Saturday, September 11, 2021

A Shoe Dropped Here Sounds Like Thunder There

“I suppose you have heard of the events in your country?”
September 11, 2001 RABINAL, Guatemala – The first word came from three Achi Maya Indians in this mountain town. Our documentary film team had ben working in places with no television, no telephones. Polite and discreet, the indigenous Maya waited until I finished my business – looking for a translation of their ancient language – before one said obliquely, “I suppose you have heard of the events in your country?” By the time I rejoined the crew again, I was shaking. Monitoring a scratchy radio broadcast over dirt roads made one thing clear – wherever you hear the news is, for one awful moment, ground zero. The news from New York and Washington traveled fast to locals, and hurled us to the other side of the lens. The day before, we had watched as a community exhumed the bodies of 20 of their men, massacred in 1982 during the country’s civil war. How sad we had been to see survivors and relatives weep over the bones of loved ones, some skeletons with ropes still around their necks, recognizing the fallen by a special belt or the way a boot had been repaired. Now the survivors gazed at us with compassion and curiosity, in much the same way we had regarded them the day before. It was startling and confusing. I wanted to snap, “What are you looking at?” In time we contacted loved ones, shouting “Is it true?” into the clammy air of a phone booth in town. Remarkably, we found we could get on the Internet through the phone center’s new computers, but the machines were too slow to provide images beyond tiny boxes of mad pixels. At home, other Americans were watching what happened with their own eyes, a thousand times over. But for us, because a day would pass before we saw real pictures, a new epoch began with thinking and imagining the enormity of what had happened.
Receiving the news in such a faraway place brought another kind of basic lesson, about borderlessness, a realization that there is no longer any such thing as a periphery of events. In the capital, Guatemala City, newspapers responded to the attack as if it was a local disaster. Stories carried phone numbers where families might seek the missing. The Cleaning Workers Union at the World Trade Center reported that most of its members were from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Vacationing local doctors set to visit the twin towers that day had not been heard from. Mario Catu Argueta, a fireman gone North to seek his fortune, had written his family before the attack that he was scheduled to work at the Pentagon the week of Sept. 10-14. “No one answers his phone,” they said. Most of all, the newspapers spoke fearfully of a coming war over which the country had no control. During the Cold War, some 200,000 Guatemalans lost their lives, mostly Indians massacred by a military supported by the United States, according to a U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission. In those tense decades, Washington and local allies saw the enemy in every Indian and guerrilla who opposed the government, and the word “terrorist” was often used to characterize the opposition. President Clinton apologized for U.S. involvement in the violence during a 1999 visit, but inhabitants of small countries (Guatemala’s population is 11 million) know that in big wars, battle lines are far flung and blurred. “Fear is a poor counselor – it is not good for anyone in the world that the most powerful country feels threatened,” said El Periodico, a daily. The paper worried that the arms race, “which was given new life” with the George W. Bush administration before the catastrophe, would spiral upward unquestioned, given the “noble U.S. tradition of uniting” behind the president in such times. In the cosmopolitan capital, all eyes did not bespeak compassion and shared human experience, as those of the Achi Maya had done. Once in a grieving moment when I asked aloud whether my country deserved such horror, I was shocked to hear one acquaintance, an educated Guatemalan health worker, say, “I reserve my answer.” I could have asked what terrible personal experience or history might lie below the answer, but I was speechless. A university administrator I knew from Nicaragua called the events “barbarous and unthinkable,” but voiced thoughts I heard from many urban Central Americans. “Much will depend upon what civil society does in America at this moment, whether there might be a time for reflection about what people in some parts of the world think of them.” The comments made me feel resentful, isolated. But after working for years in Central America I know that, historically, when a shoe drops in Washington it is heard as loud as thunder in places such as Guatemala. “We deeply understand your human tragedy,” voices here say, “but please do not make it worse.” Nevertheless, many seem to be hunkering down for the inevitable. “None of this can be considered encouraging for a country on the periphery of the great giant,” said El Periodico.
Written in the days after 9/11, published in the Sacramento Bee and other U.S. newspapers. Photos from Wikimedia commons and Mary Jo McConahay