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Latin America

History and Revision: "We're constantly told not to talk about it. That bothers me."

Bettina Amaya Rossi spent a week looking at how Germany deals with its past. She knows a lot about the dark side of history, and has been working on processing that history in her native Guatemala.

Delegation Lateinamerika Historische Aufarbeitung Berlin Deutschland Holocaust Denkmal

Bettina Amaya Rossi was particularly impressed by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Wherever she looks, Bettina Amaya Rossi sees nothing but grey cement. After just a few steps, small cement blocks give way to huge stelae that rear far above her head. Although the blocks are laid out in a grid pattern, the space still manages to be completely disorienting.

"The Memorial is controversial," explains the guide from the foundation for the Holocaust Memorial at the start of the tour. "Many say it just leaves them cold . Others don't see an obvious link to the Holocaust." The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was inaugurated in 2005, says the tour guide, but it was first conceived in 1988 by Lea Rosh, a journalist. The visitors particularly like this, as many of them are journalists themselves. But the group also includes sociologists and political scientists like Bettina Amaya Rossi, and all of them are in some way involved in historical research and revision in their home countries.

Dealing with the past

Delegation Lateinamerika Historische Aufarbeitung Berlin Deutschland Holocaust Denkmal

The Colombian and Guatemalan visitors are all involved in historical review work back home in their own countries.

The group of eleven Colombians and Guatemalans are here on a week-long visit to Berlin and the surrounding region organized by DW Akademie with a focus on historical review and the culture of remembrance. The trip's itinerary revolves around providing the Latin American guests the opportunity to exchange experiences and connect with elements of Germany's past. In addition to the Memorial, the group visits other sites of historical interest such as the concentration camp Sachsenhausen and the archives of the Stasi, the former East German secret police.

Bettina Amaya Rossi is impressed by how Germany has been dealing with its past. "Whether it's the special cobblestones created in memory of deported Jews, the Berlin Wall or the various monuments, this city's history is tangible, visible on every street corner. For me that's the measure of a people's identity. It helps you understand where you came from, where your ancestors come from and what they experienced." Bettina is also impressed by the fact that much of the historical reappraisal has been initiated by the German government itself. Back home in Guatemala, most of this work is done by NGOs like the one she works for, Memorial para la Concordia (Memorial for Harmony).

Plattform Memorial para la concordia, Guatemala

The interactive map Mapeo de la Memoria, published by the NGO Memorial para la Concordia, teaches about crimes committed during the civil war in Guatemala (Screenshot)

Decades of war and silence

From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala was torn apart by civil war, with leftist guerilla organizations pitted against government forces. In 1982, General Efraín Ríos Montt seized power in a military coup. He accused the indigenous Ixil people of northern Guatemala of collaborating with the rebels. He was only in power for one year, but the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission says that during that time, thousands of indigenous people were raped, murdered and driven from their homes. The third retrial of Ríos Montt, now 89, and his former military intelligence chief, Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez, was set for January 11th, 2016, but has been suspended yet again. The civil war caused deep divisions in Guatemalan society, which makes any processing of events difficult. "Anyone who tries to speak publicly about this time is immediately labeled a 'leftist', a radical, a troublemaker," says Bettina Amaya Rossi.

Bettina's family was not directly involved in the conflict. But in Guatemala, much as in post-war Germany or in Colombia, it's not a subject that people talk about. "In Guatemala City, we heard very little about what was happening out in the countryside. Or at least that was what people pretended," Bettina says. "Even as a child, my mother was taught to stay away from politics. My father himself had fled the civil war in Nicaragua, where the left-wing Sandinista government fought against members of the former military." She explains that Nicaraguans in Guatemala at that time kept their head down. "We're constantly told not to talk about it. That bothers me!"

Bettina Amaya Rossi wants to talk about it, and that's what motivates her to do the work she does. For Memorial para la Concordia, she edits an interactive map, which local journalists can fill with information, reports and pictures of human rights violations from the years of conflict. The project was partly financed by DW Akademie. The map aims to help people visualize the full extent of the conflict, and it connects every story with the location where it took place. "People need to see that Guatemalans all over the country were victims of the civil war and that no-one is alone in their suffering."

Digital awareness-raising

Delegation Lateinamerika Historische Aufarbeitung Berlin Deutschland Holocaust Denkmal

Bettina Amaya Rossi

Bettina Amaya Rossi says that, on a personal level, some things are starting to change. "My parents are gradually beginning to open up, as if bit by bit, memories are resurfacing. I've showed them the map, and my mother really likes it and likes reading the reports. It's great to see her actually starting to deal with the issue. My father now talks to me occasionally about what happened back then. He thinks there should also be something like this in Nicaragua."

Nonetheless, says Bettina, people in Guatemala still have a lot of work to do. Her conversations with people she's met in Germany have shown her how openly and calmly they are dealing with the dark side of their past. In Guatemala, people are still a long way from being able to discuss things so openly, but she says her time in Germany has given her a fresh perspective and new ideas for her own historical review work. Her experiences in Germany and the discussions with her Colombian colleagues have made her more aware of how important contemporary witness accounts are for her work. She says that it's something she wants to focus on when she returns home.