As many of you know, I tend to be very pensive. There’s a lot to think about in the world, and so many ways to think about it. What takes up the majority of my thinking time is the disgusting abundance of injustice in the world, which are both current problems and also past ones that societies do not properly address. One of the most important aspects of this, and what weighs mostly on my mind, regards atrocities that have happened and continue to affect society down the line, even though the “main event”, as it were, is technically over. How can a group, a country, or a people properly address the terrible things that happens to them, or that they do to achieve justice, make sure it does not happen again, but also move on and avoid living in the past?
Saturday brought up these questions, and plenty more, with a visit to Villa Grimaldi. Refer to these links for background information on Pinochet, how he came to power, and Villa Grimaldi:
One aspect that disturbed me the most during this visit was how accustomed I am to hearing about the most unimaginable things that humans have done, and continue to do, to each other. Why have we allowed so many stories of this nature to accumulate in our collective history? How can these acts happen in the name of peace and stability? The frequency and volume of crimes against humanity in this world is unfathomable, and the world has done little to stop their continuation. Is it apathy or fear, or are we looking in the wrong places for a way to fix this? Most importantly, what makes people commit such heinous acts, especially when many of them are “normal”, “average” people?
I read about human rights issues all the time, but have also physically visited three sites of massive and unforgivable suffering and death. Thinking about it, that is three too many, not because people should forget about it and move on, but the world needs to learn from mistakes like these instead of create even more situations in which these projects become so necessary. How many depressing, disturbing and controversial projects will it take?
These questions began to arise when I visited Nagasaki, Japan in 2008 with People to People. We went to the atomic bomb peace park and museum, seeing the chilling effects of what amounted to a strategic decision for the US military. One can debate ad nauseam if it saved lives, need to happen, what have you, but there is no doubt that the use of this weapon (a second time) caused suffering that even first-hand accounts cannot properly communicate.
Artistic depiction in the Peace Park
One bomb, 143,124 deaths
Next in this list is Guatemala. The entire country in general has a painful history to share that most people, Guatemalans included, ignore and overlook. After a CIA sponsored coup in 1954, the country plunged into ultra-repressive military dictatorships and, starting in 1960, an internal armed conflict (note: not civil war) that lasted until 1996, killing 200,000 people, displacing 1 million, and “disappearing” thousands more through acts of genocide towards the indigenous Mayan population, such as the 626 registered massacres committed throughout the conflict. Each time I visited the country with Alternative Breaks, we dedicated a significant amount of time to visiting one of the villages that suffered two tremendous massacres, the second of which consisted of tying up the women and children (the men had already been executed a month before), force marching them 3km to the top of a mountain, then raping the women and killing all but a few, who were enslaved in the officers’ homes. The total killed on that day was 107 children and 70 women.
Mass Grave in Rio Negro
Finally, my visit to Villa Grimaldi, which was the most extensive site used for torture and disappearences during the dictatorship.  Throughout all of these physical encounters, I have also read extensively about similar, or worse, acts committed during the 20th and 21st centuries. Needless to say, the natural reflex to cry, gag, or otherwise physically react to sickening details has since been suppressed. That in itself should be worrisome, and not in that I subject myself to this kind of emotional stress, but that so few people are aware of what happens and has happened in the world, that to this day innocent people die cruel and unusual deaths, or suffer for years in squalid and dangerous conditions, either directly or indirectly caused by their government.
After the initial anger and frustration settle upon reading or hearing about any such situation, I try to think about how to fix it all. Eventually I realize how fruitless that is, but these questions continue to arise that are worth asking, and hopefully you take these away with you as well. These will give you a new way of thinking about what many people consider to be so black and white.
How far does the blame go? Intellectual authors of atrocities are fairly obvious to blame (maybe), but the material authors (those who actually carry out the violations, such as massacres) may or may not be to blame. For example, five former Guatemalan soldiers have each been sentenced to 6,060 years in prison for what is known as the Dos Erres massacre that killed 201 villagers in 1982. The soldiers committed the act of raping, beating, executing and disposing of the bodies, but did they have a choice? The Guatemalan government pursued a scorched earth campaign, to rid the country of guerrillas, but really committing acts of genocide against the indigenous population, as previously mentioned. As a result, top officials such as Efrain Rios Montt, played an active role in ensuring this policy was carried out by forcing civilians into “voluntary” patrol units. If a man did not join when recruited, his family was usually tortured and killed. So, when you are a soldier that has to choose between committing an act of genocide against your neighbors, or having your family suffer that same fate, what do you do? Either choice results in determining the fate for a group of people that have no power to decide their fate for themselves. Do you prosecute the soldiers anyway, considering their actions? Or do you find a different method of justice to account for the impossibilities they faced themselves?
To stretch it even further, is the blame culture that accompanies prosecution even the correct way to approach such complex issues?  In theory, if you prosecute every person involved in systemic atrocities (forget about regular crimes), such a significant portion of your population will be incarcerated that the country couldn’t function properly, and bringing up new human rights issues both related to that and the prison system in general. It never ends. But maybe pursuing legal justice is too myopic and doesn’t truly address the issue at hand. While it feels great to see somebody “face justice”, does it solve the underlying problem? Does it prevent these acts from occurring again? In my opinion, probably not. So where do we direct our very limited resources? Punishment or prevention? Two birds, one stone.
Is it our place to even try to help? Most, if not all, attempts by well-meaning, better-off and western do-gooders have failed pretty miserably. Is it overzealousness combined with simple misunderstanding, or are outsiders just not meant to help? This is also different from support, mind you, but it seems that someone from a foreign mindset spearheading an effort is destined to fail. Coming from a different culture makes it impossible to understand the inner workings of another society, and that is pretty essential for success. Where is the line between pushing ourselves on those we want to help, and realistically providing the proper support that is necessary for other populations to help themselves?
Many might –actually, they do – ask why they should think through questions like these when they are powerless to change anything. You’re just depressing yourself for nothing, and so on. In reality, it is the fact that people don’t know about and/or ignore the endemic injustices in the world. The more people look at what goes wrong in the world, and think about it, the more power there is to change it. So instead of closing this window and wishing I just wrote about cool things happening in Chile, think through the questions and all of the different parts that play into them (and the examples I gave are far from full explanations and interpretations). Only when people are aware of the injustices that the world suffers can any change happen. But it has to start with a few people spreading these ideas farther and farther. Get started. 

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