start of an historic trial of a former Guatemalan dictator, all the reasons I was first captivated by that country (and still am) came flooding back.

Much of the great literature and reporting on Guatemala’s civil war done by outsiders — "Silence on the Mountain" by Daniel Wilkinson, "The Long Night of White Chickens" and "The Art of Political Murder" by Francisco Goldman, to name a few — evoke similar feelings.

The radical landscape of lush jungles, freezing mountaintop villages, and chaotic, dirty cities. The in-your-face contrasts between rich and poor, indigenous and Ladino (mixed Spanish-native heritage). The incredible cruelty of events that took place during the war, and still today.

And, above all, the unbelievable aguante, resilience, put-up-with-it-ness of the people, especially the poor.

I lived in Guatemala for eight years during a time when forensic anthropologists were digging up mass graves daily and human rights groups were working, under serious threats, to build cases against military leaders and other perpetrators of war crimes.

The country was, and is, sharply divided. I was reminded of that as I monitored Twitter on Tuesday during the first day of the genocide trial against ex-president Efraín Rios Montt. A good number of tweets expressed support for this man accused of nearly exterminating the Maya Ixil indigenous group.

If you’re interested in the evidence being used by the prosecution, and the people behind getting the case to trial, watch "Granito: How to Nail a Dictator" (you can watch it online). It’s a moving documentary by an American filmmaker whose footage shot in Guatemala in 1984 may be used as evidence in the trial.

You can follow news of the trial on a website set up by the Open Society Justice Initiative.