Spielberg’s Shoah foundation to document Guatemalan genocide
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Spielberg’s Shoah foundation to document Guatemalan genocide

“I saw when they put a bullet in my father’s head. My father was left lying there, and the dogs began to eat his brains. … It was the soldiers who were providing security for the dam.”

Last week, the Associated Press published quotes from some of the participants in a new project set to gather over 500 video testimonies relating to the Guatemalan genocide. They include Juan Chen Chen, who saw the army kill seven community leaders near the construction site of the Chixoy dam. He was subsequently tortured and forced to participate in military patrols.

The project is being led by the Shoah foundation, based in the University of South California, and will culminate in an international conference in September. As many as 200,000 civilians were killed in the Guatemalan genocide, most of them indigenous Mayans.

Founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994 after the release of ‘Schindler’s List’, the Shoah foundation was created to preserve interviews of survivors and witnesses of the Jewish Holocaust. Today, its focus has expanded to include the genocides of Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, and Guatemala.

The foundation’s archive represents a formidable body of documentary and academic work, unprecedented in the field of genocide studies.

It contains some 53,000 testimonies, each over 2 hours long, recalling the personal history of interviewees before, during, and after their genocide experiences. The archive is digitized, indexed, fully searchable, and available to scholars, educators, and the general public.

The genocide in Guatemala occurred between 1981 and 1983 during a 36-year civil war that began in 1960. The conflict was partly a consequence of a CIA-backed military coup in 1954, instigated after Guatemala was branded a ‘communist threat’ by western powers.

The then-President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman had confiscated and redistributed fallow agricultural land owned by US giant United Fruit – without meeting their expectations for compensation – inflaming the ire of Guatemalan conservatives, right-wing military factions, and law-makers in Washington.

At the peak of the cold war, General Ríos Montt waged a scorched earth campaign to wipe out the perceived threat of communist guerrillas. Mayans dwelling in Guatemala’s highlands were subjected to massacres and disappearances with the Ixil suffering some of the worst atrocities. They lost up to 90 percent of their villages.

Marking the 20th anniversary of the signing of peace accords in 1996, the new archive represents the first oral-history academic project connected to the conflict.

The foundation is partnering with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG), who have been unearthing mass graves and conducting forensic investigations into the genocide for the last 20 years.

They have identified hundreds of victims by comparing DNA samples with surviving blood relatives, but this will be the first time they have systematically recorded personal accounts of the genocide.

“There has been a real hunger on their part to break the silence,” said Fredy Peccerelli, director of FAFG, in a press release by the Shoah foundation.

Many of the interviewees in the project were young children at the time of the genocide, witnessing their parents’ deaths and the destruction of their villages. Some were adopted by perpetrators and kept as servants.

The international academic conference at USC is scheduled for 12-14 September 2016. It is being co-organised by USC proffer Wolf Gruner, the founding director of the Center for Advanced Genocide Research, and Victoria Sanford, founding director of the Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies at Lehman College.

“The Guatemalan genocide was a humanitarian catastrophe that has been forgotten and ignored far too long,” Gruner said in a press release published by the Shoah foundation.

“We embark on these Guatemalan projects in hopes they not only preserve a measure of memory, but also bring overdue dignity to the victims – both living and dead. In addition, we hope our conference sheds more light on the conditions that lead to genocide, as well as on acts of resistance, so the world can better understand the development of mass violence.”