I’ve been putting off writing about Zacualpa.
Guatemala, as a whole, was so emotionally charged, and so incessant, that I’ve been trying to avoid delving back into it all. My last few posts about Guatemala were hurried. I skimmed over the details, or simply provided photos, like those of Lote 8. I didn’t want to write about death, and all the horrible things that humans are capable of.
Zacualpa, high in the Quiche region of the Guatemalan Highlands, was another area targeted during the internal conflict. About an hour of the main town of Santa Cruz del Quiche it is entirely unremarkable apart from its tragedy. Let me start off by saying that the Catholic church (so central to Guatemalan life) was used as the army base and torture centre in Zacualpa. The Catholic community has since rebuilt the destroyed church and now uses it as both place of worship and place of memory. We were more concerned with the memory.
Our arrival at the church was noticed by a few, as any arrival of a large group of Caucasian women might be in an untouristed part of the country. The compound now serves a combination of purposes. It is the home of several sisters in charge of the church and its services, as well as a school. Our guide, Juliana, showed us the pictures from the exhumation nearly 20 years ago before we headed into the first chapel.
The places of memory are divided into two. The first is called the Chapel of Torture, and the second, the Chapel of the Well. The Chapel of Torture was the first we visited. It is a haunting place, if ever the name were appropriately given. We were all seated as Juliana guided us through the chapel. The walls are covered in photos of the dead. Both Guatemalans and foreign nationals who died in the conflict are represented. The wall also has one more unique feature: a bloody handprint. It’s streaking down the wall in between the photos, and it’s not surprising when we learned about the history of the chapel. Unsurprisingly, it was the centre of torture at the military base. People were hung from the roof to be beaten. They were drowned in their own blood. And countless other forms of torture as well. So we sat there, in a minuscule chapel listening to stories of horror, some crying, some not, but listening all the same. When Juliana was done talking, we led us as we lit candles in memory. Everyone was given two candles, except me. As she went to hand me two, they tangled, and only three would come. She said this was meant to be, as there were three people I love. And that they could’ve chosen the person before me or after me, but they chose me for a reason. So with my three candles, I was also responsible for lighting everyone else’s candles. So I went around the room lighting the candles, and then each of us in turn placed our candles on a small alter. A few left in tears, but most weren’t crying at this point.
After the candles were lit, we moved to the second chapel: the Chapel of the Well. The Chapel of the Well is different, for some reason. It is equally small and equally tragic, but it has a different feeling. I think it might be more sadness, because this is where the army disposed of the dead, or the nearly-dead. They threw the people down the well. But Juliana took a different approach this time. As we sat in front a small fire (that flickered in a way I’ve never seen fire flicker before), she not only called upon the memory of the dead in Zacualpa but also our own loved ones. So before I knew what was happening, I was crying, and when I looked up because I heard a sniffle, I realized that everyone was dabbing eyes and noses as the tears fell freely. Like the Chapel of Torture, we lit candles here as well. White ones, for own our memories, as well as those of Guatemala.
Something interesting happened for me while we sat in the Chapel. The door wasn’t closed to the outside. So we heard the teenagers right outside the door, as we grieved. So even though we went to Zacualpa to learn about death, we ended up surrounded by young life in the process. Teenagers were outside the whole time, flirting, learning and laughing. That’s the paradox about Guatemala and so many of my experiences there. We go to learn about the death and destruction that happened decades ago (and still happens) but I think it’s easy to forgot that lives moves on. These people suffered, but they don’t stay wrapped up in depression and misery. They move on, they have children and grandchildren. They appreciate life more than I will ever be able to, because they truly realize how fleeting it can all be.