Miracles in the Mountaintops
US Businesspeople aid the poor of Central America
The wounds of recent battles are slowly overgrown within a land of stunning beauty. Homeless people squat lands on hilltops of scattered trees & rustling brush. Descendants of Mayans, the once dominant force of Central America, they are worn thin from lifetimes of cruel & punishing work. Clothing of magnificent and brilliant colors sharply contrast the oppression they have experienced as the lowest level of society in Guatemala. Women roam the muddy streets barefoot, slipping over the broken concrete as they sell hand-woven garments. Small children sent to the hilltops to gather, strain from huge loads of firewood strapped to their backs.
The villages of the Ixil triangle in northern Guatemala are not unlike remote regions of El Salvador, Honduras or Nicaragua. All were targets of four billion dollars in military aid from the United States from the 1950’s through the early 1990’s. The huge amounts spent to fight communism caught the weakest members of society between armies, unwanted by either side.
Seattle attorney Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li, born in India, son of a diplomat raised in Columbia and Guatemala, was at Mercer Island Covenant church listening to visiting speaker Juan Carlos Ortiz in early 1981. “Juan Carlos pointed out that if the US Government had simply purchased land with half the resources they were spending on military aid, and given it to the landless, there would be no reason for the war,” explains Skip. “It just made too much sense. So I decided to do what I could to change that, privately without government aid.”
Today the board of Agros is staffed with a handful of Seattle residents who have each grown to love & appreciate Latin America and it’s people. Business success stories are teamed with middleclass women and college students. Gradually Agros hired local representatives who grew up in their respective areas, children of the oppression, to seek out plots of land for purchase. Normally done in 100 acre blocks, hired locals Tomas, Diego & Nicolas of Guatemala, Arnulfo of El Salvador, and Filesiano of Nicaragua find and recruit landless poor as occupants. Twenty five families are set up in organizations similar to condominium associations to design the new “village” of separate homes and farmland, each with multipurpose buildings, churches, and sometimes private schools. The first challenge of each community is to elect a president of the association to help lead and motivate. “There are far more people that need help than we can ever hope to help,” says Agros employee Diego.
“At the village of Xetzel, we adopted a village that was already in progress. The French government decided to donate solar panels for electricity rather than having them work to buy it as a group. We disagreed with the government plans, but did nothing to oppose it because the villagers own their village once the construction is completed. After the village was given this government-sponsored electricity, wired to the village by the government, the villagers refused to replace burned out light bulbs and insisted that maintenance should have been part of the government grant. This is the reason we insist on repayment. When people don’t invest, they don’t appreciate. The government created a welfare mentality, which was shooting themselves in the foot. People must learn to support themselves.”
“Before,” said one unnamed villager who we met at El Pariaso, “Women had to travel miles to get corn ground or basic needs. We now have our own corn grinder and water that we use to help surrounding villages.” John van Keppel adds “The people had to walk 1-1/2 kilometers for ground corn each day, and consequently they spent half of their productive time doing things that were not necessarily productive. Or as productive as they could be. They cannot care for their children when they are walking five hours a day for corn meal. The village has developed one of their own to care for the corn grinder engine. They share the ground corn with some villages, and rent time on the grinder to other villages. It has truly been a success story.”
For nine pages of Photographs of recent visit to Agro’s work:
Visit the official Agros web site:
To email author of this article, Phil Caldwell, email@example.com
Or see below addresses:
Address: AGROS FOUNDATION
P.O. Box 95367 Seattle, WA 98145-2367
web site: www.Agros.org
Address: AGROS FOUNDATION
32 Ave. 1-92 zona 7 Utatlán
Guatemala, Central America
Story of Diego Guyago (president of La Blession village)
Eye Witnesses account as told to Phil Caldwell & UPC travel team @ 5pm, February 10, 2001
“My mom left one day to go to the market. I never saw her again. My Dad was killed shortly afterwards, caught in the crossfire of the soldiers vs the Guerillas.”
Diego Guyago, 20-year-old president of the Agros village “La Bendicion,” was a small child when his parents disappeared in the mid 1980’s. From that point on he raised himself, squatting on lands owned by others, performing menial tasks for farmers, doing anything he could for food and rent. A decade later the villagers encouraged him to lead their new village.
“I lost my mom & sisters in the war. In those days all the houses were made of sticks & grass. The soldiers burned our house to the ground, but we had done nothing to deserve this. The President of Guatemala had given orders to destroy everyone associated with the Guerillas, but the soldiers didn’t know what that meant and really didn’t even know who the Guerillas were. So they just killed & burned anyone they wanted. There was mass confusion, and yet they were expected to carry out the orders.
Diego has brothers and sisters who to this day, still live deep within the woods of the surrounding hilltops of northern Guatemala. He feels fortunate to be associated with the Agros village.
“The only reason I am alive today is because of my age. The soldiers came in and killed anyone who was fighting age (15-18) regardless of their politics. If not the soldiers, then the Guerillas. But I was too young. They would round up families and tie them up in the houses, and burn them alive, women and children included. The violence started in the early 1980’s and lasted for almost a decade. They would drop bombs on people fleeing for their lives, and they would hunt people down on the hilltops & in the highlands. It didn’t matter that they we had done nothing to deserve this. We were there, they wanted us dead.
“When I was 16, I was in the back of a home-store buying a hat, when the local government commander surprised me. He grabbed my arm and dragged me to the soldier’s barracks for “a meeting.” I was imprisoned in a small room, and by the end of the evening was joined by many others from my village. Several hours later, by early evening, there must have been 150 people in this cell with me, all brought one at a time. By 5pm it was getting uncomfortable with no food or bathroom, and I was certain I was about to be executed. Many of my friends had died this way and although I had managed to survive, I realized my luck would eventually run out. After hours of being held, late that night the soldiers finally came and herded us into the street. They announced we had been detained to fight the guerillas. They armed us with machine guns and 200 rounds of ammunition each, and marched us through the night, over hills and to places deep in the woods. We marched all night with no food or water, until finally in the early hours of the next morning we came upon 13 bodies of dead soldiers. They gave us stretchers and insisted we load the bodies, and they made us carry the dead all day long back to Cotzal. None of us had eaten since the morning before and we were weak from hunger. It was a miracle that I was not killed by the soldiers that night. I was scared and cold and expected to die at any moment.”
Diego’s parents had taught him to always trust God, and he feels God saved him despite the war and the persecution. Consequently he will never leave his Christ-centered roots. He feels God is still watching him, and assumes all that happened is God’s plan to teach him to trust God and nobody else.
“I don’t know how I survived the night with the soldiers. After we brought the bodies back to the mass grave by the school, they just released us. But several weeks later I was working in the village when the soldiers returned, and I immediately hid myself below the weeds and grass behind my house. I watched as they rounded up the lady who lived next door, and tied her hands to her three children inside her house. I heard their cries as they burned to death, within her house. I heard the taunts of the soldiers. I still hear the cries.
“Many people in the village experienced the same fate, Others …… they would just find and seize and we would never see them again. They would take them to the school and we would hear the gun shots echo up and down the valley. There was a grave at the school that we all knew about. A big hole. We all knew what those holes were for. People were lined up and shot, and they fell into the hole.
“Both the soldiers and guerillas had their own holes. It didn’t matter which side you were on. Both sides chased people in the hills and hunted them down like dogs. It seemed that there was no purpose to the killing.
“It used to be that people were scattered about the hilltops trying to survive on their own. But eventually people learned to stay together in groups, because they realized that they had a better chance of survival if they stayed in groups.
Diego points to the houses they recently built with Agros’ help. “These houses are here today, and the community is growing again, because of Agros. You are a blessing from God, to show his faithfulness to those of us who trusted him regardless of how hopeless it was, that we would ever survive this war. Even after the war, we had no money and no way to recover from this hell we were in. Agros has given us the chance to live again.
“But I am very concerned about how we can ever repay the money for these houses, and so this is a mixed blessing. It is still very very hard to survive. I miss my mom and dad so much. Every day I weep for my sisters. We have no health care facility at this village. Still, my job is to motivate the people. Some day, we would like a bridge across the stream. We are building a church. We need electricity. But none of that will happen until my village is motivated to go out and get it. My job as president of the community is to motivate them. We have 25 families here, and we’re building another house for a widow that we are taking in.
“Our children, they must study. Me and the other parents, we never had the chance to study because of the war, and now we can’t get jobs. My kids will have opportunities that I never had. Our school, the one we built, now has 45 kids and most are from other villages. We want to help others like Agros helped us.
Story of Nicolas (employee of Agros in Guatemala)
Eye Witnesses account as told to Phil Caldwell & UPC travel team @ 8pm, February 10, 2001
“My story is like thousands of others in this area. (the Ixil triangle of Guatemala). This is the first time my wife has heard the story, although I have told it many times. I am thankful to God to be alive.
“In the early 1980’s, there was a war. Our three cities of the Ixil triangle were the most affected area of Guatemala. Before the war, I lived in a village just past Belen with my father. We were very poor. I would go with my Dad to the farms to work, but I remember always being barefoot because we had no money for shoes. There were no schools so neither my Dad or I could read or write. When I was fifteen years old, I finally got my first pair of shoes. They cost me fifty cents. To this day it hurts to think of how poor we were.
“I got married when I was twenty years old. My bride was eighteen, and we got married just as the war was starting to heat up. We were married without a ceremony, far from the village in the mountains as we hid from the troops. Usually weddings are a happy event, but our wedding was not happy because we were terrified of the violence that surrounded us. In the late fall of 1981, the war got incredibly difficult and cruel. People were routinely massacred. My wife and I were horrified at what we saw, and so we fled into the woods and up the hills. We were eight months pregnant with our first son when we finally left our home and went into hiding. Earlier in the day, the forces began to burn the houses in our village with the people still in them. The houses had grass roofs and wood sides. My village had at least 300 houses in it. I remember four women in our village being tied together inside their houses, with their children, and their houses set on fire. Both the Guerillas and the soldiers were shooting and torturing any villager they could find, and the fighting between the two armies got so bad that we had to act. As we fled I could hear the screams from my friends and the crackling of the flames. My house was the only house in the village that was spared. I don’t know why, but they didn’t burn it.
“My Dad was tortured to death because he was an evangelic pastor. Most of the village was Catholic and everyone was forced to join the Guerilla forces. But my Dad refused. There were only five evangelical protestant Christians in my village. The Guerillas liked the Catholics but they hated protestants.
“The Guerillas hated my Dad because he preached and didn’t seem to fear them. They would force both of us to the ground at gun point and laugh at us. Once they took Dad’s Bible and burned it in front of him.
“Dad was preaching a sermon at the village one morning when the Guerillas showed up. They silently walked into the room. We were scared they would massacre us like they had so many others. But they only took my Dad. I don’t know why I was so brave, but after they left I followed them. I was going to rescue my Dad, fight the soldiers if I had to. But I was afraid so I didn’t do anything. I just watched. They made my Dad go to his house and get his pick and hoe. They marched him out of the village and into the mountains, and they made him dig a hole. When he was done, they shot my Daddy and pushed him in the hole as he fell. In those days the Guerillas refused to bury the dead, and so they only threw a several shovels of dirt over his body.
“It was a month before I was brave enough to return to my Dad’s grave. Wild animals and dogs had eaten the body, as they did to all the bodies the Guerillas left laying around the mountains. I collected the bones and took them to my village.
“My experience was no different that most of the thousands that lived in this area. My father had insisted on being neutral. But the Guerillas forced the villagers to join them, and anyone who refused would be punished. They were always hostile to him and they persecuted anyone who refused to do the horrible things they wanted them to do.
“After my Dad was murdered, the Guerillas started asking my friends where I was. I could no longer trust anyone, so I hid. But I didn’t fear the Guerillas, like my Dad hadn’t feared them, because I knew God was alive and would save me even if I did die. In the woods, late at night, my wife and I would pray, and I started to preach in the villages as my father had done.
“Once we were at the village of Oleguana (located just past Belen) and the Guerillas were closing in on us. I was warned by others to not go to Cotzal because they were telling everyone they were looking for me and wanted me dead. It was raining hard. I wore a plastic bag that covered my face. The road curved so I could not see who was coming towards me, and I met the Guerillas on the curve in the road. But they didn’t recognize me. To this day I’m sure it was because of the prayers my wife and I did daily, for God to save us. To protect us.
“In the woods we had nothing. We ate green corn where we could find it. Sometimes we went several weeks without eating. I don’t know how we survived. Only God knows. When my wife and I prayed, and we did for hours at a time, my friends would mock us and say God doesn’t exist. But we kept praying anyway because we knew he did.
“The night my son died, we were fleeing to Cotzal. When we finally arrived after his death, we had nothing. We had no money, no clothes, no food. All the villages had decided to join together at Cotzal, because by then the army was hunting us down in the woods and killing us one at a time. Our only hope was to join together at the village.
“Just above this building (the current Agros headquarters where Nicholas was telling the story), there was the barracks where the soldiers stayed at the school (see above photo)
“The soliders, they would kill anyone. If they accused you of being a Guerilla, they would kill you, even if you were not a Guerilla. If they didn’t like you for any reason, they would kill you. Sometimes they just killed for no reason. They made the people of the village dig four big holes behind the barracks where they slept, the size of this room (the room from which Nicholas told the story was 20’x20’x10’high). They would line up people at the edge of the holes, and they would machine gun all of them so that they fell backwards into the hole. They made us villagers collect the bodies of those they killed scattered around town. Those who refused, the soldiers would cut off their fingers with machetes. They smiled and joked when they did this.
“The soldiers were worse than the Guerillas, so one night I decided to go back to our village above Belen. But the Guerillas, when they saw me, shot me in the shoulder as I fled for my life. I have never since returned to my home at the village. I could not work for a year after that. My wife wove trajedas for our money.
“After the war finally ended, I got a job with the government to teach people how to farm. But I was illiterate (could not read). And yet ….. they still hired me. It was God (he says as he points towards the heavens). God saved me. He is stronger than any war, or any soldier, or any Guerilla.
“After the war I went to school, and studied at the primary school and graduated to the Bausical level. Then I went on to the next level. When I was studying, my contract with the government ran out. There was no high school I could go to. And then ….. Agros hired me. On the last day of my government job, Agros hired me. Today ….. some day …. I will teach others. The children. I will teach the children of this village.
“I have six kids. My oldest is 15 years old. I praise God, for he saved me from the war and the soldiers. I had no money for food, but I still ate. I don’t know how.”
Nicolas now feels he has hope for his family and his country. He now is employed by Agros and is studying to become a teacher.
Story of Nicholas’s wife
Eye Witnesses account as told to Phil Caldwell & UPC travel team at same meeting @ 8pm, February 10, 2001
NOTE: Nicholas’ wife spoke only the native Mayan language, which Nicholas translated to Spanish, and was then translated to English.
“As a young girl, the Guerillas forced all my friends to marry Guerilla’s that they had hand-picked. They would come for us with pistols. Many times they took my friends to the mountains and gang-raped them. Afterwards they would force the girls to learn how to use weapons.
“My Nicholas prayed to God to bring him a wife, and so the Guerillas could not force me to marry anyone else. I am alive because God is great.
“One month when Nicholas was at the south coast working on farms, he left me at our house alone. The Guerillas came but I hid under some dirt behind our house and they didn’t find me.
“When we were pregnant with our first baby, I prayed for God to protect us. The night my baby was born, there was much gun fire. So Nicholas and I ……. we ran away to the woods and hid in the darkness. The Guerillas were burning houses & killing people so we had to leave even though I could hardly walk. I remember it was raining. We were walking in the darkness when my baby fell out below me. I had no pain. Nicholas picked up the baby and wrapped him in a piece of plastic to keep him warm. It was the only thing we had.
“The following night, after my baby was born, we returned to the house. But four soldiers returned and searched the house for us. They found us in the attic where we hid. I was sleeping with the baby. They scolded me and told me I was a fool for coming back. My mother, she was there with me, and I remember her screaming at the men to leave us alone. But the soldiers threw a tarp over me and the baby, and they said they were going to burn the house after tying me and my mother together. They were coming at us, but they just suddenly left without a word and ran away. I don’t know why.
Two days later the other army, the national army, came to the mountains and searched for us. So we fled the mountains and were heading to Cotzal when the baby died. He died of coldness. He was never well. But we couldn’t keep him warm because we only had the plastic. (she weeps as she tells the story)
“But still, I pray and thank God for all he has done for us. He kept me alive. I was never forced to marry even though all of my friends were. I found God when I was 15 and have trusted him ever since. My friends, they were all forced to marry. I never was. I married the one I loved.