Displaced indigenous Guatemala war survivors demand reparations

Hundreds of of Achi Mayan people displaced by Chixoy dam demand gov't comply with agreement to pay reparations.

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    Guatemala City - Hundreds of indigenous Achi Mayan survivors, forced to leave their homes by the construction of Chixoy hydroelectric dam in the 1980s, mobilised outside the Guatemalan presidential palace on Wednesday to demand that the government comply with a 2014 agreement to pay reparations for their displacement.

    After spending Tuesday night on the street in front of the presidential palace, the survivors blocked the main roads in the historic centre of Guatemala City demanding a meeting with President Jimmy Morales.

    "The Guatemalan state has not complied with the promises made," Bernarda Lajuj told Al Jazeera.

    "If the government does not respond to us, then we are not going to leave until they give us a response," Lajuj, 40, said. "We are fighting for our rights."

    The construction of the World Bank and IMF-backed hydroelectric project displaced more than 3,000 families in 33 communities between 1977 and 1983 in the Guatemalan departments of Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz and Quiche. The families were left without land and in poverty.

    "We were left without the means to give our children a better life because of the construction of the Chixoy dam," said Antonio Vasquez, the 52-year-old coordinator of the 33 communities affected by the construction of the dam.

    "They took our lands," he told Al Jazeera. "They left without a place to plant our maize. They took all our resources."

    Achi Mayan women listen to a speech by Antonio Vasquez demanding a dialogue with the Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera] 

    Residents were left without avenues to demand their rights until years after the signing of the peace accords in 1996 that ended the 36-years of war. In 2004, the communities began to organise to demand reparations for their suffering. 

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    A plan was developed and signed by former President Otto Perez Molina in 2014 to provide $154.5m in reparations to the victims of the construction of the dam. The plan included paving roads, building health centres and schools, along with other projects.

    The agreement was made after pressure by the United States, which suspended military aid to the country after progress on the planned stalled.

    The survivors argue that the Morales administration has failed to advance on the plan. Residents continue to live in poverty and lack basic services, including electricity.

    After hours of protest, a small group of survivors was permitted to meet Vice President Jafeth Cabrera.

    According to Lajuj, Cabrera agreed to respond to the group's demands and pursue the application of the original agreement. The secretariat of Social Communication of the Presidency did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment. 

    Massacres 

    The construction of the Chixoy dam took place during the most brutal years of Guatemala's 36-year-long internal armed conflict between the government and leftist rebel groups. More than 200,000 people were killed and another 45,000 disappeared. The majority of the victims were from indigenous communities. 

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    More than 600 massacres were carried out during the war. According to the United Nations-backed Historical Clarification Commission, the Guatemalan military was responsible for 93 percent of these atrocities.

    Among those was the massacre of the village of Rio Negro where state forces killed 450 people who refused to leave their village to make way for the dam.

    Lajuj was only four years old when the Guatemalan military and Civilian Patrols arrived at her village of Rio Negro in 1982 and massacred the residents. Among those killed were her mother and sisters.

    "They took all the women and children and killed them on a hill," Lajuj told Al Jazeera, holding back tears. 

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    She survived because her mother had left her hidden in the family's home when the military took them away. A surviving neighbour took her to her father who had hidden in the mountains. Lajuj's father was later executed by the military.

    "We did not want to leave. We had everything we needed there," she said. "But now we are suffering. We have to buy everything, but there is no work. Why does the government not comply with the agreement for the damage done to us?"

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News