Thursday, January 17, 2013

Doña Theodora Chen: The One Who Got Away

Government repression in the countryside surrounding Rio Negro grew sharply throughout the fall of 1981. Following an army-led massacre of 200+ innocent civilians in Rabinal, the municipal capital, villages were forced to set up Civilian Patrols (PACs) in order to assist the military in their control over the district.

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 For a brief historical overview of the Rio Negro/Chixoy Dam massacres, please follow this link to the 'About This Project' page of this website
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The community of Xococ, located partway between Rabinal and Rio Negro, was not unlike countless other rural, predominately Maya villages of the time. Their first confrontation with the army was in October 1981, in which soldiers opened fire on a group of farmers harvesting peanuts, killing eighteen. After the PAC was formed, members expressed their willingness to cooperate under any circumstances with the military to avoid further confrontations.

Several months later, in February 1982, a group of arsonists, presumably guerrillas, burned down the market and killed five community members. The army was quick to blame community members from Rio Negro, who by this time were in conflict with the government due to their resistant stance on displacement from the Chixoy Dam.

From this point on, Rio Negro campesinos were considered part of the guerrilla and enemies of Xococ – despite their long history of friendship and trade. 

It’s important to note that by this time the Xococ PAC had received specific training, weapons, and guidance from the notoriously ruthless and far rightwing command at the local military detachment. They were participating in army-led massacres throughout the region, and several of the top commanders of this unit are now serving life sentences for their brutal acts of murder, rape, kidnapping, and torture.

It was just days after the market burning incident that 150 Rio Negro citizens were ordered to report in Xococ with their IDs. Upon their arrival, the head of the PAC accused them of being guerrillas and burning their market. Leaders denied the accusation, stating that the market was of importance to them as well, and that they had no reason to destroy it. The confrontation ended without violence, yet the commander held their IDs, saying that they could retrieve them the following week. 


Theodora Chen, then 46 years old, was one of the 74 individuals who returned to Xococ that following week to collect their ID's, and remains the only survivor of the massacre that transpired on that day, February 13, 1981.

It was on a cool and blustery afternoon this past December that Theodora gave me her testimony, from outside her home in Pacux. Speaking solely in Maya Achi, her words were translated into Spanish by my interpreter, Pablo Chen Chen.

"In the year 1982, I suffered. I still hurt for what happened. My children died, and my husband. Before this we lived very happily. We had cows; we planted our crops and had plentiful harvests. We didn’t lack anything.

When we returned to Xococ we were badly treated; we were brutally massacred. The patrollers of Xococ thought we were guerrillas. And for this motive, they killed us. But when we arrived, all we had were machetes and hoes, tools to work the land; no arms. Not one gun.

My husband was murdered there, as were my two sons. One was eight years old. The other was 16. So in 1982, I lost four – my husband, two sons and a daughter. She was eight months pregnant and was taken away, months later, by helicopter (at Los Encuentros).

The massacre in Xococ happened on a Saturday. When we arrived from Rio Negro all the men and woman were ordered to form a line in front of a church. They (the patrollers) said we were obligated to form a line. It was an order. They surround the men and ordered them to sit. The patrollers arrived in two groups; one had machetes, and the other had tourniquets.

This was at approximately two in the afternoon. Some of us were then ordered to make holes, or ditches, two meters in depth. They ordered us women to go with some of the patrollers.

From this point I was incarcerated, for two days. Our husbands didn’t come with us, but we could hear them, and the voices of our companions. Some were being killed with machetes. The other men, and kids, two to four years old, they were screaming and crying. The patrollers were killing them too; they didn’t care about age.

And this was the massacre. Some were killed with machetes, others with a blow to the head. Some were killed with a lasso around their neck. We could hear the voices, the murdering. After this the patrollers carried a barrel of gasoline to the site, and lit them on fire. They threw the remains of the bodies into the holes that they dug.

Us women, seven of us in total, we were in this room without water or food. Finally we were taken outside and brought to a man’s house in Xococ. There were women there as well. Some men there began to hang lassos from the boards in the roof. They were for us. For our necks.

I began to talk to one of the women there. I told her, ‘we did nothing, I promise. We committed no crimes. We never robbed. Please think of us; of God. What you are doing is wrong. Please do not kill us,’ I pleaded. ‘We have children.’

The men reflected on what I said; they took down the lassos.

They took us to a small canyon near the house where a military sergeant was waiting. Among us seven women, there was one that was pregnant. She was just about to give birth, maybe two weeks away. She began to plead with the sergeant, ‘Please leave us here,’ she said, ‘we want to live. Let us go back to our place.’

At this point we had our hands tied, and the soldiers took us further away from the village. Some of the women were then violated by soldiers. There was one girl not over fifteen years old. We were all screaming. Then they killed the pregnant woman.

I was preying to God. I asked Him to save me. I asked for my life. 

In all the chaos I was able to hide, remarkably, behind a large tree. I took a break from the march, and no one seemed to realize it.

God was my guide. I fled to the mountain, hidden. I rested when I could, but I was mostly moving, through the mountains towards the river. I was moving through the thorns but I didn’t care, nor did they hurt me.

I walked through the night, and arrived in the place of Buena Vista. This place is called chu’asuch, in Achi. From there I found the trail to Rio Negro.

At this point, in walking – along the river, and through the mountains – I remembered nothing. I couldn’t even think about what I had just survived. It was like a far away image that I didn’t understand.

I was walking with extreme fatigue. I hadn’t drank any water. I would stop at times to rest, and then walk again. I didn’t care about my fatigue. I rested at a peak, a placed we called Patzikin, where I could see the municipality of Rabinal and the community of Xococ.

I had no fear, nor did I care about anything at this point. I just walked. I stopped feeling any fatigue. I didn’t feel the need to drink water, nothing. I didn’t care what had happened.

In the middle of the night, walking, I heard a lion’s voice. It was screaming from far away. I had no fear, I just walked on. I heard cows along the trail, eating grass.

I felt like I had forgotten all that happened back in Xococ. Everything was gone from my head. I had no desires for anything, I lost every feeling. All I cared about was returning to Rio Negro. I didn’t care that the lion was following me; I heard him behind me, breathing. Breathing and crying.

I arrived at six in the morning. I rested for a moment at the river, maybe up to an hour. Still nothing hurt; not my head, my legs, nothing. I had no thirst either. 

At seven I walked up into the village. I saw my daughter making a petate (a mat designed from local palm fronds). I arrived to my house and started to cry. There were two men, neighbors, and I began to tell them what had happened. ‘Your companions,’ I told them, ‘everyone, they were all massacred in Xococ, by the military and the patrollers.

The men started to ask me, ‘what happened?’ I told them they killed them all, the elderly, the children, everyone. ‘The only thing left of them are their sombreros,’ I told them. ‘I am the only survivor.’

I told them that they should leave, all the men. ‘Escape into the mountains,’ I told them. ‘Hide.’ And for the women, they should stay in their homes.

So after hearing this, the men fled into the mountains to hide. As expected, the patrollers and military soldiers soon arrived to Rio Negro. They arrived to my house and asked for food: for chicken soup, and all of our chickens too. We gave them food. It was just us women there, because the men had fled.

This was a Monday. The patrollers were here this time, just to see the community. They came at two in the afternoon.

It was a month later that the military and patrollers returned, on March 13. I was in Pueblo Viejo, buying things with a friend. Soap and sugar and coffee. Her daughter watched over our kids while we were gone.

We left at five in the morning. I told my two daughters to stay in the house.

At the moment that I returned to Rio Negro, I came upon a woman that told us not to enter the community, because the military and patrollers had arrived. ‘They’ve rounded up the women and children,’ she told me, ‘and started to massacre them.’

We stayed where we were, very frightened. This is when I started to get sick in my heart. Because I saw what happened in Xococ, when they murdered the men and the seven women. I didn’t feel anything during the process, or the walk back, but now, with the women being carried away, I felt it in my heart.

I began to cry, because if I couldn’t enter Rio Negro, I wouldn’t know what happened to my two daughters.

We entered the community late in the day. In my home there were still tortillas uneaten on the stove.

The women had already been taken by the patrollers, towards Pocoxom. They were tied up and taken. The patrollers and military were guided to our community by a man from here, a survivor from Xococ. He was tied by the hands. When the women were being taken to Pocoxom, a patroller struck the man, and he rolled down the mountain to his death. He was alive for a while, I hear, but he was tied up, and couldn’t attend to his wounds.

I soon began to look for my companions. There were houses burning, and I was looking frantically for survivors. The patrollers had lit our things on fire, and with this was a large amount of corn. When they returned from the massacre at Pocoxom, they stole our cows and chickens.

Near my house, on top of a large rock, I came upon my granddaughter. She was just six months at the time. She was completely red, burned by the sun. I picked up the baby and covered her up. I was in change of her from then on; I didn’t know where my daughter was. Until now, I still care for my granddaughter. Her name is Juliana Chen.

After I found my granddaughter I cried for my daughters; it appeared that I had lost them. In this time it was just my granddaughter and I. I struggled hard to keep her alive; she was badly burned. I went away from the village and hid. I went many different ways, to cover up my whereabouts.

At one point, while trying to move from one place to another, I took a bad fall, and rolled a ways down. I was carrying the baby but she got away, and went into a ditch. She was crying, and I worried so much that she was injured permanently.

After this happened, I began to refer to all these things as a tragedy. Up until this day I call the events of my past a tragedy. Because before, before the violence, we planted all of our food. We planted beans, maize. At four in the morning the men would rise to gather jocotes and wood. This was our life, then.

Now, today, the men must buy wood, because we no longer have land. The women shell seeds. We must buy lime for our tortillas. Sugar, salt, everything. We used to make everything ourselves.

It’s not the same as before. Before, my husband was dedicated to his work. He provided for us. He earned money, and farmed. But now, once in a while my son finds work and helps us survive. It’s very difficult for us here. My son has a wife, and my daughter has a husband. Unlike before, now we have to buy all of our things. We have no land. I hate to ask my children for things, they have their own families.

It hurts my heart for what happened. I have pain in my knees, my back, my head. I need medication to ease the pain in my body, to recuperate. But I can’t work because I am old. I need help from my husband, but I no longer have him. I live by myself, with my kids and their families, and my granddaughter, Juliana."


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