On June 8th 2013, we held a panel in Diyabakır Sümerpark Reception Hall named ‘Unveiling the Truth and Transitional Justice.’
One of our guest speakers, Dr. Gustavo Palma, could not be with us as he was denied access to the plane after two days of administrative and bureaucratic complications at the airport. Nevertheless, he sent a greeting and solidarity note. The panel started with an introductory speech by the International Relations Specialist Dr. Nesrin Uçarlar about transitional justice. In her speech Ms. Uçarlar mentioned the commission report in Guatemala in 1997-98. The twelve-volume report is built upon the testimonies of over 8000 individuals and sheds light on the reasons and the consequences of the war as well as the atrocities committed.
The report states that thousands were killed and thousands were left behind mourning. A striking phrase from the reports says ‘For those who are left, reconciliation is impossible without justice’ because ‘the eyes of the dead will remain open until justice prevails.’
The report states that the process cannot be seen as composed of only two sides but that it encompasses multiple. Another important phrase suggests that some of the organized violent acts can be termed as genocide.
The recommendations of the report can be summed up as follows:
- Protection of the memories of the victims (by building monuments, naming public spaces and through oral history projects)
- Compensation for the victims,
- Creating a culture of mutual respect,
- Strengthening the democratic processes,
- Establishing a commission for the monitoring of the report.
United Nations Rapporteur for the Historical Clarification Commission of Guatemala (Truth Commission) and faculty member at the University of Arizona Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Oglesby shared with us a visual presentation. Before the panel, Ms. Oglesby conversed with local government representatives from the BDP and AKP on the ongoing peace process. After her presentation, she answered questions concerning the similarities and differences between the newly launched reconciliation attempts in Turkey and the still troublesome Guatemalan peace process.
Oglesby had testified in court on the genocide case in Guatemala. Explaining that she works on the issues of demilitarization and recuperation of historical memory, she presented some photographs and graphics. On the map of the El Piche region, a locale in the genocide case, she presented some critical graphics stating that 93% of the human rights abuses were committed by the state, 3% by the guerilla and 4% by unidentified individuals.
Oglesby stressed that the atrocities against the Mayan communities intensified in the 80s although there had been displacements in the 60s and 70s. In 1982-83, a war of extermination was launched under General Efrain Rois Monnt’s command and 600 villages were burnt. During what is officially called ‘The War of Reconstruction,’ civilian patrol squads and village guards facilitated the relocation of the refugee Mayan population in villages under military control. All men were obliged to join these units. The village guard units were strong in the Mayan areas but not in the cities. Some individuals from these units began to assume roles of landlords and bosses while others remained simple villagers. The village guards possessed machetes and simple rifles, as the military did not fully trust them.
In the Mayan regions, the village guard system was established in 1982. The years 1986-87 saw protests against this system. Even though the individuals in these units operated under the forceful command of the military, they became the perpetrators of many human rights abuses and means of ideological cleansing.
They were also Mayan. The reason why the units were abolished was due to them being Maya. They were not as loyal to the state as they were to their commanders who generated immense power through these units. The village guards were used to divide society. They got involved in rape, gang rape and sexual slavery while the military kept overlooking these deeds. On the other hand, the refugees had the support of the international community. They returned to their villages in 1996 when there was a pilot attempt for peace. Demilitarization process started without a formal agreement. This process witnessed some clashes due to the village guards’ reluctance to relinquish their authority. The process was under military control with a central structure of chain of command.
According to Ms. Oglesby, who has been doing field research in Guatemala since she was a student at the age of 23, unveiling the truth is not a process of formality or revenge, but one of reconciliation through a genuine effort for collective search for the truth. A country with a population of 9 million has witnessed numerous coup d’états and lost over two hundred thousand people in this dirty war. 81 % of the over 40.000 extrajudicial executions were committed by the military itself or its related units, 12 % of them by the paramilitary contra-rebels and 3 % by four guerilla organizations integrated under the title URNG.
The military did not cooperate with the Truth Commission while the USA partially lifted the confidentiality of some of the official documents of the war period. A quarter of over one million people comprising the paramilitary units unofficially encouraged by the military were rearmed in 1984. Six years later, they reorganized and turned into the striking force of landowners and gangs. This time they also had modern arms. The legacy of the village guard system can be seen as follows:
- The new forms of social violence experienced today.
- Military openly using pressure. Violent acts such as execution and lynches were committed by the village guards, too.
- Acts that had no place in the Mayan understanding of justice occurred.
The URNG, on the other hand, enabled the militants in their grassroots as well as the twenty-one indigenous Maya communities to inform the Commission while their commanders remained silent.
The Truth Commission was initiated by the work of three people recommended by the state, the guerilla and the civil society. They were assisted by hundreds of specialists, archivists, lawyers, social workers and opinion leaders, psychologists and historians. The issue of authority was a major source of conflict at the Commission’s initial stage. The fact that the Commission was not granted the right of access to the archives of all institutions was criticized by the victims of human rights abuses and the indigenous population. The Commission only had the authority to unveil institutions and units -not individuals- who committed crimes. This handicap was overcome partly by the individual cases the lawyers brought to court after the Commission concluded its work. After fifteen years, even a genocide trial was set up. This proves, according to the Anthropology Professor, that Truth Commissions are not a means to ‘condemn the past and lay aside the pains,’ but just the first step in a genuine reconciliation process. Such commissions are not about every party getting what they exactly want. This was a point of criticism. The working period of the Commission was planned to be six months. This was a short time for a war that lasted thirty-six years. The period was extended four times. The Commission had limitations such as ‘The Commission cannot name perpetrators’ and ‘the report cannot be used as evidence in court.’ But these limitations paradoxically motivated the Commission and led it to understand and reveal the processes more clearly. The Commission’s report was critical in that it revealed the mindset of the genocide.
Ms. Oglesby, who lost an anthropologist colleague and a mutual friend with Gustavo Palma, Myrna Mack, during her fieldwork in Guatemala, states that women played a key role in this process. Women lost their family members, were raped and undertook to sustain their families who were forced to migrate but they were also the first ones to apply to the Commission and overcome the wall of fear. They established their own truth and investigation commissions when the official one was short of helping them. Oglesby stated that she has observed a strong women’s emancipation movement in Diyarbakır and that this was not only impressive but also instructive for her.
Another important aspect of the Truth Commission was that it did not rely on the rhetoric of victimization, which effectively recreates the crimes, offences and violence committed. Instead, the Commission analyzed the economic and social context within which these acts occurred. Hundred paradigmatic cases were analyzed, the historical background of the clashes was investigated and the stories were treated not as stories of victims but of individuals. This also made it possible to unveil some of acts of ecological devastation such as burning of forests, building of dams and mines, etc. The Truth Commission report proved to be the first step towards creating a collective historical memory.
The next critical step is to convey this knowledge to the public. In Guatemala, many people are aware of this report. As an important step in documenting and liberating the collective memory, it is vital that the public has access to the report.
The Truth Commission also secured reparations and material compensation. After receiving questions, Oglesby asked the participants about their own experience and thanked the people of Diyarbakır.
Among the participants of DİSA’s organization were our co-founders Dr. Necdet İpekyüz, Prof. Şemsa Özar, Asst. Prof. Vahap Coşkun, Şahismail Bedirhanoğlu, Former President of Diyarbakir Bar Association Emin Aktar, MPs Galip Ensarioğlu and Sezgin Tanrıkulu, USA Consulate Cultural Attaché Susan Wilson, President of the Bar Association Tahir Elçi, author Rojin Canan Akın as well as members of AKP provincial organization, DTK (Democratic Society Congress) commissions, KAMER and other NGO members from Diyarbakır and employees of Aram Publishing, some of whose books were taken to court and banned over the years and who received the Freedom of Thought and Expression Award in 2013. The majority of the 150 participants were women and children.