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“The Saffron Road is so much more than the sum of its parts. Not merely a collection of interviews sewn together by a rich and compelling narrative voice, it is a text with the power to inspire new perspectives on how to live, how to view those around us, and how to find deep and lasting happiness in what we already possess.” 


Cradle of Inhumanity

November 9, 2003

These little girls believe their fathers were good men. They may never know the truth. One pictures a nice home, the other rocks for comfort. What future is there for the children of Bosnian rape victims? Report by Christine Toomey 

The moments when Jasmina feels greatest tenderness towards her child are when her daughter whispers: “Close the door, Mama. I want to rock a little.” Alone then with her mother, 10-year-old Elma will sit silently rocking herself for comfort. “She feels as if this is something that no one else should see,” Jasmina explains. “She has rocked herself like this since she was a baby. Maybe it is strange. But it makes me love her more than any mother should probably love their child.”

Such fierce love has not come easily to Jasmina. When her daughter was an infant crying to be fed, she would pretend she did not hear the baby’s distress. “I used to block out the sound and just leave her, walk away… I had to work very hard to love my child.” This sounds like the admission of a reluctant young mother. But Jasmina’s complex relationship with her child has far darker roots.

Elma is one of the many children born as a result of their mothers being subjected to what is now recognised in international law as mass genocidal rape by soldiers, paramilitaries and police – most of them Serbs – during the savage conflict that gripped the Balkans throughout the first half of the 1990s. No record exists of how many such children were born – though the figure is believed to run into thousands – since many women never spoke of what had happened to them during the war, having abandoned their babies immediately after birth.

More than 10 years after the start of the conflict, the number of those subjected to such sexual torture is still unclear. Official estimates range from 12,000 to 50,000. “For those of us who worked with these women, such statistics have little meaning,” says Dr Ante Klobucar of the Sveti Duh Hospital in Zagreb, the Croatian capital where many of those who had been raped secured abortions or gave birth to unwanted babies after fleeing as refugees. “How can the ordeal of a woman held prisoner for months, and raped three or four times a day by a group of six or more soldiers, be measured? Does what she went through count as one rape or several hundred?” questions the doctor, recalling how women, after delivering their babies, begged that the rape-induced pregnancy not be entered in their medical records, so great was their sense of shame and fear of being abandoned by their families.

 After years of prevarication over intervening in the conflict that cost more than 200,000 lives, the international outcry at reports of mass atrocities committed against women in Bosnia was one of the key factors responsible for eventually pushing world leaders to take action to end the war. The image of a young Muslim woman who hanged herself from a tree with a piece of torn blanket, in despair at the brutality, remains one of the most haunting of the conflict and has been cited as one of the catalysts prompting President Bill Clinton to eventually change US policy in the region.

 But once all political capital had been wrung from the atrocities to which these women were subjected, their suffering was quickly forgotten: their plight no longer constituted a fashionable cause. While those who were left physically disabled by the fighting – such as amputees and paraplegics – receive modest monthly payments, rape victims, who are more psychologically than physically scarred, are entitled to nothing.

 Many of these women now live in miserable circumstances, often in “collective centres” little better than refugee camps, after being ostracised by their families or left homeless after being forced to flee homes to which they are still afraid to return. Though a key provision of the Dayton accords – which brought an end to open hostilities in November 1995 – stated that every displaced person had the right to return to their pre-war home, few can contemplate going back to communities where their tormentors still hold positions of power.

 In the eastern half of the country known as the Republika Srpska – the vast swathe of territory ceded to the Serbs for the sake of peace – many of those responsible for mass murder, ethnic cleansing and mass rape continue to hold public office and work in the police force. Together with the paramilitary groups that still hold sway in this quasi-closed sector of society, they fight any attempt to extradite war criminals to the Hague.

 Over the past three years a steady stream of women and girls – some as young as 12 – have made legal history by testifying at the war-crimes tribunal to the operation of a network of rape camps around the country during the conflict, which has led to war rape being recognised for the first time ever as a “crime against humanity”. But some of those who have either already given evidence before the tribunal or are due to do so are incensed at the way that what happened to them has been used for political and legal ends, while the way they have been stigmatised since is ignored – both within their own country and by the international community.

 Yet if the problems these women face have deepened since the fighting stopped, those of the children born as a result of rape are only just beginning. In a society where the issue of war rape is still taboo, they barely receive a mention. Few even acknowledge their existence. While the right to have their identities protected is beyond dispute, hiding their problems and denying they exist will, mental-health experts fear, only add to their burden in the long run.

 Jasmina is one of the very few of these women who chose to keep the child she bore after being raped. For years she suffered taunts from those who knew, or suspected, what had happened to her during the war, and who would openly deride her daughter as “that bastard child”. Sometimes, when she took Elma out for a walk, they would shout after her: “There goes that whore – and look, she’s given birth to another whore.”

 But the softly spoken 28-year-old has agreed to speak out about her experience from a deeply held conviction that honesty is ultimately in the best interests of her child. Jasmina also considers herself lucky. A few months ago she got married – a step rarely taken by those who have been through such wartime experiences – and recently she has moved away from her home town to a village where her husband’s family have welcomed her and protect her privacy.

“They are good people and he is a good man,” she says. “He knows what happened to me. He was a prisoner too. He understands.”

 In other ways Jasmina’s experience is not typical of that suffered by other women during the war. Her ordeal lasted only one night. Her attacker was a Croat soldier rather than a Serb, and he was the only one who tortured her, though he did not act alone. Jasmina, a Muslim, believes a group of Catholic girls she was at school with betrayed her by leading her to her attacker and then leaving her to her fate. Jasmina, who had just finished high school, was unprepared for how quickly the ethnic hatred that was tearing her country apart could infect the group of young people with whom she had grown up.

 After she agreed to meet the girlfriends for coffee one afternoon, they led her to the car of her attacker, who abducted her and drove her to a remote hunting lodge. There he bound and tied her, taped her hair to an iron post and subjected her to hours of sexual torture before finally releasing her. Jasmina turns her head away and tears roll down her cheeks as she talks of that night in early 1993. When she realised she had become pregnant, she left her parents’ home with the equivalent of just £2 in her pocket and, despite heavy fighting in the area, managed to make her way to Zenica, 40 miles north of the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. There she begged doctors to perform an abortion. They refused on the grounds that her pregnancy was too advanced.

 Both unable and unwilling to return home – Zenica had by that time become sealed off and she was too afraid to tell her parents what had happened – she was sent to a refuge run by Medica, an organisation founded by a German gynaecologist who was determined to provide medical and psychological help for raped and traumatised women.

 “Her pregnancy was very hard,” recalls Marijana Senjak, a psychologist with Medica. “Like other girls and women in her situation, she did not accept that she was pregnant. She somehow dissociated herself mentally from the child she was carrying, and even when the baby was born, wanted very little to do with her.”

 But seven days after her daughter’s birth, Senjak and others arranged for a traditional Muslim naming ceremony to be held for the child at the refuge, where hundreds of rape victims had by that time sought treatment.

 According to custom, prayers of peace and hope were whispered first in the right and then in the left ear of the infant, who was then passed around the assembled group – many of them rape victims too – as a sign of their acceptance of the child. After the other women accepted Elma, then, very slowly, so did Jasmina.

 When, at the end of 1992 and early 1993, it became clear that rape was being used as a systematic means of ethnic cleansing – particularly with Muslim women being impregnated and held long enough to ensure they would give birth to “Chetnik” babies – Bosnia’s leading Muslim clerics issued a fatwa. The decree was meant to dispel the prejudice that held these women as somehow responsible for their own misfortune, and was intended to dissuade families from maintaining honour by rejecting wives and daughters who had been tortured in this way. Rape victims should be regarded as martyrs, the clerics declared, and children born of rape, if their mothers chose to keep them, should be accepted and supported by the women’s families and the rest of the community.

 The declaration made little difference. Jasmina was forced to remain in Zenica, then under siege, for the next two years. But when she did return home, although her father took the child to his heart, her mother cursed her for not abandoning Elma after she was born.

“It was only when she saw how determined I was to keep the child that she began to change her mind,” says Jasmina. “Now I realise it was my daughter who helped me back to some sort of normality. Perhaps that is why I love her so much.”

 But, Jasmina admits, had her child been born male, she would not have chosen to keep him. “Even now, when my daughter gets angry there is something in the expression on her face that reminds me of the one who did this to me,” says Jasmina, her voice trailing off as she lights another cigarette. “I feel like hitting her in those moments. I have to walk away to calm myself. Imagine what that would be like if I’d had a boy.”

Some had no such choice. Amra Sarac, a lawyer and head of a large social-welfare department in Sarajevo, remembers the first time she was called to the bedside of a woman who had just given birth to a child conceived as a result of rape. “I held her hand for a long time. ‘All right, my darling,’ I told her. ‘We will talk about it. But you will, of course, keep the child…'”.

 “I’ll never forget the look in her eyes,” Sarac says. “I was wrong. I saw immediately that the child was the trigger for her trauma, and what I had said had traumatised her further. She did not even want to look at the baby. She left the hospital shortly afterwards. Every time I had a call to attend the maternity ward after that, I knew the cause.”

 As she talks, Sarac sifts through a pile of photographs of children born to mothers who had been raped and who were given up for adoption immediately. Some are smiling toddlers, others a little older. Sarac declines to say exactly how many such children were born that she is aware of. But a list of names that accompanies the photographs runs to several typed pages.

 “These children became like my own. Their own mothers never set eyes on them. They realised instinctively that if they looked at them or held them, they would not be able to give them up.” Most of the children were adopted by couples in Sarajevo – a brave move, she says, by those who did not know if they would survive the war.

 But it was the experience of two sisters referred to her clinic that has particularly haunted Sarac. Both women were suffering from multiple physical injuries and were so traumatised that they could only communicate in short, confused sentences and found it hard to remain in confined spaces. Over the months of therapy that followed, their horrific story slowly emerged.

 At first glance, the municipal garage in Hadzici, a small town 30 miles southwest of Sarajevo, appears a bland enough place. Over the past year it has been given a fresh coat of paint and new doors at the top of a ramp that leads to its lower floor. But through a tangle of weeds, an opening to the rear of the building reveals its cavernous interior, and the atmosphere in this place, despite the stifling summer heat, seems to suddenly freeze – a familiar feeling in this country of ghosts. A small sign above the entrance to the garage, reading, “With pain they win the dark, with courage they write the truth”, is all that remains now as a reminder of the atrocities carried out here during the war. It is a tribute to more than 50 Bosnian Muslims, many of them elderly and sick, held here by Serb forces in May 1992. Some in the town say they could hear the screams of those held at this site being tortured at night.

 After several weeks, those prisoners who survived were moved to positions elsewhere in Serb-controlled territory and most were never seen again – except for the two sisters, who continued to be held here. How deeply the elder of the two women must have regretted her protective instinct that led them to be kept in this stark, concrete bunker is impossible to imagine. For as fighting intensified around Sarajevo in early April 1992, the elder sister – then a 26-year-old mother of two – growing fearful for the safety of her younger sibling, had left her home one morning and, dodging sniper fire and negotiating military roadblocks surrounding the capital, managed to reach the village near Hadzici where her 19-year-old sister was working. But when the two women tried to return home, they found themselves trapped. The military cordon that was to hold Sarajevo under siege for the next three years had become a stranglehold. Stranded at a roadblock, the sisters were arrested and were eventually taken to the municipal garage, where they remained captive for more than two years.

 On one occasion the two women, both Muslim, were herded across the road to a Serb Orthodox church, where they were forcibly baptised, as soldiers stood by jeering and shouting that they were “war loot”. Throughout the period of their captivity, both women were raped repeatedly by Serb soldiers and paramilitaries.

 The elder sister was the first to discover she was pregnant. In the depths of a bitter winter she gave birth to a son. The baby remained locked in the same squalid circumstances as the two women. They had little choice but to take care of him. A few months later, the younger sister also realised she was pregnant, but was able to get word to a doctor, who came to perform an abortion. For more than a year after that, the systematic rape of both women continued.

 In the damp, dark, concrete garage, with no heating and little food, the baby quickly became sick and developed acute bronchitis – the only reason, Sarac believes, that all three were released. Of all the women Sarac treated, she says the elder sister was the only one who kept her child.”She had no choice. The baby was with her for so long that a bond was formed. By the time she had the chance to give the child up for adoption, she could no longer bring herself to do it.”

In due course the elder sister, together with the small boy, was reunited with her husband and two older children, though the family is now struggling with problems. The fact that they were reunited is exceptional. The majority of raped women who were married and whose husbands survived the conflict could not return to their families. Many left the country as refugees. But for the thousands of women who have remained, the situation is miserable.

 “Their lives are terrible. Most are chronically ill,” says Sarac, who describes the failure of European leaders to put a stop to the carnage sooner than they did as the behaviour of an “old whore”. She adds with disgust: “The rest of Europe stood by for so long and allowed this to happen. Now these women and children go on suffering the consequences.”

 With the flow of international aid into Bosnia declining, as more recent conflicts demand global attention, the lives of these most neglected victims of war can only get worse. Lack of funding is forcing Medica, for instance, to scale back from next year the counselling and health-support services it has continued to provide since the war. In recent months, the organisation has begun lobbying for a state commission to be set up to deal with the problems these women face, not only with their health and raising children, but also, crucially, with housing. Medica is also planning a campaign to change public attitudes to the country’s rape victims.

 Part of the campaign is to lobby the Bosnian government for rape victims to be afforded “civilian war victim” status, currently reserved for those with physical disabilities. Not only would this be an official recognition of what happened to them – a step towards destigmatising their trauma – it would also secure them and their children limited financial support. It could give those women who can still work some priority when applying for certain jobs – a crucial advantage with unemployment running at over 60%.

 This will do little, however, for women such as Sahela, 46, now so frail she looks more like a woman in her late sixties. In the picture that she treasures of her handsome teenage son slouched smiling beside her on a sofa, she is totally unrecognisable. A few months after the picture was taken in 1992, Sahela’s 15-year-old son was beheaded in front of her as he begged Serb soldiers not to drag his mother away. After ordering Sahela to bury his body on the spot, the soldiers then raped her in her own home and did so again repeatedly after that in a rape camp, where she and other women were kept tied to beds. Sahela recalls how one young woman she describes as a noted beauty managed to break free from her captors and, crying out for her mother, killed herself by hurling herself through a closed upper-floor window to end the continuing torture.

 Sahela is among those who have testified at the Hague, but is bitter about the way she has been ignored since. “They made my story part of history. But I do not want to be treated as history. I want a life,” she says.

She receives the equivalent of £17 a month in compensation for the loss of her son, and scrapes by in a cramped one-room apartment. She wanted to speak out, to get others to take notice, but the strain of doing so saw her being readmitted to hospital for treatment later in the evening of the day we spoke.

 Given the unwillingness to discuss or deal with the problems of those women who have been raped, the reluctance to even admit to the problems faced by children born as a result of such crimes is unsurprising. But there are limits to such denial. For no matter how protective women like Jasmina are, or how hard adoptive parents try to shield the truth from children abandoned by their mothers, as they reach adolescence these young people will start asking questions about their backgrounds.

“In the early years, a child may ask very little about his or her father – especially after picking up unspoken messages from those around him that he should never be discussed,” says Zehra Danes, a child psychologist. “But, consciously or unconsciously, many of these children will have felt rejected and have started displaying problems as a direct result of having to fight to be loved.”

 Aside from the way in which Elma rocks herself for comfort, Jasmina admits her daughter is a solitary child, preferring to sit for hours alone with headphones on, listening to music. When she started primary school, Jasmina remembers being called in by Elma’s teacher, who wanted to know why the young child always cut any mention of fathers out of stories being told in the class. “I told them they had no right to ask such questions, and told my daughter that if anyone asked her she should say I am both her mother and her father, that her father was killed in the war.” But often, Jasmina says, she would cry when she had to discuss such things with her daughter.

Some people believe that those children given up for adoption might fare better than the small number who have remained with their mothers. It is thought that some women who chose to keep their babies might have clung to them as a kind of emotional armour, and might risk rejecting them later as they gradually associate the child with the assault that led to their conception. Those mothers who chose to keep their babies and subsequently left Bosnia as refugees to live abroad are said by some to be likely to find life easier both for themselves and their children. But Amra Sarac disagrees. “Wherever they go, these women will take their trauma with them. At least those who stayed here are among those who know what happened, even if it is not openly admitted.”

 One brave writer, who accompanied several convoys of women and children out of Sarajevo during the war, and who has remained in touch with a group of raped women who gave birth in a safe house she helped establish on the Croatian coast, is sure that none of the women intend to tell the children the truth about their backgrounds. All of them left for third countries after deciding to keep their offspring. “I sat with them until the early hours of the morning as they discussed the stories they would make up to tell the children about who their fathers were. They even started to believe the stories themselves. I believe it is better that way,” she says. “The courage of these women affected me very deeply.”

Whether or not children should know the truth about their fathers, however, is a subject those at Medica have considered carefully. New family laws currently under consideration in Bosnia are expected to bring it in line with many other countries by allowing adopted children, once they come of age, the right to find out what information is known about their biological parents. “Parents form such a fundamental part of a child’s identity – to find out your father is a killer or rapist can be disastrous,” says Marijana Senjak. “If someone is to learn the truth, it is much better that they do so when they are older, once their personality and sense of self is already established.”

Zehra Danes, however, believes it is quite possible that children will find out on their own. “Once a child reaches adolescence, if he knows nothing about his father, he will do everything he can to find out, and if that child lives in Bosnia, there is a huge possibility that he will discover the truth,” she says. “This is much worse than being told.”

It is for this reason that Jasmina is determined to explain to Elma sooner rather than later the true circumstances that led to her birth.”Perhaps when she starts to attend high school, then I’ll tell her what happened,” she says. “I am raising Elma to believe that we should have no secrets. I want her to hear the truth from someone who loves her.” To certain young people, the truth might make very little difference, however. Of all Bosnia’s forgotten children born of rape, these are the most neglected of all.

 Samira rushes forward with a lopsided grin, her oversized shoes flapping noisily. She has a warm nature and readily throws her spindly arms around visiting strangers. Like most 10-year-old girls, she giggles a lot. But her attention wanders easily. She often leans her head slightly backwards and stares quietly and seriously into the middle distance, as if she is lost in her own thoughts.

 It is impossible to know what Samira is thinking in these moments. The orphanage in Bosnia where she lives classifies her as a child with special needs. She is a slow learner, finds it hard to concentrate and is easily distressed. As the mental and physical state of a mother when pregnant is known to affect the later development of her child, one cannot begin to imagine the ghosts that lie buried deep within this young girl’s psyche.

 There are few details on record about the circumstances leading to Samira’s birth. All that is known is that her mother was a 17-year-old girl from a Catholic family in northeastern Bosnia when she was seized by Serb forces in the spring of 1992 and raped. How long she was held before escaping or being released is not clear. But, like many thousands of refugees, she either trudged on foot or was bused in a convoy out of  her beleaguered country in the winter of 1992, and transported to Croatia, where Samira was born in a hospital on the Dalmatian coast in January 1993.

 Samira’s mother wanted nothing to do with the child, and the infant was quickly transferred into the care of the Catholic charity Caritas, which in turn passed her into the care of a small children’s home run by a Muslim charity in Zagreb.

 As part of the post-war policy to repatriate as many refugees as possible, Samira was brought back to Bosnia in 1996 with eight other children and placed in an orphanage. Two of the other children who, like Samira, had been born after their mothers were raped, were quickly placed with families. Samira was not. For the past seven years she has been caught in a legal limbo.

 In the absence of any record of what her mother wished to happen to her child, authorisation for her to be adopted would have been needed from the social-services department in the municipality where her mother lived before the war. But that now lies in the Republika Srpska. In order for the Serb authorities to give permission for Samira to be adopted, they would have to accept financial responsibility for the special care she needs; they would also, indirectly, have to acknowledge the circumstances under which she was born. But in the Republika Srpska, all inconvenient historical facts such as genocide and mass rape are vehemently denied.

 One social worker, referring to a note that accompanied Samira’s birth certificate, admits there is little likelihood that the child and her mother will ever be reunited, even if her mother could be traced. The note simply states the mother had made it clear that her child was “unwanted”. Even so, Samira has fared rather better than some of the other children, who, like her, were given over into the temporary care of Caritas in Zagreb but who have even been abandoned by their own country.

For 10-year-old Alen, this is the latest in a pathetic saga of rejections. After arriving in Croatia as a refugee in the autumn of 1992, Alen’s mother had apparently sought an abortion. But like many in her predicament, she was told that her pregnancy was too advanced and she would have to carry the child to term. Hospital records show she did not want her baby’s birth registered and that she left for Germany shortly after he was born – without ever setting eyes on her son.

In the frenzy of media attention that accompanied reports of widespread rape during the Bosnian war, many maternity units in the areas to which refugees fled were inundated with calls from couples offering to adopt babies born as a result of this systematic policy of ethnic cleansing. Alen was adopted by a Croatian couple. But as the months went by, his new parents realised he was failing to thrive. Readmitted to hospital with a chest infection, he was diagnosed as suffering from cerebral palsy. On hearing the news, his adoptive parents disowned him.

“He was returned like damaged goods,” says Jelena Brajsa, the director of Caritas in Zagreb, who was asked to take the boy into her care when he was released from hospital. “To my mind, this second rejection was a hundred times worse than the rejection by his mother.”

 Alen was then placed in a home for handicapped children run by Caritas. He is one of five children in the home whose mothers gave birth after being raped and whom nobody would subsequently adopt. But not only have these children been rejected by their birth mothers – and, in Alen’s case, once again after that – they have also been rejected, she says, by the country to which most would agree they belong.

Although many, like Samira, were repatriated after the war, some with apparent health problems were left behind. Last year, says Brajsa, the Bosnian authorities finally agreed to exchange a group of disabled young people of Croatian origin for this group of Bosnian children in her care. “Several months ago they arrived with a group of handicapped adults for us to look after,” she says, “yet still they did not take the children.”

After so many rejections, Brajsa says she could hardly bear now for Alen in particular to leave the care of Caritas. “I can’t imagine who would be prepared to adopt these children now, anyway. They are no longer babies and they have so many problems.” One 12-year-old girl, like Alen, is confined to a wheelchair. Another nine-year-old girl has a history of self-harm. One 10-year-old boy, Mirzan, diagnosed as “hyperactive”, like Samira, rushes forward to throw his arms around visitors and constantly hovers close by. He rarely talks or asks questions, however. “He has never asked about his parents,” says one of his carers, “nor wanted to know where he comes from.”

 By contrast, Samira is well informed: she knows she was born in Croatia. But beyond that, her imagination has taken hold. Her parents, she says, live in a “neat and clean house” in Zagreb. “I don’t have a telephone number to call them. I wish I did,” she says. “But when I am older, I will try to find out where they live.” Officially, the orphanage is only authorised to offer Samira a home until she is 18. Where she will go after that is unclear. When asked what she would like to do when she is older, Samira is quick to answer. “I want to be a doctor,” she says. “Then I can look after people.” Though she is making progress at school, she will be lucky to find any kind of work. “The best she can hope for is to become a seamstress,” says a social worker at the orphanage. “But how she’ll ever be able to support herself I don’t know.”

 While some children in the orphanage have savings accounts set up in their name, to which various charities make occasional donations, Samira does not. Because the Serb-controlled municipality where her mother was born will not accept responsibility for her, she still has no national identity number, necessary, for instance, for a bank account to be opened in her name. Legally, she does not, in effect, exist.

 When she is not outdoors playing with the other children at the orphanage, Samira likes to draw. Sitting quietly at a desk in the corner of the bedroom she shares with two other girls, she draws a picture of the house in Zagreb where she imagines her parents live. It is surrounded by birds and butterflies. To one side of the house she draws herself smiling. On the other side she draws her mother and father – “Mama and Tata”.

 “I always think about them, especially at night before I go to sleep,” says Samira, colouring furiously. “I wish they would come to see me – just once. One day, I am sure, they will.”

 Some names have been changed to protect identities.

 **If you would like to make a contribution to Medica or Samira, The Sunday Times has set up an account from which money will be sent to Bosnia once all donations have been received. So please make any cheques and postal orders payable to “Bosnia – Cradle” and send them to:

News International

Treasury Dept

Fleet House, Cygnet Park

Hampton, Peterborough


Please indicate on a note with the cheque if you have a particular preference that the money go to Medica or to Samira.

Iraqi Christians

24th April, 2011

Al-Qaeda murdered 46 christians in a Catholic cathedral in Baghdad. Survivors ask: is the Iraqi government colluding in religious persecution? Hala Jaber and Christine Toomey report.

The last words Father Thair read from the Bible were prophetic. Faced with a congregation increasingly persecuted for their faith as Christians in Iraq, the young priest’s voice rose as he came to Matthew 16, verse 18: “On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it.”

Within minutes of closing his lectionary at 5.30pm on October 31 last year, an unimaginable hell was unleashed on the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in the heart of Baghdad. Over the next five hours, Al-Qaeda terrorists would subject his flock to such savagery that the attack on the Syriac Catholic cathedral now ranks as one of the worst on any Christian church in recent history.

At first, Father Thair thought the sound of a distant explosion and gunfire was just random shooting, routine for the war-weary population of Iraq. In order to calm worshippers, the 32-year-old priest leant to one side of the altar to push a button activating a tape recording of soothing hymns. He then raised a cross high above his head and began to pray aloud to the Virgin Mary for their protection.

Sitting just in front of the altar, proudly watching her son, was Father Thair’s mother, Um Raed, together with the priest’s elder brother, 34-year-old Raed and his wife and 10-month-old daughter. It is Um Raed, tears rolling down her cheeks, who relates what happened next, after a second deafening explosion rocked the rear of the cathedral: “I turned and saw gunmen with suicide belts strapped around their waists scrambling in through a hole they’d blown in the church doors,” she says. “They were screaming ‘Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!’” (“God is great!”]

She saw another priest, 27-year-old Father Wassim, staggering close to the cathedral entrance, pleading with the terrorists to stop.

“They shot him through the mouth, then again in the chest, shouting ‘We’ve killed an infidel!’,” says Um Raed, who, turning back in horror to face her own son, saw him fall on the steps of the altar, gasping, “God, to thee I commend my soul.”

“I saw his blood spill across the floor. I fell to my knees and started rubbing my hand through his blood. They shot me too. They shot my hand in my son’s blood.”

As terrified worshippers threw themselves between the pews, she saw her eldest son push his wife and baby daughter in the direction of the sacristy beside the altar, where other worshippers were scrambling for shelter, before reaching out to embrace his brother. Then they shot him.

“Both my sons fell by the altar,” says Um Raed. “I lay between them. They shot me in my leg.” Desperate to protect his mother, Raed hissed at her, “Mama, don’t move, be still.”

“I lay between my sons. I lay there thinking Raed was keeping quiet too, so they wouldn’t know he was alive. I kept my hand in my son’s blood; I caressed it as I lay there listening to the gunmen shout out, ‘We’ve killed an infidel! We’ve killed another one! We have hostages!’ as they shot more people. When their ammunition ran out, they started throwing grenades,” she says.

She lay between her sons for the next five hours, hardly daring to breathe, until after 10pm. Only then did Iraqi security forces arrive at the cathedral to tackle the 10 terrorists. By dawn the next day — ironically All Saints’ Day, which for centuries has marked the persecution of early Christians — 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security forces personnel lay slaughtered, with around 60 others wounded.

The government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has been severely criticised for allowing the siege to continue for so many hours. The building sits on the banks of the Tigris, close to the Green Zone, the armoured heart of Baghdad. The government argues its forces would have risked the lives of even more had they stormed the building earlier. It is unclear how many of those who died were killed in the final moments of the attack, when terrorists detonated their suicide belts shortly after security forces stormed the building, at around 10.15pm. Many Iraqi Christians argue that had a mosque been targeted, security forces would have ended the siege much earlier.

Um Raed stares out of the window of a bleak refugee hostel in Paris as she relives her sons’ final hours. Since last November she has been undergoing treatment at a military hospital on the outskirts of the French capital for the wounds she sustained during the siege. Together with 36 other survivors and 20 of their relatives, Um Raed was flown to France a week after the catastrophe for emergency medical care.

The humanitarian mission to bring those most seriously wounded in the attack to Paris was announced within days of the siege, amid much fanfare from the French government. France has long cherished its reputation as protector of the Christian faith in the Middle East, and it was no coincidence that its foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, spoke effusively of his country “never abandoning Christians” a few days later

Eric Besson, minister for immigration, said France would grant asylum to 150 Iraqi Christians — those wounded in the attack and members of their families. An initial group of 57 would be airlifted to France on November 7, with a second group of 93 following “in a few days or weeks”.

“France is the leading land for asylum in Europe and the world’s second behind the United States,” Besson boasted.

“We are the European country that receives the most refugees persecuted because of their political opinions, their religion or the colour of their skin.”

Besson was the minister at the heart of an international outcry last summer over France’s mass deportation of Roma families back to Bulgaria and Romania, and critics of the French government were quick to question whether the hastily hatched humanitarian mission was an attempt by the French government to redeem itself after this debacle.

Regardless of whether or not public relations played a part in prompting the speedy evacuation operation, the plight of those already flown to France and others left behind quickly became overshadowed by both internal French politics and furious international debate over whether Christians should stay in Iraq and other areas of the Middle East where they face persecution. Some argue that if they are encouraged to leave, the region will effectively be ethnically cleansed of its minority Christian communities.

As this debate continues, Um Raed and the other wounded survivors and relatives already in Paris have been left in agonising limbo, deeply concerned for the safety of those left behind and unsure when their loved ones will eventually be allowed to join them. Of the second promised transport, of 93 relatives of those injured in the siege, only eight had been flown to Paris by the first week of April, with another 15 expected to follow before Easter.

Despairing of the slow progress, seven of those airlifted to France have already returned to Baghdad. Those who remain have been assured by the French authorities that their families will be allowed to follow them to Paris. However, they have been outraged by the posturing of religious leaders who have urged Christians to stand fast in Iraq, come what may. These include the Beirut-based patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church, Ignace Joseph III Younan, who has called on all Christians to stay in the region.

“The patriarch and other leaders of the church who call for their people to remain in Iraq are totally out of touch with what the majority of Christians in the country think,” says Elish Yako, an Iraqi Christian and head of the Paris-based Aid Association for Christians of the Orient, which has been providing support for those already in France. “How can you tell a family with children to stay and confront death when even Christ and his disciples had to flee for their lives many times? If these religious leaders don’t change their opinion soon they could find themselves losing their authority just like other deposed figures in the Middle East, such as Hosni Mubarak,” he warns.

As Um Raed sits in the Paris hostel waiting for news of family members left behind, she begins to talk of how life was for her family in Baghdad before tragedy struck. Um Raed is 53 but a looks much older, a hard life having been etched into her features long before that terrible day. After her husband died of a brain haemorrhage, leaving her to bring up six children alone, the family scraped by on the small amount her three sons — Thair, Raed and their youngest brother Uday — earned sewing garments in their uncle’s tailor’s shop at the end of their school day.

The family is originally from Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, which is home to a large proportion of the country’s Christians, who numbered around 5m before the first Gulf war in the early 1990s. In the wake of that conflict, many Iraqi Christians — descendants of ethnic Assyrians settled in the region for nearly 2,000 years — left for other countries in the Middle East, such as Syria and Jordan, and also the United States and Europe. By 2003, around 1.2m Christians remained, but since then the numbers are believed to have dwindled to around 600,000, many still concentrated in predominantly Christian enclaves around Mosul in the north, with around 150,000 in mixed Muslim-Christian communities in Baghdad.

Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, Um Raed says the mixed neighbourhood of al-Zaafarana, where the family lived, was safe. Following the 2003 invasion, viewed by many in Iraq as a takeover by Christian western powers, escalating violence between warring Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim factions and insurgents began to be matched by increasing attacks on Christian targets. Churches were bombed, priests assassinated. In October 2006 the mutilated body of an Orthodox priest in Mosul, an Al-Qaeda hotbed, was found with his head, arms and legs hacked off. The following year the secretary to an archbishop in the city was shot dead in his church.

This violence has escalated significantly in the past two years; in January 2008 three Chaldean and Assyrian churches in Mosul, two in Kirkuk and four in Baghdad were bombed by Al-Qaeda sympathisers. After a two-week killing spree in Mosul in February 2010 that left eight Christians dead, some Assyrian groups called for the formation of a separate province in the Nineveh plains northeast of Mosul, where Christians could form a majority and be protected by their own police and local militia.

“In the past few years we began to grow much more afraid. We only left the house when we had to,” says Um Raed, her eldest daughter Najlaa sitting, nodding, beside her.

Najlaa, 36, left her husband and five children behind in the village where they live near to Mosul when she accompanied her injured mother to Paris. “Immediately after the fall of Saddam nothing much changed,” says Najlaa. “We continued to dress normally. We would go to clubs. Until 2008 life was more or less normal. Then we started hearing of entire families killed because they were Christians. All Christians became more afraid. But despite this we left things in the hands of God.” All this changed on October 31 last year, when both of her brothers perished.

The terrifying scene faced by those in the sacristy before Iraqi security forces eventually brought the five-hour siege to an end is described by another survivor who took refuge there. Samer, like most of those evacuated, doesn’t want to reveal his full name for fear that family members left behind in Iraq may be targeted. The 28-year-old was left physically unscathed but deeply psychologically scarred by the attack.

“When you’re stuck in a small room with around a hundred people for hours it’s already a crisis,” he says. “Add to that the firing of weapons, explosion of grenades, the screaming of your loved ones and friends as they are being killed and you are unable to do anything, how would you feel? What would you do, knowing that those outside are trying to storm the room in order to kill you too? How would you feel as you smell death and blood and burning flesh and hair? What do you do when someone standing next to you drops dead?” Samer says, as he sits in the military hospital in Paris where his younger brother Emil is being treated for gunshot wounds. “When another in front of you has his hand blown off and blood splatters on the faces of those around you? When you try to administer first aid to someone you think is wounded but then realise has died? When you try to protect those alive and terrified with you at same time as trying to save yourself?”

Samer and Emil were sitting three rows from the altar when gunmen stormed the cathedral. Emil was shot and collapsed between the pews. Samer, thinking his brother dead, threw himself to the floor and crawled to the sacristy, where he and others quickly barricaded themselves in with a bookcase jammed against the door. “Every beat of my heart in that place felt like a year. Every scream we heard outside took part of my life away,” he says.

Above the screaming, Samer heard a woman weeping for help, pleading for the door to the sacristy to be opened so she could hide too. He realised it was his childhood friend Raghda, who he knew had gone to church that day with her husband for a blessing after discovering she was expecting their first child. Despite the cries of others in the sacristy not to open the door, Samer heaved the barricade away just enough to drag his injured friend inside.

“Raghda was sobbing, telling us they had killed her husband,” says Samer, who then hurled a book at the one light in the sacristy, plunging those around him into semi-darkness. Outside, terrorists were picking off worshippers one by one. Husbands were slaughtered in front of wives. Babies were killed in front of parents. One mother who whimpered that she did not know how to stop her infant crying was told by one of the gunmen “I’ll show you how!” He took aim at the child’s head and fired, then shot the baby’s mother, father and grandfather.

Thwarted by the barricade against the sacristy door, terrorists then started throwing flares and sound grenades through a ventilation shaft into the sealed room. Samer describes how one man jammed beside him was hit by shrapnel. It was 34-year-old Mohammed Munir, who had only been back in Baghdad a month, after five years studying engineering in Russia. Shrapnel blew off his left arm below the elbow and the toes off his sister Manal, beside him. “She fell on top of those sitting on the floor, spilling her blood. I thought both would bleed to death,” says Samer. When Samer noticed Raghda’s breathing was growing heavier, he begged her to talk to him. “Then I felt something warm on my leg. It was Raghda’s blood. She was bleeding to death. She died in my arms, her unborn child too… her only crime being that she prayed to her God.”

Emil survived; so did Mohammed Munir and his sister Manal. They were accompanied to Paris by their younger brother Murad, who explodes with anger at the way his siblings and others in the cathedral were left for so long in the hands of the terrorists: “I blame Maliki and his government. Why weren’t we defended? Why were we left there to be slaughtered?”

Qussai was one of the few who witnessed what happened outside the cathedral in the early stages of the assault. The 31-year-old volunteer guard for the cathedral, who had worshipped there since childhood, had accompanied his wife and baby daughter into the cathedral that day before taking up his position patrolling the grounds. Qussai said that for some weeks before he had noticed security around the cathedral had grown lax. While government buildings close by had their usual state-security armed details, an armoured personnel carrier (APC) which was normally parked in a street adjacent to the cathedral (for the church’s protection) had not been there. When Qussai called the security forces to ask why not, he was told there were not enough forces to protect all areas and that the APC had been directed elsewhere by the ministry of the interior. Qussai, like many Iraqi Christians, believes there was more to it than that: “Ever since 2003 we have heard we are an unwanted minority. Our lives changed. We did what we could to protect ourselves.”

On the day of the assault, Qussai and nine other volunteers a were, as usual, only lightly armed. Unknown to those inside the cathedral, the loud explosion they heard before the building was stormed was a car bomb detonated in a street nearby, causing a diversion so that the terrorists could mount their attack. When Qussai saw terrorists hauling rice sacks full of weapons over a back perimeter wall of the cathedral he began shooting, hitting one assailant before a grenade was hurled in his direction, ripping open his stomach.

As Qussai dragged himself towards the shelter of a small guardroom in the grounds, he saw terrorists carry the man he had shot to the cathedral entrance and detonate the suicide belt he was wearing to blow a hole in its doors. “I have never seen anything so horrific,” says Qussai. “The lower part of the man’s torso lay propped against the church as they stormed in.”

Once inside the guardroom, Qussai heard the voice of a woman crying behind the door of a cupboard. He opened it to find his wife and 10-month-old daughter cowering inside; his wife had left the cathedral minutes before it was attacked to breastfeed their baby and ducked there for cover when the car bomb exploded.

“When she saw me she started to wail,” says Qussai. “I told her to tear down a curtain to wrap around my stomach and then pushed her back inside the cupboard with my daughter and told her not to make a sound.” For the next five hours Qussai sat propped against the cupboard door in a pool of his own blood until he was found by security forces. He seethes with anger in the French hospital. “What happened wasn’t random and I will never forgive the government. Where was the army? Where were the police? Where was the state? I ask the British government and the West to save all Iraqi Christians from the plan to eradicate them,” he pleads.

Like most of those evacuated, Qussai is in no doubt he wants to stay in France — if his wife and baby daughter are allowed to join him. But the fate of family members like his, left behind in Iraq, quickly became ensnared in the changing political fortunes of those who engineered the evacuation. Shortly after the airlift, Bernard Kouchner, a humanitarian, fell out of favour with Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government. Kouchner won few friends in France when he spoke out publicly against the mass deportation of Roma; one opinion poll saw his popularity plummet by 11 points at a time when that of the extremist anti-immigration demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen rose by six.

France is Europe’s “leading land for asylum” in terms of the total number of those of all nationalities who apply for refuge there: 47,625 in 2009 (the last year for which full figures are available from the EU’s office of statistics), compared with 32,935 in Germany and 31,670 in Britain, which ranked third. But the total number granted asylum or “exceptional leave to remain” in France that year was 5,365, compared with 2,295 in Germany and 7,160 here. Britain granted asylum to 240 Iraqis in 2009, bringing the total number since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to more than 3,000. France granted asylum to 20 Iraqis in 2009, with the total number since 2003 standing at around 1,300. The majority of those granted asylum in France have been Christian. For those evacuated, more worrying than concerns over immigration policy in France is the posturing of politicians in Iraq — and of religious leaders internationally — about the fate of Christians who remain. Some senior Iraqi clerics, such as Archbishop Athanasios Dawood of the Syrian Orthodox Church in London, have called openly for Iraqi Christians to flee the country. “If they stay they will be finished one by one,” he says. Others, including Ignatius Metti Metok, Syriac Catholic Bishop of Baghdad, have urged them to stay, to bear witness to the faith.

Nevertheless, there are reports of a significant increase in the number of Christian families requesting baptism certificates in case these are needed by western embassies for visa processing. There have also been accusations that the Iraqi government is deliberately delaying applications for passports for Iraqi Christians trying to leave the country.

Despite charges that their government is failing to protect Christian minorities, many Iraqi politicians are infuriated by suggestions that western countries should open their gates to an exodus. While members of the Syrian Orthodox faith are autonomous from the Catholic Church, with their own unique liturgy and tradition, they continue to recognise the Pope’s authority, and as such the Vatican has urged Christians who do leave Iraq not to sell their property — so that they or their children would have a place to which they could one day return. Such considerations could not be further from the minds of those who survived the carnage of the cathedral in Baghdad. Asked if she would contemplate returning to Iraq one day, Um Raed sighs. Seeking more security elsewhere, two of her daughters had already left the country with their husbands and children before the attack .

“It’s a hard question. There is so much sadness in my heart,” she says. “Sometimes I would like to go back to sit by my sons’ graves, to see them that way. But then I think I have to make sure that the life of my one remaining son and his family is better, safer.”

Also languishing in the same asylum hostel as Um Raed is Um Wassim, the mother of the second priest killed, Father Wassim. She has no intention of ever returning. “What is there for us in Iraq now? What is most precious has been destroyed. When the invasion happened we thought things would be better, that the Americans had come to give us freedom and democracy. But in reality they have destroyed us. They destroyed everything, even our Christianity”.

Additional reporting by Ali Rifat

Beasts of Prey

August 28, 2005


In Guatemala, women are being raped, mutilated and murdered in their thousands. Even little girls have to constantly look over their shoulders. There is little chance of the perpetrators being caught — because often the law is right behind them. Christine Toomey investigates. Photographs by Carlos Reyes-Manzo

 There is a country where a man can escape a rape charge if he marries his victim — providing she is over the age of 12. In this country, having sex with a minor is only an offence if the girl can prove she is “honest” and did not act provocatively. Here, a battered wife can only prosecute her husband if her injuries are visible for more than 10 days. Here too it is accepted in some communities that fathers “introduce” their daughters to sex.

 In this country the body of a girl barely into her teens, or a mother, or a student, can be found trussed with barbed wire, horrifically mutilated, insults carved into her flesh, raped, murdered, beheaded and dumped on a roadside. In its capital city, barely a day goes by without another corpse being found. Bodies are appearing at an average of two a day this year: 312 in the first five months, adding to the 1,500 females raped, tortured and murdered in the past four years.

 This country is Guatemala, and to be a woman here is to be considered prey. Prey to murderers who know they stand little chance of being caught. Prey not just on the street, nor at night, nor in back alleys, but in their homes, outside offices, in broad daylight. In Guatemala someone has declared war on women. Someone has decreed it doesn’t matter that so many are dying in grotesque circumstances. Someone has decided that if a woman or a girl is found dead she must have asked for it, she must be a prostitute, too insignificant to warrant investigation. Everyone here knows women are being murdered on a huge scale, and not by one serial killer, nor two nor even three, but by a culture. So why is this happening? Why is it being allowed to continue?

 * * * * *

Manuela Sachaz was no prostitute. She was a baby-sitter, newly arrived in the city to care for the 10-month-old son of a working couple. They found her body on the floor in a pool of blood. The baby was propped up in a high chair, his breakfast still on the table in front of him. Both had been beheaded. The nanny had been raped and mutilated; her breasts and lips had been cut off, her legs slashed.

 Maria Isabel Veliz was just a happy teenage girl with a part-time job in a shop. She was found lying face down on wasteland to the west of the capital. Her hands and feet had been tied with barbed wire. She had been raped and stabbed; there was a rope around her neck, her face was disfigured from being punched, her body was punctured with small holes, her hair had been cut short and all her nails had been bent back.

 Nancy Peralta was a 30-year-old accountancy student who failed to return home from university. She was found stabbed 48 times; her killer or killers had tried to cut off her head.

 But you have to dig deep to find the families and talk to their neighbours and friends to learn about the terrible things that are happening in this small Central American country sandwiched between Mexico and El Salvador.

 Newspapers here carry a daily tally of the number of female corpses found strewn in the streets, but such discoveries are usually considered so insignificant they are relegated to a sentence or paragraph at the bottom of an inside page. Brief mention may be made of whether the woman has been scalped, tortured, decapitated, dismembered, trussed naked in barbed wire, abandoned on wasteland or, as is common, dumped in empty oil drums that serve as giant rubbish bins. Some reports might mention that “death to bitches” has been carved on the women’s bodies, though there is rarely a mention of whether the woman or girl, some as young as eight or nine, has been raped. According to Dr Mario Guerra, director of Guatemala City’s central morgue, the majority have. Many of the women are simply designated “XX”, or “identity unknown”. This is because they have often been taken far from the place where they were abducted and subjected to unimaginable tortures before being killed. It can take the women’s families days, weeks or months to trace them. Many are unrecognisable and, as there is no DNA profiling here, some are never claimed and simply buried in unmarked communal graves.

* * * * *

To truly understand what is happening in this country and what happened to Manuela, Maria Isabel or Nancy, you have to spend a few moments stepping back in time to the darkest days of Guatemala’s 30-year civil war. The slaughter began earlier here and lasted much longer than in El Salvador and neighbouring Nicaragua, though it escalated for similar reasons. It escalated because, in the context of the cold war, successive United States administrations felt threatened by the election of liberal and socialist governments in the region and the emergence of left-wing guerrilla insurgencies. Often secretly, they proceeded to pump massive military aid into these countries’ armed forces and right-wing rebels to fight the leftists — though in the case of Guatemala, what happened was a more blatant case of protecting US corporate interests.

 By the early 1950s, vast swathes of Guatemala lay in the hands of America’s United Fruit Company. In 1954, when the country’s left-leaning government started expropriating some of this land to distribute to the poor, the CIA, whose director had financial ties to the company, orchestrated a military coup. Land reform stopped, left-wing guerrilla groups began to form and the US-sponsored anti-insurgency campaign began. The 30-year cycle of repression that followed, reaching its bloodiest peak in the 1980s, was the most violent, though least reported, in Latin America. Large areas of the countryside were razed, their population, mostly Mayan Indian, massacred. Villagers were herded into churches and burnt, whole families sealed alive in wells. Political opponents were assassinated, women were raped before being mutilated and killed. The wombs of pregnant women were cut open and foetuses strung from trees. By the time the UN brokered a peace deal in 1996, over 200,000 had been killed, 40,000 “disappeared” and 1.3m had fled their homes, to leave the country or become internal refugees. This in a country with a population of little over 10m.

 When the Catholic Church concluded in 1998 that 93% of those killed (in what were later recognised as “acts of genocide”) had perished at the hands of the country’s armed forces, paramilitary death squads and the police, the bishop who wrote the report was bludgeoned to death on his doorstep. Unusually, given the country’s climate of almost complete impunity, three army officers were convicted of his murder.

 In recognition that it was those the US had armed, and in part trained in methods of sadistic repression, who were responsible for most of the atrocities, the UN-sponsored peace deal demanded that the country’s armed forces and police be reduced and reformed. It also demanded that those responsible for the worst atrocities be brought to justice. Not only did this not happen, but Efrian Rios Montt, the general accused of acts of genocide at the height of the war (charges famously dismissed by the former US president Ronald Reagan as a “bum rap”), subsequently stood for president. Though he failed in this bid, he was eventually elected president of Congress — a position similar to the Speaker of the House. And while the army and police force were pared down, and in the case of the police their uniforms updated, the men did not change. In a land that has seen such lawless atrocity go unpunished, it is not surprising that life should be cheap. And in a land where the culture of machismo is so pronounced, it is not surprising that men have become accustomed to thinking they can murder, torture and rape women with impunity.

 This is not, of course, how the police here see it. It is astonishing how quickly the police chief Mendez, in charge of a special unit set up last year to investigate the murder of women, agrees to see me. Considering his workload, you would think he was a busy man. But when I call to make an appointment I’m told he can see me at any time. The reason for this courtesy quickly becomes apparent. Not a lot seems to going on in Mendez’s office; his unit appears to be little more than window-dressing. Tucked away in a low building on the roof of the National Civil Police HQ in the heart of the capital, the office looks almost vacant; four desks sit in the far corners of the sparsely furnished room, separated by a row of filing cabinets. The only wall decoration is a large chart of the human body “to help police officers write up their reports of injuries inflicted on murder victims”. There are four computers, only two of which are switched on. Apart from Mendez and his secretary, there are three other police officials in the room at the time of my visit. All sit huddled in a corner chatting and laughing throughout the interview.

  When asked what he believes lies at the root of such extraordinary violence towards women in Guatemala, Mendez repeats a mantra that seems to be widely held as normal: “Women are coming out of their homes and participating in all aspects of society more. Many men hate them for this.” He adds, as if it were necessary, that “this is a country with many machistas [male chauvinists]”. It is difficult to interpret the latter as a complaint, however, when the police chief’s young secretary is standing behind him in an overtight uniform, stroking his hair as we speak.

 Mendez attributes the general climate of violence to burgeoning drug-trafficking, the proliferation of illegal arms and to vicious infighting between rival street gangs — known here as maras, after a breed of swarming ants. In a country with at least 1.5m unregistered firearms, which last year alone imported an estimated 84m rounds of ammunition, this is a large part of the picture. Guatemala City is now one of the deadliest cities in the world, with a per-capita murder rate five times higher than even Bogota in war-torn Colombia. The police chief taints this overview, however, by suggesting that one way of tackling the problem would be to get rid of the bothersome legal presumption of innocence when arresting suspects.

 Given such attitudes, it is hardly surprising that less than 10% of the murders of women have been investigated. Even less so when you consider the case of 19-year-old Manuela and the baby, Anthony Hernandez, in her care.

 In the vicinity of the small apartment that baby’s parents, Monica and Erwin Hernandez, shared with their son and the baby-sitter, on the second floor of an apartment block in the Villa Nueva district of Guatemala City, there lived a middle-aged police officer. Clutching a photo of her grandson and struggling to talk through her tears, Cervelia Roldan recalls how the baby’s mother, Monica, came looking for her after she finished work on the Wednesday before Easter last year. “She asked me if I had seen Manuela, because she wasn’t opening the apartment door and my daughter-in-law didn’t have a key. We went back to the apartment together and started calling out Manuela’s name, but there was no answer. Then that man, the policeman, came to the front door of his apartment block. It was about five in the afternoon, but he was wearing just his dressing gown. He seemed very agitated and told us to look for Manuela in the market.”

 When Cervelia’s son went back to his apartment a short while later with his wife and mother and still nobody answered their calls, he broke a window to open the apartment door. He found the body of the baby-sitter and their child inside. Three days later the policeman shaved off his beard and moved away. “Neighbours told me later how he used to pester Manuela,” says Cervelia, who claims that after the double murder, Manuela’s bloodstained clothing was found in his house. The authorities dispute this: they say the blood on the clothing does not match that of the baby or his nanny. Cervelia, however, says she has seen the policeman in the neighbourhood several times since the killings. “He laughs in my face,” she says. “What I want is justice, but what do we have if we can’t rely on the support of the law?”

 It is a burning question. Of the 527 murders of women and girls last year, only one of these deaths has resulted in a prosecution. And what explains the extreme savagery to which female, yet few male, murder victims are subjected? Nearly 40% of those killed are registered as housewives and over 20% as students. Yet according to Mendez, the hallmark mutilations of women killed are the result of “satanic rituals” that form initiation ceremonies for new gang members. The overwhelming impression given by the government is that gangs are to blame for most of the killings. A spokesman for the Public Ministry — the equivalent of the Home Office — where the file on the murder of Anthony Hernandez and Manuela Sachaz now languishes, claims they could have been murdered because Manuela was a gang member, even though the teenager had only recently arrived in the capital from the countryside to work as a baby-sitter.

In the poorest barrios of Guatemala City, where gangs proliferate, gang members — known as pandilleros — admit some women are caught up in inter-gang rivalry. “But a lot of women are being murdered so police can blame their deaths on us and kill us indiscriminately,” said one heavily tattooed 19-year-old slouched against a wall in a neighbourhood where the headless corpse of a young woman had been found a few hours previously. “The police only have to see a group of two or more of us with tattoos hanging about and they start shooting.”

 We witnessed this first-hand. Within minutes of arriving in this neighbourhood to speak to members of the country’s largest gang, the Mara Salvatrucha, two squad cars came screeching across the rail tracks, police jumped from their cars, cocked their rifles and ordered the youths to brace themselves against the walls. According to the police, a “concerned” member of the community had called them, worried about the presence of strangers — the photographer Carlos Reyes and me — in their midst. This seems unlikely. A likelier scenario is that the police were tipped off that a group of pandilleros was gathering. Had we not been there, the gang members are convinced they would have been shot. Had this happened, there would almost certainly have been no investigation. For, since the end of the civil war, organised crime networks that have infiltrated the government, the army and the police at every level, recruit gang members to do their dirty work, then murder them — both to eliminate witnesses and “socially cleanse” the streets of those regarded as a common scourge.

Human-rights workers, who are regularly subjected to death threats and intimidation, also say blaming the murder rate on gang violence is a deliberate oversimplification of the problem. Women, they say, are not only being “killed like flies” because they are considered of no worth, but they are also being used as pawns in power struggles between competing organised crime networks. “A key element in the history of Guatemala is the use of violence against women to terrorise the population,” explains Eda Gaviola, director of the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH). “Those who profit from this state of terror are the organised criminals involved in everything from narco-trafficking to the illegal adoption racket, money-laundering and kidnapping. There are clear signs of connections between such activities and the military, police and private security companies, which many ex-army and police officers joined when their forces were cut back.”

 Earlier this year, the ombudsman’s office issued a report saying it had received information implicating 639 police officers in criminal activities in the past 12 months, and that it had opened cases against 383 of those, who were charged with crimes ranging from extortion and robbery to rape and murder. Given that most of the population is afraid to report crimes, this figure is almost certain to be a considerable underestimate of police complicity.

 Three years ago, Amnesty International labelled Guatemala “a corporate Mafia state” controlled by “hidden powers” made up of an “unholy alliance between traditional sectors of the oligarchy, some new entrepreneurs, the police, military and common criminals”. Today, to coincide with the publication of this article, Amnesty is launching a protest appeal on its website to form a petition of those appalled

by what is happening to women in Guatemala. This will be presented to the country’s president, in an effort to put international pressure on authorities in the country to take action to stop it. Without such pressure, few believe the government will take the problem seriously.

 For Guatemala is a small country, condemned by its geography to relative obscurity. In neighbouring Mexico, in Ciudad Juarez, a city that sits on the northern border with the US, the murder of over 300 women in the past decade has drawn international attention. Film stars such as Jane Fonda and Sally Field, accompanied by busloads of female students from around the world calling themselves “vagina warriors”, have marched into town for special performances of The Vagina Monologues, to highlight and denounce what has been dubbed “femicide”.  Yet here, few pay any heed to what is happening.

 An attempt by the UN to set up a commission with powers to investigate and prosecute the country’s “hidden powers” — expected to serve as a model for other post-conflict countries — has been dismissed by the Guatemalan authorities as “unconstitutional”. There is now a debate about how the terms of the commission can be amended to make it acceptable. But as the talking continues, so does the killing.

 * * * * *

Rosa Franco has been fighting for the past four years for the authorities to investigate the murder of her teenage daughter Maria Isabel. Surrounded by photos of the girl wearing a white dress with flowers in her hair at a church service to celebrate her 15th birthday, Rosa hands me some notes her daughter wrote her before she was killed — a few months after these photos were taken. They are the tender notes of a teenager with deep religious faith. “Sometimes my daughter would visit me at work and pretend she needed to use my computer for her homework. But what she really wanted was to leave me a note telling me how much she loved me,” says Rosa, a secretary who had been studying for a law degree before Maria Isabel died in mid-December 2001. “She was proud of what I was trying to do,” says Rosa, who was left to raise her daughter and two younger sons alone after their father left them. One of the notes, written on Valentine’s Day of that year, tells her mother to “always look ahead and up, never down”. This has been an almost impossible task since the day her daughter disappeared.

 Rosa remembers every detail of that day. “As usual, she did not want breakfast — she wanted to stay thin — though I persuaded her to have a bowl of cornflakes before she left for work. I had given my daughter permission to work in a shop during the Christmas holidays, as she wanted to buy herself some new clothes. I wasn’t well that day and went to sleep early. When I woke up the next day and my daughter wasn’t there, I went to the police to report her missing. They said she’d probably run away with a boyfriend.”

 That night, while watching a round-up of the news, Rosa recognised, from the clothing Maria Isabel had been wearing when she left for work the day before, the body of her daughter lying face-down on wasteland to the west of the capital. When she went to the morgue and discovered the brutality to which her daughter had been submitted, she lost consciousness. “When I collapsed, they told me not to get so worked up,” says Rosa, who later suffered a heart attack. When Rosa began pushing the police to find her daughter’s killers, presenting them with records that the girl’s mobile phone had been used after her death, and tracking down witnesses who gave descriptions of the girl being pulled from a car, the authorities accused her of meddling and dismissed her daughter publicly as a prostitute.

 Such smear campaigns are used to intimidate the families of female murder victims. A spate of killings of prostitutes was given prominent media coverage after the police started compiling statistics according to the sex of murder victims four years ago; it was only then that the scale of violent deaths among women emerged.

 Undeterred by this tactic, Rosa has continued to demand justice — and the intimidation has increased. Her teenage sons are often followed home from school. Cars with several occupants watching her house sit a short distance from her home in regular rotation — one is there the night we sit talking in her living room. Human-rights workers say such surveillance is a mark that the murder has a connection with officialdom and organised crime. “I’m afraid,” Rosa says. “But when I see reports of more and more murders of girls and women, I know what other mothers are going through. I vow I will not give up my fight.”

 It is a sentiment shared by two sisters, Maria Elena and Liliana Peralta, whose elder sister, Nancy, was killed just a few months after Maria Isabel. When the sisters and their parents reported that the 30-year-old accountancy student had not returned home from university in February 2002, they were told by police to come back in a few days if she didn’t turn up. The next day, their father read about the body of an unidentified young woman being found on the outskirts of the capital. When he rang the morgue he was told it could not be that of his daughter, as the physical description of her did not match, though one item of clothing she had been wearing when she left home was the same as that on the body recovered. When the sisters’ father went to the morgue to check, he found his daughter had not only been killed, but her body had been horrifically mutilated.

 “When I talk to the police, they jokingly refer to my sister as ‘the living dead’. They insisted she had not died, as some other student had assumed her identity to enrol on a new university course. They showed no interest in investigating what had happened,” says Maria Elena, who is now studying law to bring her sister’s killers to justice.

One of the complaints of Rosa Franco and the Peralta family is that even the most basic forensic tests, such as those of body fluids, that may help identify the murderers in both cases were never carried out at the morgue. Its director, Dr Guerra, argues that his efforts to contribute to criminal investigations are hampered by the lack of a forensic laboratory on site and the absence of DNA-testing facilities in the country; samples, when taken, have to be flown to Costa Rica or Mexico for analysis. “Until a few years ago, the US helped train our workers in forensic science,” says Guerra. “But now that help has stopped.”

Convinced they are being thwarted by the Guatemalan authorities, Rosa Franco and the Peralta family are considering taking their cases to the Inter-American Commission. But most victims’ families have neither the resources nor the know-how to launch a legal fight. Instead they sit in queues waiting to talk to human-rights workers and beg for news about what is being done to bring those who killed their loved ones to justice. The usual answer is nothing.

 On just one day in June, these queues included Catalina Macario, the mother of 12-year-old Hilda, who had been eviscerated with a machete for resisting rape — Hilda survived, but was shunned by her community because of the stigma attached to sexual violence — and Maria Alma de Villatoro, whose 21-year-old daughter, Priscilla, was stabbed to death by her boyfriend for refusing to have an abortion.

 “Women here are dying worse than animals. When the municipality announced this summer that it was launching a campaign to exterminate stray dogs, the public took to the streets in protest and it was stopped,” says Andrea Barrios of CALDH. “But there is a great deal of indifference towards the murder of women, because a picture has been painted that those who die somehow deserve what they get.”

 “Neither the police nor the government are taking this seriously. Yet what we are observing is pure hatred against women in the way they are killed, raped, tortured and mutilated,” says Hilda Morales, the lawyer heading a network of women’s groups formed as the problem has escalated. The situation is unlikely to change, she argues, unless international pressure is brought to bear and foreign investors are made aware of what is going on in the country and start questioning their business dealings there.

 Claudia Samayoa, another member of the network, says: “Fifty years ago, the UN signed a declaration decreeing we all have certain basic human rights . With so much conflict in the world, if anyone were to say a choice must be made between helping us and helping those in Darfur, we’d say help Darfur. But how does the international community make such selections? What are the agreements they sponsor worth if there is no follow-through to ensure they’re met?”

 Far removed from the mayhem of modern-day Guatemala City, in the country’s northern rainforest, rich with remains of pre-Colombian Mayan civilisation, archeologists entering a long-sealed crypt recently stumbled upon an ancient murder scene. The remains of two women, one pregnant, were arranged in a ritual fashion: the result, it was said, of a power struggle between rival Mayan cities. More than a millennium-and-a-half later, the women of Guatemala are still being slaughtered as part of a savage power play.

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The Killing Fields

July 07, 2002


For decades, murderers, torturers and dictators came from many Latin American countries to a military academy in Georgia for ‘professional training’. Now thousands have learnt the truth, and are joining the campaign to have it closed down. Christine Toomey investigates

As Major Joseph Blair – United States Army, retired – tells it, the incident was ‘funny as hell’. There was Colonel Pablo Belmar, one of Augusto Pinochet’s most notorious henchmen – accused of torture and murder during Chile’s military dictatorship – his chest puffed out, in full-dress uniform, delivering a four-hour lecture on human rights. Snickering and joking among themselves at the back of the class were senior military officers from Guatemala and El Salvador. ‘Guys,’ says Blair, ‘who had just participated in the genocides of Central America. No one asked any questions. They just sat listening to Belmar go, ‘Here’s the Geneva Convention. Here’s the Hague Convention. It’s on the slide. Read it. Now let’s get onto the next thing.’ No one was interested.’ Blair gulps back laughter as he recalls their reaction: ‘They were going, ‘Oh, bullsh. Human rights exist at the point of a gun.’’

An edge of hysteria and despair has crept into Blair’s voice. He is exhausted. He has spent six hours cataloguing a series of abuses that took place at a military training facility known by opponents as the School of Assassins. It sounds as if the scene described might have happened in some obscure corner of a Latin American country where few dare to challenge a man in uniform. It did not. It took place in 1987 at the heart of America’s military establishment. The class was held at an academy called the School of the Americas (SOA), located at Fort Benning, the infantry HQ of the United States Army, in rolling hills on the outskirts of Columbus, Georgia.

Late into the evening, with the summer heat of the Deep South becoming oppressive, Blair pulls file after file out of a large cardboard box as he delves deep into an ugly chapter of his country’s military past that the Pentagon has, in recent months, taken measures to erase. Blair knows what he is talking about. He was once a senior logistics instructor at the Spanish-language training facility, set up more than 50 years ago (and run at taxpayers’ expense) with the stated aim of providing ‘professional training’ for soldiers from Latin America and ‘inculcating them with American notions of democracy’.

Leafing through a report, across which he has scrawled ‘torture manuals’, Blair talks of how soldiers were given counterintelligence instruction, which included the best methods of recruiting and controlling informants (arresting and beating their relatives, if necessary), extortion, blackmail, false imprisonment, how to administer a truth serum intravenously, and how opponents could best be ‘neutralised’ – a euphemism for executed.

Not only did the American military turn a blind eye to known human-rights abusers attending and lecturing at the academy, says Blair, it also paid their membership to exclusive golf clubs during the time they spent there, plied them with tickets to big sporting events and took them on outings to Disneyland. He goes on to describe how soldiers routinely arrived at the academy with suitcases stuffed with tens of thousands of dollar bills, which they used to buy new cars and luxury household goods to be shipped back to their own countries.

‘It was common knowledge that the School of the Americas was the best place a Latin American officer could go to launder his drug money,’ says Blair, who retired from the army in 1989, with his conscience about what he had witnessed at the academy increasingly troubling him.

A few months after he retired, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter were murdered by the military in El Salvador. When an investigating team of US congressmen identified 19 of the 26 Salvadorian soldiers held responsible for the deaths as graduates of the School of the Americas, Blair, a devout Catholic, felt he could remain silent no longer. One of the senior officers responsible for planning the murders was Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes, head of a Salvadorian death squad called the Patriotic Ones. Elena Fuentes had been a senior guest instructor at the SOA in 1986, and for much of that time had occupied the desk next to Blair. ‘He was treated as a top dog there,’ says the retired major. ‘They kept inviting him back, year after year.’

It was enough to push Blair to join a growing band of protesters campaigning to have the School of the Americas closed down. After the school’s association with those involved in the Jesuits’ murder was revealed, the protesters demanded that details of all those who had attended the school be declassified. This brought to light a roll call of senior alumni which read like a who’s who of the most brutal military dictators and human-rights violators in Latin America over the past five decades: Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama; Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua; Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina; Generals Hector Gramajo and Manuel Antonio Callejas of Guatemala; Hugo Banzar Suarez of Bolivia; the El Salvador death-squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson. A more detailed examination of the declassified lists reveals that more than 500 soldiers who had received training at the academy have since been held responsible for some of the most hideous atrocities carried out in countries in the region during the years they were racked by civil wars and since.

The American military claims there is no link between the academy and the appalling record of some of its alumni. They dismiss these brutal graduates as ‘a few bad apples’. Some, they say, only attended brief courses that would not have been enough to turn ‘bunny rabbits into rattlesnakes’. Compared with more than 60,000 soldiers who have passed through the gates of the School of the Americas since it first opened its doors at Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946 – it transferred to Fort Benning in 1984 – the several hundred charged with murder, rape and genocide, they argue, are ‘statistically insignificant’.

Late last year, the School of the Americas was closed. A month later, another military training academy was inaugurated in the same building under a different name. It has many of the same staff members as its predecessor, much of the same curriculum and the same remit of training, exclusively in Spanish, soldiers and others in the security forces of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. This crude attempt to sweep the school’s sordid legacy under the carpet has inflamed its opponents even further. They draw little distinction between the two institutions. ‘New name, same shame,’ they say, vowing to continue their campaign to have the academy closed down. As the activities of foreign military personnel trained or funded at one time by the United States come under intense scrutiny in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks – Osama bin Laden is the latest in a long line of fanatics once courted and payrolled by America – such confident disclaimers about rabbits not turning into rattlesnakes seem more questionable. The US trains more foreign military and security personnel than any other country.

Organisations such as Amnesty International have long campaigned for programmes of this kind to have sufficient respect for human rights built into them, and to be subject to far greater oversight and accountability. The civil wars of Central and South America, in which the US military and CIA were heavily involved, and which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, are a world away from the present conflict. But failure to act with honour and integrity, denial of culpability and refusal to apologise or attempt to rectify past injustices eventually come back to haunt any country, especially its military. Some refuse to allow such injustices to be forgotten. This is their story.

A signpost at the entrance to Fort Benning boasts that the military base is ‘The Best Army Installation in the World’. Another says all visitors are welcome. All, that is, bar a charismatic Catholic priest, Father Roy Bourgeois, and over 1,000 of his supporters. They have been issued with ‘ban-and-bar’ court orders that subject them to immediate arrest and prosecution if they cross a white line painted on the tarmac road at the entrance to the military base.

As an act of defiance, Bourgeois has installed himself in a small apartment once used as soldiers’ quarters just a few yards in front of the white line. He has been there for over 10 years. Every few years, he has crossed the line to stage a demonstration against the School of the Americas, located at the centre of the base. He has been arrested four times and has spent more than four years in prison as a result – months of it in solitary confinement.

Bourgeois was first arrested when he staged a protest after reading a 1983 newspaper item that hundreds of soldiers from El Salvador were being brought to the US for training at the academy. The priest, who had joined the Maryknoll missionary order after serving as an officer in Vietnam, had spent much of the previous decade working with the poor in Bolivia and El Salvador (then in the grip of one of the bloody cold-war conflicts consuming Latin America, in which US-backed right-wing militaries battled left-wing insurgencies).

Bourgeois had witnessed the brutality of Latin American militaries first-hand, and had been deeply shocked by the rape and murder of four Ursuline nuns, two of them his friends, at the hands of the military in El Salvador in 1980. The same year, soldiers gunned down San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero as he was saying Mass. Bourgeois did not know it then, but those responsible for both crimes had undergone training at the School of the Americas.

Late one night, Bourgeois and two supporters drove onto the military base dressed in second-hand army uniforms. They climbed a tree next to the dormitory where the Salvadorian soldiers were sleeping, and strung up a loudspeaker to blast a tape recording of the last sermon Romero had delivered before he was shot. As the soldiers came running out of their barracks, army sirens were switched on to drown out the archbishop’s words. Bourgeois and the others were dragged down, beaten, arrested and charged with trespassing and impersonating army officers, and sent to jail for 18 months.

After he was released, Bourgeois sought solace in a Trappist monastery before he started to preach to congregations around the US about the devastation being wrought in El Salvador by the military, at that time receiving more than $50m a year in funding from the US government. The murder of six Jesuit priests by the Salvadorian military in 1989 again prompted Bourgeois to take direct action. When the congressional investigation named those responsible as graduates of the academy, Bourgeois drove for 24 hours to the gates of Fort Benning, where he and a small group of supporters started a hunger strike. After soldiers threw tear gas at them and jeered as they drove past, the priest vowed to take up a permanent presence at the gates to the base until the School of the Americas was closed.

On the first anniversary of the murder of the Jesuits, Bourgeois and his supporters were arrested again after they made their way onto the base to splatter phials of blood across the facade of the academy. Again, they were sent to jail. Every year since, Bourgeois and a growing band of supporters have staged a demonstration at the gates of Fort Benning around the anniversary of the Jesuits’ deaths.

This weekend, thousands of protesters will again stage a demonstration by mounting a mock funeral procession in which coffins marked with the names of men, women and children killed by military officers trained at the School of the Americas will be paraded through the streets of Columbus.

Bourgeois admits that a driving force behind his protest movement is what he and his supporters see as the United States’ exploitative foreign policy. ‘We’re constantly being told by our president that we are a benevolent force in the world, some kind of Mother Teresa,’ says the 62-year-old, as he sits beneath a pencil drawing of the four nuns raped and murdered in El Salvador. ‘But we need to understand why so many people in the world hate us – and what went on in the School of the Americas is just one example of why some people do. Our military pays lip service to moving into the future. But this place is a cold-war relic, a dinosaur. There are some institutions that are connected to so much death, suffering and horror that they cannot be transformed, and this is one of them.’

What started as a small band of demonstrators has grown into a well-organised protest movement. Partly funded by Bourgeois’ Maryknoll order, the movement has a lobbying office in Washington, DC, and has gradually enlisted the support of both Republican and Democrat congressmen. One of its most vocal supporters during the last years he served as representative for Massachusetts was Joseph Kennedy, who condemned the School of the Americas for ‘running more dictators than any other school in the history of the world’. In recent years,the actors Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen have added Hollywood glitz to the protest movement. Sheen has twice travelled to Columbus to link hands with demonstrators at the gates of Fort Benning. Last year he was arrested for trespassing. But most of those who gather at the gates are ordinary Americans – families with young children, college students and other nuns and priests who are prepared to go to jail in their struggle to have the military academy closed.

Earlier this year, an 88-year-old nun, Dorothy Hennessey, and her 68-year-old sister, Gwen, were among 26 men and women sentenced to six months in prison for protesting on federal property. ‘To have done nothing would have made us accomplices to what was going on at the School of the Americas,’ Sister Dorothy said in a whispery voice as she sat in an ill-fitting prison uniform in the visitors’ room of Pekin federal correctional facility, Illinois.

‘What message does it send to the world that we lock up elderly nuns while we fete torturers and assassins?’ asks Major Joseph Blair. ‘We should be bringing known human-rights abusers who have attended the School of the Americas before a war crimes tribunal and prosecuting them, just as we have the Bosnian war criminals.’

It was a tip-off about ‘inappropriate material’ contained in counterintelligence training manuals used at the School of the Americas that was to give the greatest impetus to those lobbying to have the academy closed down.

While Blair had already started talking about abuses he had witnessed during his time at the school, he was prohibited by secrecy laws from a divulging much of what he knew. But in 1996, a government report, referring to an earlier investigation by the Pentagon into CIA operations in Central America, made a brief reference to ‘improper instruction material’ used to train Latin American officers from 1982 to 1991. Congressman Kennedy made an immediate application, under the Freedom of Information Act, for the training material to be made public.

After what he described as a ‘hellish struggle’, seven manuals, written in Spanish, were eventually released. These became known as the ‘torture manuals’ and caused a public outcry. One manual, entitled Manejo de Fuente – Handling of Sources – talks of ‘the arrest or detention of the employee’s [counterintelligence agent’s] parents’ and ‘beating as part of the placement plan of said employee in the guerrilla organisation’. It goes on to talk of ‘destroying resistance’ by the external control of heat, air and light. ‘If a subject refuses to comply once a threat has been made, it must be carried out,’ the manual continues. ‘If it is not carried out, then subsequent threats will prove ineffective.’

At first, the American military said such ‘objectionable material’ contained in the manuals was never taught at the School of the Americas; it was, they said, simply provided as ‘supplementary reading material’. Then they said the manuals were supplied to only a ‘handful’ of soldiers at the school between 1989 and 1991. The government report, however, states that the manuals had already been widely distributed for use throughout Latin America by mobile teams of American intelligence advisers. Although, it concluded, the material contained in the manuals was ‘not consistent with United States policy’ and had somehow ‘evaded the established system of doctrinal controls’.

With the documents in the public domain, Blair struck out. ‘It’s bullsh to say those manuals were a violation of US policy. They were teaching this stuff for 35 years at the school,’ he told those who cared to listen. ‘Those ideas were the meat and potatoes of what you needed to get intelligence out of people.’

Although Blair himself had never taught counterintelligence at the School of the Americas, he had experience of intelligence matters in Vietnam, where he had served as an assistant to William Colby, who went on to become director of the CIA. Much of what was contained in the ‘torture manuals’, it has since emerged, was taken directly from training material used for American counterintelligence instruction in Vietnam. Over the years, a number of graduates of the School of the Americas, and soldiers who have served under officers trained at the academy, have made claims about being shown films shot by American soldiers in Vietnam. Most have spoken on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. One Guatemalan soldier, whose commanding officers were trained at the academy, describes how he and other young conscripts were shown old black-and-white films of Vietcong being tortured during interrogation sessions by the US military. A senior military officer from Honduras, who was a student at the School of the Americas when it was located in Panama, says he was shown films demonstrating torture methods such as attaching a bucket full of stones to a man’s testicles. Others have spoken of homeless people being picked off the streets of Panama and used as guinea pigs by students learning which were the most sensitive nerve endings in the body and how individuals could be kept alive while being tortured.

Further powerful indictments of the academy come from the testimonies of those, such as Adriana Portillo-Bartow, who suffered at the hands of its students. Adriana’s 10-year-old daughter Rosaura, nine-year-old daughter Glenda, baby sister, father, stepmother and sister-in-law were all abducted by the Guatemalan military in 1981, during the country’s protracted civil war.

Adriana, who now lives in Chicago with her two remaining daughters, has never discovered the truth. But she has become the first private citizen to file a lawsuit against the Guatemalan military since a fragile peace accord was signed in her homeland five years ago. One of those she names in her suit is General Manuel Callejas, the senior intelligence officer charged with choosing targets for assassination at the time her family was abducted. Callejas is one of 38 senior military officers accused by a United Nations Truth Commission of committing atrocities who underwent training at the School of the Americas. Adriana has set up an organisation called Where Are the Children (Watch), to try to trace what happened to children such as her daughters and baby sister. After talking for a long time, her voice breaks: ‘It is my worst nightmare that I would not recognise my own children now, even if I were to pass them in the street.’

The disappearance of Adriana’s family was one of the cases outlined in a 1998 report, sponsored by Guatemala’s Catholic Church, which concluded that the military was responsible for 80% of the 150,000 deaths and 50,000 disappearances that occurred during Guatemala’s civil war. The report was intended to lay the groundwork for future prosecutions of the military. Shortly after completion, its author, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was shot dead. The military officer convicted of killing him is a graduate of School of the Americas.

As the litany of crimes committed by academy alumni has mounted, it has become the focus of intense controversy and congressional debate. Long infamous in Latin America, the training facility has become a growing embarrassment for the Pentagon too. Congress has twice voted on stopping its funding. Both times the motion has been defeated, most recently by a very small margin.

The concrete barricades that once encircled building 35 at Fort Benning have been removed. The spacious, pink Palladian mansion that housed the School of the Americas now has a welcome mat that reads Libertad, Paz y Fraternidad – Liberty, Peace and Fraternity. ‘We welcome everybody here,’ says Colonel Richard Downie, the ebullient new director of the renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

In response to questions about how the new institute differs from its predecessor, Downie has a set response: ‘I am not all that familiar with the School of the Americas. I am the director of the Western Hemisphere Institute.’

Thumbing enthusiastically through a flip chart that details the institute’s mission, Downie is keen to stress that the institute is ‘focused on 21st-century challenges and threats – quite different from the cold-war communism and guerrilla movement challenges the School of the Americas faced. We concentrate on instruction in peacekeeping, disaster relief, border observation and counter-drug operations’, he says.

The colonel points out that the training facility, which now comes under the direct authority of the Defense Department (rather than the army) for reasons of civilian oversight, has also started teaching civilians, including police officers. Downie admits, however, that it is impossible to transform the academy overnight: ‘You have to realise that the School of the Americas closed on December 15 and we opened up on January 17. You can’t expect an institute to change on a dime. I liken this to an aircraft carrier making a turn. It takes a long sweep to move around. But,’ he adds, ‘I would invite you or anybody who wants to come see any of our classes.’

The colonel is keen to stress that human-rights instruction plays an important role in all courses now, though on the two days I spend at the academy there is no such instruction taking place. When I question the Salvadorian officer responsible for giving human-rights instruction to the most senior officers at the academy, he tells me he is referring fellow Latin Americans to lessons learnt from an investigation into the massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers at My Lai in 1968.

Why, I ask, not look at lessons learnt from tragedies closer to home – such as the slaughter of 900 men, women and children by the military in the Salvadorian village of El Mozote in 1981? ‘It is easier to study a situation that happened a long time ago and far away’ than discuss events that might ‘upset national sensibilities’, Lieutenant Colonel Julio Garcia answers vaguely, before excusing himself.

Despite Downie’s energetic attempts to promote his institute as forward-looking, tolerant and eager to support human rights, some of his staff appear slow to adopt his mantra. They clearly regard the academy’s bloody reputation as a joking matter. On one occasion, an American military officer interrupts my conversation with another member of staff, and advises the person I am talking to that he has ‘got somebody downstairs in the torture chamber’. Then, as I leave, another group of Americans in uniform lean out of a doorway and snigger that they are just ‘off to read those torture manuals’. A spokesman for the institute later describes such comments as ‘regrettable’.