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Apr 24th
íPresente! Home
Transforming Experience PDF Print E-mail
Written by Adriana Bartow-Portillo   

Building Supportive, Respectful, and Collaborative Relationships with Survivors of Human Rights Abuses.


I know only too well the grief that the disappearance of several family members brings about. On September 11, 1981, a large contingent of Guatemalan security forces, in two separate but simultaneous military operatives, detained and disappeared my father, step-mother, sister-in-law, my 18-month-old sister, and lasvictimas.jpgmy two daughters, Rosaura and Glenda, 9 and 10. Not a single one of them has ever been seen or heard from since their disappearance that day. Their names join the list of close to 50,000 men, women, and children disappeared in Guatemala throughout 36 years of war.

Disappearances are a double form of suffering – for the victim and for their relatives. Uncertain about the fate of our loved ones, our emotions alternate between hope and despair, wondering and waiting...always waiting, for news that may never come. The victims are fully aware that their families don’t know what has happened to them and that the possibility that anyone will come to their rescue is practically non-existent.

If they are not killed and are eventually released, the survivors suffer for the rest of their lives from the       physical and psychological consequences of this form of dehumanization and from the brutality and torture that almost always accompany it. The family of the victim experiences ongoing psychological torture, wondering whether their loved ones are alive and, if they are, where and under what conditions. We are aware, too, that we are also under a great threat and that searching for the truth may expose us and other family members to an even greater danger.

For the survivors, the acts of physical and psychological torture inflicted upon them are not the worst. The struggle to regain their dignity, the ability to learn to trust again, to be in the company of others without wanting to hide, to be able to sleep an entire night without artificial means, and even to be able to experience joyful, albeit brief,  moments without feeling guilty, represents one of the biggest challenges.

There are some survivors that are eager to share their story with others in hopes that doing so will contribute to saving others from their same fate. The sharing experience, however, is often excruciatingly painful and stressful. Survivors who choose to tell their story relive these horrors and suffer the aftereffects of having chosen to speak out on behalf of those who no longer have a voice. For many survivors, intense lights, the presence of police or military officers and the sound of police or ambulance sirens often lead to flashbacks.

For me, sharing my story is a sacrifice I make to pay tribute to my disappeared father and daughters and to all of those who have perished at the hands of Latin American soldiers and officers trained at the SOA/WHINSEC. It is also an act of defiance, a refusal to remain silent in the face of injustice.

As a survivor, I have traveled all over the United States raising awareness of human rights issues – not only in Guatemala and Latin America but also in the United States and in several countries around the world.  My audiences have been religious groups, elementary, high school and university students and professors, women, trade unionists, refugees, trauma survivors, and members of human rights and humanitarian organizations.

I have had many positive experiences, but several times the experience has not been so positive and in some cases, frankly, quite traumatizing. We survivors do not like the “exoticization” of our experience. I remember one occasion when I was asked to share my story only, leaving an “expert” to provide the context in which the disappearance of my family took place.

Survivors don’t like to be treated like celebrities. Several years ago I was asked for my autograph. I felt as if I had been pushed into a deep well of shame and embarrassment. Most of us consider our social justice and human rights advocacy work to be a responsibility rather than a choice.

How I wish that in those particular cases, event organizers had asked me about what would have made the experience more comfortable. Things like pacing the number of presentations to my level of comfort while doing a tour, providing a safe space where I could have had some privacy, involving me in the event’s planning process, providing all the necessary information and preparing the audience would have made a difference.

I believe it is of critical importance when planning public speaking events, national tours, media interviews and other SOA Watch events to always take into consideration the needs of survivors of violence and repression. Education about cultural issues and language needs must be incorporated into every planning process. Involving survivors in decision-making processes will only contribute to their empowerment. In addition, the creation of safe spaces for when survivors are stressed and an environment where the survivor feels supported and respected will contribute to restoring a survivor’s trust in others, and his/her sense of control over what impacts him/her directly.

It is essential to the development of collaborative long-lasting relationships between survivors and the movement to make these efforts.

I have been at the gates of the SOA several times to denounce the atrocities committed by graduates of the school throughout 36 years of war in Guatemala and the uncountable number of victims of U.S. domination, exploitation and military intervention in Latin America. I have also come to the SOA to strengthen my spirit and to renew my commitment to social justice and peace.

After the historical Sanctuary movement of the 1980s, which I was part of for many years, I believe that the movement to close the School of the Americas represents the greatest opportunity to organize people of conscience not only to shut down the school but also to create change in the foreign policy of the United States towards Latin America.

This movement is not a purely intellectual exercise. It offers people the opportunity to get involved in concrete action and, most importantly, the opportunity to work hand in hand with those who have directly experienced the devastating impact of the foreign policies of the United States. I also think, however, that being sensitive to the physical, emotional, spiritual and political needs of survivors who collaborate with the movement presents a serious challenge. We must work together to balance the relationship between those most affected by the interventionist, immoral foreign policies of the US and others in the movement who are working as allies to change those policies.

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