This post is also available in: Spanish, Russian

Location: Uspantan, Guatemala

Interviewer: Lena Dorfschmidt

When I was a child, I didn’t speak Spanish. We used to say some words. In 1953, I entered the military. I was 18 years old. It was in Quiche where they got me. I didn’t go voluntarily. When I met them in the park:

“How is it going?” they said, “How old are you?”
“Ah… about 18,” I said. “Or maybe 15.”
“What shall we do? Shall we take you? Come with us for a while.”
“I have my suitcase here. I can’t leave it. I am not from here, I am from Uspantan.”
“Just for a while, don’t worry.”
“Well, fine.”

What the… We entered through the gate of the compound in Quiche. The people are… they had caught many people.
Who knew where they were going to take us. We passed the night there. The sun rose. They called a doctor. The doctor examined us. Some people over there. Others over here. Because they weren’t good for the military service. Tall men, but… Then after that… We were there all day. The next day they took us to get up. We got up. Breakfast. “Now everyone will leave. Get into the trucks.” They gave us each 50 cents to buy something. We were locked into the truck. We went by truck. It wasn’t until the afternoon that we could eat. The place was called Cuartel Bar de Hondor Remer Gimente Bateria. We were there. So many soldiers. A big yard. Many people.
So there they divided us. Some over here, others over there. You are a unit they said. Heavy weapons unit, first unit, second, third…
We stayed there.
They taught us how to march, to do exercises… eight days.

“I think the people are ready.”
“Fine.”

Now you go to the hair cutter. They cut our hair off. Everyone the same. We took off the clothes we were wearing. They made … […] and put us in there. Then they gave us military clothing. So then we were the military.
They never asked me if I wanted to go. My family got to know about it because… we were living in Macalajau, that’s where we were. I went to Quiché because that is where my dad was with his corn fields. Damn it, when my mom noticed, I was in Guatemala City already. I didn’t know how to write. But there were people that could. Palmarellos is what they were called. From the village of Palmal. They knew how to write. So I said.. I sent a note to my parents, so that my mom wouldn’t worry. “I am in Guate now, in the unit number whatever…” My mom started crying, she said. Oh God…
Later they taught us Spanish. They called us by our names and everything only in Spanish. Step by step I learned. I did two years. (…)

[pullquote]I was happy there. I didn’t have a wife. Only my mom, I thought of her, what my mom might be doing at home. […] How to plant corn and how to use the machete was what I knew. And to carry fire wood. Not even Spanish I knew.[/pullquote]

I was happy there. I didn’t have a wife. Only my mom, I thought of her, what my mom might be doing at home. […] How to plant corn and how to use the machete was what I knew. And to carry fire wood. Not even Spanish I knew.

I was in the military at the time of the military coup. Seems like it was Carlos Gúzman, the president at that time. Carlos Castillo Armas was the one who came. There was war.

They were teaching us. They taught us the numbers, the vowels, the ABCs. The captain said: “I will give a present to who is intelligent, to who remembers everything we are teaching you.” Fine, so with enthusiasm we went to work.
Night shifts. From six in the afternoon to one in the morning. Sometimes it is cold, sometimes it rains. They give us clothes. A coat. And they were teaching us. I was learning something. But my mom sent cards, “You only do the two years and come home,” she says, “I don’t want you to die in the war.” Fine… I finished the year. The captain tells me, “Listen, you won’t go home. We will give you a rank. You will be a sergeant.” Twenty Quetzals we earned. That was a lot. Twenty Quetzals. “We will see”, I told him.” When you reach sixty years we will pay you a pension. We will give you money. You will be sitting at home at the age of sixty.” “No, I will leave.” So the captain told me, “Ah, you don’t want to learn. You will be carrying stuff like an animal again.”

I didn’t like the night shifts. At that time there was a certain airplane. When you see it, tschuuummm. And sometimes it comes, wuummmm papapapapa! That was during the war already. Oh God. […] We hide. And that is how we didn’t die. Those from the unit in Puerto Carrios, they did die. Sometimes they would be going on foot. There comes the enemy – a rain of bullets.
They gave us rifles. But, what helped us was, that the units were of 2, 3 levels. So up there they sent us – it was hard to walk up there – to see if no one was coming. That helped us. If not, I would have left. I wouldn’t have stayed there.
Nothing happened to me during the war.

And did you know why you were fighting? Whom you were fighting against?

Some people were talking about that. They said, “Soon Carlos Castillo Armas will be here. He will do a coup. If he comes we will be fucked. We will die,” they said.
So when they were shooting already, oh God, now we will die. They are shooting… But nothing happened to me.
When it was like that… The two years were over and I went home. When I was at home already, came – How is the president called that did the war? The war where they entered and fought against the guerilla… LUCAS GARCÍA.
He came to do a coup, too. Sadly many people died. There are bad people that only [want] to disturb someone a little: “That is a guerrilla fighter, that is a guerrilla fighter.” “Yes? Do you know him? Fine.” And they already come to get him. Who knows where there will throw him.

So it was in the military that I learned Spanish. If I had stayed a little longer, as the captain said, I would have learned more. I knew how to write a little, but… but… One regrets, because the time is up now. It is hard, it is hard… Well… there are letters and words that I can’t.. I don’t know how to pronounce them well.
And sometimes I don’t say things correctly.
Its a pity that my sight was destroyed. If that hadn’t happened I could read. There is a Bible in the house. I sometimes read. But with my sight now not anymore. Its like being in the clouds.

When there was the clash with Lucas García, we were in the village. That was in the whole country. So much killing!
We saw that it was getting serious so we came down here to Uspantan. At night we could hear the shots. The sun rises. I had a mule. Early in the morning I used to take her to the outskirts of the city. In the streets, there were the dead. There they were. Shot. They died through bullets. We felt sorry.
And we got very poor. In the markets there were no beans and nothing.
Until Ries Montt it got calmer. He did a coup against Lucas García. That is what I saw.
Later, in 1983 they gave us the permission to travel from one place to another again. So I was taking my clothes again. I was selling clothes. Walking I went from village to village, selling it. I had a paper saying that I could go. Step by step it got calmer.

But there are always new threats. Nowadays they kidnap. Steal. Kill. Unashamed. Like putting hands on an animal […]

We baptized our children in the catholic church. But there are no catholic priests anymore. They banished them. Well actually they didn’t banish them, but they saw that it was getting serious and left. Some went to Spain, others to other places. So there are no priests anymore.
[…]

[Don Mateo says he hopes to be able to travel with a friend in the nineteen-eighties]

But he didn’t want to talk much to me anymore. Because of the war… […]
I always [took clothes] up to the finca, there in San Francisco. On Fridays.
“Dude, at which time will you leave tomorrow?” I asked him, “Shall we go together?”
“Man, I don’t know yet, if I am even going…”
But he… until later I noticed. He told me, “Look, I am not going anymore. At night they killed people in Macalajau.” “Seriously?” “Yes, your brother-in-law died,” he told me. […] They were three brothers in the house and they killed all of them. With the machete. They took them and bound them. “But shut up,” he told me, “Everything is screwed now. Better stay here till new orders.”

So I went to my sister’s place. “Our brother-in-law is dead,” I told her. […] “He walked like from here to the corner. They killed, with a machete. The head broke apart.” […]

“Better you stay here at the house now. We will wait for the dead.” […]
There is nothing, there is nothing. It turned 10, 11 [o’clock]. […] Then I saw a gentleman, he had two horses carrying firewood with him […]. He is called Pedro. “Just now you came down here, Pedro?” I told him. “Yes.” “To sell fire wood?” “Yes, man, to sell fire wood.” […] “Look, Pedro, do me a favor. Didn’t you by any chance see that there was a dead [body] being taking down here on your way? What happens is that I was told that my brother-in-law died.” “Yes, he died already. But they wont bring him down here to burry him,” he told me, “Up there they will burry him.”

That brought us into a difficult situation. What if they were to kill us on the way? I went with my sister. […] My two daughters were up there. And my children, see if they are alive or dead already…

[…] We went. But […] frightened.

We arrived at the … close to the house. There were people there. […] But they were crying. “Don Mateo, man, you are here. Imagine what happened to us. My father dies. Ayayaya…” […] We arrived at home. So with the one that died, my brother-in-law, his children were with him. They cried. “Ay uncle, imagine what happened. My father died.” Even I wanted to cry… […]

Some days later there was an 18-year-old teenager. He was a García Molino. One day he said he was going to plant his corn. He told his mother about it. “See mom, tomorrow we will plant the corn. You will make us lunch. You will kill a chicken. We will eat.” “Okay, son.” So in the afternoon they came. The mother had gone to do something at the neighbor’s house. She had a cow. She wanted to sell it, as things were getting ugly. So she wanted to sell it. So the lady was back already, when the soldiers came. And the teenager was back, too. […] So they told him: “Listen, you, you will come with us.” “Why? I didn’t do anything.” “Well yes, you will come with us.” There was someone else there […] hidden. “Listen, you, do you know that teenager? Is it true […] that he is a guerrilla fighter?” “Yes, he is a pure guerrilla fighter!” that one said. But he had a hat like this, see. […] ”He is a pure guerrilla fighter.” “Take him, then!” said the captain. So they took him. […] “Fuck, man, aren’t you a man? Can’t you take him well?!” Another one came and hit him hard. He fell. When he was lying there, they shot him. Three times. I heard about this at around five in the afternoon. […] And didn’t go to see him, because if they see me, they might shoot me. I didn’t go.

And we told the lady. “Oh, let us better leave, Mateo,” she said, “Because, see how it is already. We might all die.”
At five in the morning I got up. I had a mule and went to get it. […] I put the clothes on it. Our clothes. Clothes to sleep. We came [down here to Uspantan]. […]
At the village, we stayed with my sister.
“It sucks there,” I said.
“Oh god, come in,” she told me, “If we die, we die together here.” So we stayed.

So we came down here already. After some time they told us that we would have to take turns. So that the guerrilla wouldn’t enter. They gave us weapons. Walking around. Thank god, I didn’t see anything. That’s how we were. There were some who said, “I saw something black. I called, but didn’t get an answer.” […] There is nothing. I was always pleading the Lord. See, I was defending my partners. If there is an enemy… I always walked over to the posts. I asked them. “There is nothing”, they said. The sun rises and there is nothing. In Guatemala there were many that died, we were told. […] But we were lucky.
I didn’t have to shoot a single time. The Lord in Heaven is big. […]

[pullquote]But sometimes when I was on guard, with the weapons, I pleaded to god that they don’t come. Because god says, “Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie.” Nothing happened to me.[/pullquote]

I can’t say whether [the people in Uspantan were in support of the guerrillas]. It was the military that sent us. So that the guerrilla wouldn’t enter. That is what they told us. But sometimes when I was on guard, with the weapons, I pleaded to god that they don’t come. Because god says, “Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie.” Nothing happened to me.

Here I am still. What I am waiting for now is death. Because I can’t say, “I don’t want to die.” Because if the hour is there, it is there.

One time they entered the church. The soldiers. There was a lady there. I was shaking already. “Don’t be scared, man.” “Yes, I didn’t do anything,” I say, “I didn’t harm anyone.”

The village suffered a lot below this. Here it was a mother that died, there it was the dad. They say it was guerrilla fighters that did. I couldn’t tell. Because I didn’t see it. […] Later I did see it. Some I do know. They were guerrilla fighters, because they had their weapons with them. […]
They want [?] to that already… because those that have fincas, that have money, they want to take a lot of land, good land like at the post.
They wanted to have an equal division of the land for the whole nation. But it wasn’t possible. Because before even starting a guerrilla movement, the military is already prepared. And there are airplanes. So this [?] that are guerrilla fighters… They only went to the mountains to hide.
When it was like that, my nephew died, we came down here to the city. Only that way we saved ourselves. Nothing happened to us. Because if I had been at the village, suddenly the guerrilla would have gotten me. Or the soldiers. When they find someone on the way, “You come with us.” “Oh, no, I don’t want to.” “Well… you don’t want.” “No.” “What do you want, the bullet or coming with us?” With the bullet [mentioned] there is really not much of a choice. That’s how I was told. Because there are some family members to whom it happened like that. “We didn’t go voluntarily. We went to suffer in the mountains. […] Below the trees.”
When the soldiers came, they would leave and go somewhere else. They don’t have anything like clothes, like machetes. Nothing, And many died of hunger. They died. What happens is, they go to the mountains and there are herbs, there is grass that you can eat. But actually there is nothing, as there are a lot of them. Only at night they would make a fire to eat. That is what they did.
We suffered here, because there was no money to buy anything. And those who went to the mountains, too. There was no salt, no sugar, no tortillas. There is this place called Nebaj. They were planting corn, maybe like 150 areas. […] The corn is ripe already, when the soldiers show up. The corn is ripe, the beans are ripe. The soldiers show up and just cut it with a machete. And they throw it into the river. And the river takes it away. So that the guerrillas couldn’t come. […] What happens is that the guerrilla fighters planted. […] There was no food for the guerrilla anymore. That was hard […]
We lost. I, in my house – it wasn’t a big house – I had salt, sugar. […] If I had been selling sugar, they would come and say I was feeding the guerrilla. So better there was nothing. So who suffers? I, because there is nothing anymore. […]
Even the land. There are some that just took the farm land. Here in the village […] where the school is, that has an owner. The military sent to unite all the people of the village. Even those living far off had to come. The man said: “This land is mine.” […] “What do you want the land for? You are a guerrilla fighter.” “No, Sir, the land belongs to me, but I am not a guerrilla fighter” he said. Oh, I said, now they will kill the poor guy. “So what do you want the land for?” “I want the land for my family” he said. There is someone else. “No, sir, […] that guy doesn’t even have a wife,” said the other man. “So you want it for your family and you don’t even have a wife? What you deserve is some shots,” says the captain. I said they will kill, but they didn’t. They didn’t kill him. […]

Things got really ugly.

Justin Shenk

Cofounder, web developer of Open History Project, and student in Osnabrück, Germany.

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