We arrived at Acteal, Mexico at about 9:30 in the morning on January 22, parked our car along the side of the road, and walked down the steep path to a small, level clearing. Along the way, we passed several small wooden shacks, where people were cooking over open fires, while children played about. Farther down the hill was a large, open space of newly-turned earth, with a wooden cross adorned with flowers and pine branches. People were carefully placing candles on the ground, forming the shape of a cross. Our guide, Jose, took us to the edge of a small drop-off, and pointed to the ravine below. "The people came running down the hill, to get away from the shooting," he explained, "and they jumped down there, trying to escape. But they fell, and landed on top of each other, tumbling in a heap of people, women, children, and men. And the aggressors stood up here, and kept shooting. Some people managed to get away, or hid in that cave there, or survived underneath the pile of bodies. The shooting went on for five hours" In the end, we knew, 45 people were killed: 15 children, 21 women (several of them pregnant), and 9 men. Some 25 others were wounded. The candles and flowers marked the freshly-dug graves of the victims.
Our group had come to participate in a worship service to bless the burial ground, one month after the massacre. While we waited for the mass to begin, we walked around in the tiny settlement. In addition to the few original houses, there are several newly-built shelters, with plastic-tarp walls, to house the displaced people who have flooded into Acteal to escape threats and intimidation in their communities. Farther along the path, there is a small clinic, and a simple, one-room church. It was here, on December 22, that the people had gathered to fast and pray for an end to the violence in their region. Sorrowfully, they showed us the bullet holes in the wooden walls, marking the beginning of the attack. And we saw the steep, muddy path down which they ran, crying in fear, carrying their children, many of them to their deaths.
Slowly, community members and visitors began to gather under a tin-roofed structure for the mass. The priest, Padre Miguel, arrived and put on his robe and stole. He consulted with the local worship leaders to plan the service, while a group of older men played rough, hand-made wooden instruments, and others spread a small table with a cloth to make an altar. They placed rows of candles in the dirt in front of the altar, and bunches of flowers. Women and children sat on several small benches, while others stood around the sides and back. More and more people arrived, crowding together in the small space. Then a collective sigh went up from the people, and all eyes turned, as two men entered, one of them carrying a small child. It was Zunaida.
Zunaida is four years old. She and her family had come to Acteal, like so many others, seeking refuge from the constant threats and harassment of PRI supporters in their village. Instead of safety, however, they found tragedy. Both of Zunaida's parents were killed in the massacre, along with two of her grandparents, and a small brother. Zunaida herself was wounded in the attack. When her uncle took off the pink knitted hat she was wearing, we could see the scars where a bullet had entered and exited her little head. She can no longer see. Her uncle carried her tenderly into the worship service, and sat with her on his lap, while other family members hovered protectively nearby. Her grandmother wept, but kept her wrinkled hand gently on Zunaida's shoulder throughout the service, so she would know she was there. Photographers and curious children crowded around and stared into her face, but Zunaida sat solemnly, unseeing, a still point amidst all the color and movement of the scene.
We prayed, sang, and wept as the priest and catechists led us in worship. At the end, we all moved down the hill to bless the graves, while family members placed flowers and candles on them. Through it all, the plea was for strength and comfort for the survivors, for an end to injustice and violence, for a renewal of the spirit of reconciliation, justice, and peace. We were reminded of the ancient, living promise, in which God says to us that a new day is coming:
"In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor shall exult in the Holy One of Israel."
This is our promise, and our hope. It is what sustains and strengthens all who struggle and long for justice. But it will not become a reality without our participation and effort. God will not bring it about by magic or miracle. Except, of course, the miracle of willing hands and caring hearts which join together to make it happen.
So. We in the Guatemala Refugee Ministries seek to support -- and to be -- those hands and hearts. And we invite you to join us. The people of Chiapas with whom we work are committed to changing the situation there, from one of inequality and racism and violence, to one of justice and dignity and reconciliation. There are many concrete ways in which we are working together to bring about these changes. The most important way is through our covenant relationship between the Illinois Conference of the UCC and the Diocese of San Cristobal, and especially during these past four years by supporting the presence and work of Paula Bidle and Bud Moore as Volunteers in Mission there. Another way is by taking groups there, and coming back to tell their story to others, to people like you, so that you can join us. Another way is by using what influence we have to urge the governments of Mexico and the U.S. to respect the rights of the people, and to bring to justice those who are responsible for violence and repression. This we are doing by collecting signatures for a "Religious Leaders Call for Peace in Chiapas", which will be sent to government officials in both countries, as well as the media. Another way we can help is by collecting money for corn and beans and medicines for the thousands of people -- like Zunaida and her family -- who have been forced from their homes and are suffering from cold, hunger, and illness. A more long-term project we are involved in, aimed at addressing the underlying religious differences in the region, is the establishment of an Ecumenical Biblical Training School in San Cristobal. This school is the first, and only, place in the area where Protestants and Catholics can come together to study the Scripture and try to understand the will of God. It is a radical and hopeful "seed" which is being planted there, and with the help of this church and others we hope it will grow strong and bear much-needed fruit.
Finally, of course, the most important thing we can do is what they have asked us to do: to continue to pray for them, and carry them in our hearts. Pray that little Zunaida will be able to see again. Pray that she will continue to be loved and cared for by her grandmother and uncles and cousins. Pray that Zunaida -- and all the children of Acteal -- will have enough to eat, and a safe place to sleep, and warm clothes to wear, and a school to go to, and friends to play with, and a bright future to look forward to.
Return to the Index of Synapse 43, Spring 1998