Guatemala case casts spotlight on indigenous group

Associated Press
In this May 23, 2013 photo, Ixil Mayan women perform a traditional dance called "Sarabanda" in Nebaj, Guatemala. Forgotten by the state for centuries, the Ixil have recently come under the spotlight after a court found former dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide for the ruthless policies used during his 17-month-long regime against the Ixil. The sentence was later overturned by a higher court. Bereft of basic services like education, health, access to clean water and sanitation, the Ixil people carry on as they have done for generations. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
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GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Life for the indigenous Ixil Mayans in the mountains west of Guatemala City is worn and static like an old photograph.

Seventeen years after the end of a civil war that saw hundreds of their villages razed and thousands of their loved ones killed, the Ixil people still live in mud-and-wood houses in the most rugged and isolated parts of northwestern Guatemala. Most of them have no drinking water, paved roads or basic services such as health and education.

Largely ignored by authorities for centuries, the Ixil came under the spotlight after a Guatemalan court found former dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide on May 10 for the scorched-earth policies used against the Ixil during his 17 months in power in the 1980s.

The conviction was annulled 10 days later following a trial that did nothing to change their lives of the Ixil people.

Byron Garcia, a social anthropologist who has worked in the area for a decade, said Ixil Mayans live in the same poverty as always.

"People have been relegated to less productive places, places where you can't grow food, to the mountains made of stone," Garcia said. "The young people who can, sow plots of land. And when they can't, they migrate."

Feliciana Cobo was 8 when soldiers attacked her village. She and her family separated and ran into the mountains, where they hid for several days with nothing to eat.

Cobo said her mother was killed when the army bombed the village and surrounding area, and her grandmother died later after growing sick from the cold and bad living conditions. Her family eventually lost their land and their poverty deepened.

Now a single mother of three children, the 40-year-old Cobo borrows electricity from a neighbor and supports her kids by washing the clothes of neighbors and weaving garments to sell.

"I grew up during the civil war and I don't know how to read or write. I didn't go to school," Cobo said. "All I know is to weave."

Forensic experts are now exhuming bodies from the cemeteries that the Ixil people created to bury loved ones who died of starvation, hypothermia and disease — as well as munitions — while they hid from the soldiers in the mountains.

"I helped exhume my mother," Cobo said. "I don't know if it was the smoke or the impact of the bombs planes were dropping on us but we all left running and when we got back together, my mother had already died."

Garcia, who now lives in the Guatemalan capital, said that victims feel a need to tell their stories, to be heard, to be indemnified, to find the bodies of their loved ones and be able to bury them.

Cobo said she doubts justice will be done, but is glad some fellow Ixil Mayans could travel to Guatemala City to tell their stories at the trial.

"We're not inventing the dead," she said.

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