Monthly Archives: May 2012



You must forgive me once more a small change in narration style. The events of the day I am writing about demand a more direct approach. As I sit here, the sun on my back, little birds chirping outside my house I am shocked to find myself morbid. This is not due to where I am now however, it has everything to do with the events of which I intend to write.

A story like this is best told from the beginning.

 In 1974 the killing began. Whole villages slaughtered and piled into their well, which the military filled in on top of them. Women forced to watch their children die, infants bashed against trees and thrown in to the well first, their bones crushed to dust under the weight of the rest of their village. This continued until 1993.

 In the city there were more kidnappings than killings, people were being taken from their homes, from the streets and haven’t been seen or heard from since.  People began to congregate outside of hospitals and morgues searching desperately for their loved ones.  After a time they banded together, knowing that unified they stood a better chance of finding answers.

 This is how FAMDEGUA began.

 Once translated FAMDEGUA stands for Family of Disappeared and Detained in Guatemala. Their mission; to find all 45,000 people who are still missing and put to trial those responsible.

 When it became clear the police had little interest in helping find the missing people, FAMDEGUA went to churches and embassies, trying to get someone to listen to them. Finally a representative of amnesty international caught wind of their story. With the help of the French ambassador they were able to spread the word to the international community of the injustice taking place with in Guatemala.

 Since then four soldiers and one general have been convicted of their crimes and are now spending 30 years in jail for each person they killed. 6,030 years each.

 In 1993 the first exhumations of mass graves began, funded by FAMDEGUA. We visited one such sight.

  As you walk through the door, the smell is unmistakable. I don’t think I’ve ever smelled it before, if I have I cannot remember, however I know instantly what it was, the smell of rotting human flesh. In front of me, there are three person sized canvas bag lying on the floor. I try not to imagine what is inside. Beyond the bags, a huge gaping hole in the ground, the source of the smell.

 I keep my eyes on the young man speaking to us, trying to look nowhere but him, afraid of what I might find should my eyes stray.

 To my displeasure, I can not help but see the tables piles with human bones, the mountain of trash bags containing pieces of 200,000 people.

 I can not handle this. My tears streaming from my face I turn from the sight, walk back to the van, sit down, and cry.


My whole body shaking with sobs, my mind with a question; how can human beings allow this to happen?


Do you know?


Left to right: Pat (student on the trip), Founding member of Upavim, me

I awake for the third time this trip to a series of loud bangs. I open my eyes to see someone standing outside our window banging on the door, its past time to get up, we’re running late. I jump out of bed, get ready as fast as humanly possible and run to breakfast. Everyone has almost finished eating. Part way through breakfast I realize my back is aching.

After breakfast we load into the van for three of the most uncomfortable hours of my life. I fight with my seat in the van, trying to get comfortable or at least sit someway that doesn’t aggravate my sore back. The worst part about today is that I am not the only one haggard. Everyone it seems is sick or tired or sore except our guides and teachers who still positively vibrate with energy.

We finally arrive in back in Guatemala City, which with its crowds, traffic, and pollution does little to cheer me up, however getting out of the van is a blessing.

After a short lunch it’s back in the van to visit UPAVIM, which once translated stands for United for a Better Life. Upon arrival, there are two little girls standing directly outside the doors of our van, and as we pile out, they each insist on giving each of us a hug. In that moment, my back pain vanished, and my spirits lifted.

UPAVIM is a women’s organization located in la Ezperanza, a suburb if you will, of Guatemala City. In 1983 these women had no place to go, and so they settled on the empty lands around the city. They built plastic shelters here out of things they could find laying about. There was no running water, no plumbing at all, and when they tried to farm chickens the flies made it impossible. The attitude of the surrounding people only made things worse. No one would sell them water from the surround neighborhoods. The only access they had to water was off the trucks, who would sell the women a single bucket of water for 10 Q. Which is a lot. And so they filtered their black water the best they could to wash clothes and themselves.

After years of this, attention was finally drawn to the area. The World Bank bought the land and divided it up into 6 by 10 meter plots, one for each family. With funds from the World Bank the women built real houses, streets and drains.

UPAVIM began as a small group of women who met to discuss the needs of the community; they also ran a small clinic. Once the group reached 30 women they were asked to form a legal organization, so they did. And now there are 75 women who help run three main projects.


They run a cheap day care/primary school so that working mothers may have somewhere to leave their kids during the day. They also run a scholarship program for older children so they can go to high school. They’ve supplied 430 students with higher education since they began.


They run a small clinic with reliable medicine and a real doctor from the city, and also a small lab where they can run medical tests and things of that nature.


So how does all this happen? The women also spend a large majority of their time on three business projects. The first is a small bakery which turns our delicious bread and sweet breads every day. The second is a kitchen where they make soy products, mostly milk, ice cream, yogurt, and oatmeal. And the Third is the Handicraft project where the women make things out of recycled materials to sell to tourists. These three projects together make enough money for the rest of the organization to run. Although they still rely heavily on donations.

To learn more about UPAVIM visit their website,

We thank the women for sharing their time and their story with us and pile back into our van.

La Esperanza