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Chiapas Trip Report

Marc Becker & Cheryl Musch

Saturday, Dec. 27, 1997; Mexico City

Around noon, 149 people from four countries gathered in the Zocalo, Mexico City's central square, to join the Bridge to Hope caravan to Chiapas to build an Indigenous secondary school. Five days earlier, paramilitary troops massacred 45 Indians in Acteal, Chenalhó, in the same general area where we would be traveling. This act, implicitly sanctioned by the Mexican government, created an international outcry. Supporters met us in the Zocalo with humanitarian aid to take to the people who had been displaced as a result of the massacre. By 5 p.m., a caravan of four buses and a 20-ton truck packed with clothes, food, and medicine was ready to depart on what would be a 30-hour trip to the southern war-torn state of Chiapas.

Sunday, Dec. 28, 1997; Aguascalientes II, Oventic, Chiapas

We arrived late at night at Aguascalientes II in Oventic. The Aguascalientes camps are alcohol and weapon-free zones where the Zapatistas can meet and dialogue with civilian society. Before entering the camp, masked Zapatistas checked our documents and searched our luggage. This was our first night bedding down on hard wooden bunks in cabins with straw walls that the cold mountain winds and mist blew through all night long.

Monday, Dec. 29, 1997; Aguascalientes II, Oventic, Chiapas

We started our day with a basic breakfast of rice, beans, tortillas and coffee. This would be our standard fare for every meal throughout the week. We were several thousand meters above sea level, and every day a heavy and cold fog hung over the camp. About half a dozen Zapatista commandantes greeted us, explained the work we were to do, and discussed appropriate responses to the massacre in Acteal. We decided that the next day we would travel to Polhó, where the displaced people from the massacre are living as refugees.

One of the school board members took us on a tour of the school at Aguascalientes. We gave them the money we brought so they could purchase supplies so we could continue to work on the project. In the meantime, we moved concrete blocks down a hill to where a new building will be constructed. Although we went on this trip to construct a school, this would be the only work we would accomplish on that project all week.

Tuesday, Dec. 30, 1997; Polhó, Chenalhó, Chiapas

We delivered humanitarian aid to Polhó in the municipality of Chenalhó where the massacre had taken place. There refugees from communities that had been raided gave testimonies about the massacre and other human rights abuses. The stories were all strikingly similar. Paramilitary forces supported by the ruling Mexican government party (the PRI) came in and shot, raped, and killed sons, daughters, mothers, and sisters. For six or eight hours we listened to these accounts, and after dark we boarded our buses, ready to return to our camp. All day long the Mexican army and public security forces had troops stationed around the refugee camp. Before we left, we received a request from the community stating their discomfort with this military presence and asking us to remedy the situation.

We left the buses and returned to where the army troops were stationed. We stood in a silent vigil, snapping photographs of the soldiers to prove their presence there. Camera flashes illuminated young soldiers' faces in the silent night. We then demanded that the troops withdraw from the area. There were tense moments as a soldier dropped the tailgate on their truck. What was their plan? Were they going to arrest us and throw us on the truck? We held our ground. The soldiers slowly climbed into the truck and drove away. We had gone face to face with the Mexican army and won! The next day the news media reported this event as an appropriate civilian response to a highly charged and militarized situation.

Wednesday, Dec. 31, 1997, New Years Eve; Aguascalientes II, Oventic, Chiapas

A few hours of sunshine in the morning gave us the opportunity to peel off layers of muddy, wet clothes and take a quick shower, the only one of the week. Supplies for building the school hadn't arrived yet, so we spent our time cleaning the camp and the one school building that had been built, and preparing food for the thousands of Zapatistas who would arrive by nightfall. The main hall was decorated with crepe paper streamers, jungle flowers, and sacred pine needles spread on the floor. Things were gearing up for a New Years Eve party.

At 11 p.m., everybody was called together in an outdoor stadium. The veterans of the armed Jan. 1, 1997 attack on San Cristóbal de las Casas entered the stadium in formation at a fast trot carrying wooden guns and torches that glowed through the dense fog. They made several laps around the stadium shouting "Zapata Vive" before coming to a standstill in front of the stage. With heavy fog and a light mist falling, the event had a surrealistic appearance. On stage Zapatista leaders were gathered to give talks. Traditionally, sub-commandante Marcos writes a major policy statement called "The Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle" on the anniversary of the uprising. This year was no exception, and the Zapatistas read the fourth such declaration, punctuated with fireworks. When the ceremony was done, we danced for a while in the stadium. A Mexican newspaper from the next day showed a photograph of dancing Zapatistas with the caption "Zapatistas and their supporters celebrating the New Year."

Thursday, Jan. 1, 1998; Aguascalientes II, Oventic, Chiapas

At 6 a.m., the caravan's security team woke us up. There were rumors that the army was moving in on the camp. We jumped into our wet clothes and shoes and headed up to the road to turn them back. The day before during breakfast we also had run up to the road based on information that the military was approaching. Nothing had happened then, but this time the stakes were much higher. Hundreds of unarmed Zapatista combatants and their supporters were still in the camp from the New Year's Eve party. There was an indication that the military would not respect the civilian society of the camp. Fortunately, the army stopped before they reached the camp.

On New Year's Day we had a cultural program, complete with music and theater performances. Participants ranged from masked Indigenous women singing in colorful embroidered blouses to long-haired university students from Mexico City presenting dramatic skits on life in Mexico to an Italian singing protest songs.

That night after supper we were discussing how best to respond to the massacre at Chenalhó and the situation of the displaced people we had visited when Commandante David interrupted our animated discussion. In a low voice which would not carry, he informed us that there was a possibility that paramilitary forces might attack the camp that night. We would have to evacuate under cover of night on foot. Although some people protested, he made it clear that there was no room for discussion. "Es un orden." "It's an order." Then, with a deep sense of urgency in his voice, he whispered, "Preparate! Preparate!"

We calmly gathered our sleeping bags, food, and what we could carry and met back at the central auditorium. There they lined us up in three groups--people who would physically have trouble with the hike, women, and men. They laid out ropes so that we would stay together. We sat down, in rows with a meter and a half of rope between each of us, and waited for the signal to move out.

About three hours later the signal finally came. Holding on to the cord, we moved out of the auditorium and up to the main road. They trotted us along the road for about a kilometer before beginning an ascent up a steep, muddy trail. Heavily-armed Zapatista soldiers with radios guarded over our column of evacuees.

For about an hour, we slipped and fell up the dark and muddy trail, trying to move as quickly and quietly as possible. Finally we arrived at a village high up in the mountains. We were told we would be there for a while, but we might have to move on that night. Some people tried to sleep. Others stayed awake, both from the cold and the sheer terror of an imminent attack by the same people who ten days earlier had conducted the massacre at Chenalhó where they had demonstrated their total lack of concern for civilian life, including that of women and children. Planes and helicopters buzzed overhead. We were told to extinguish our flashlights and cover ourselves with plastic, a measure which seemed futile if the planes had infrared equipment.

Friday, Jan. 2, 1998; Aguascalientes II, Oventic, Chiapas

First thing in the morning, we received word that although the military was near, we would return to the camp, gather our stuff, board the buses, and leave for Mexico City. In the daylight, the trip back down the mountain was easier. We gathered the belongings we had left behind at the camp and said our goodbyes. A kilometer from the camp, we passed military trucks which were waiting there. The following day, the villagers at Oventic once again had to be evacuated because of repeated threats. Military patrols were much more severe and, according to press reports, there were rigorous checkpoints throughout the area. The government talked of its desire to "liquidate" the Zapatistas.

For many of us, this was a deeply politicizing experience. We went into this camp with the intent of building a school, not of being involved in overt political actions. However, when the Zapatistas protected us from the Mexican army and their brutal paramilitary forces, it is difficult to remain politically neutral. Many people have interpreted actions such as the massacre at Acteal as an attempt to force the Zapatistas to respond militarily so that the government would appear to be justified in crushing their resistance. We believe that an international presence in Chiapas makes it more difficult for either side to respond militarily. Our "hike" up the mountain may have been a ploy by the military to scare us. What better way to keep other internationals out of Chiapas than having us go back telling other internationals that it is much too dangerous? That tactic didn't work. Please stay open to information you hear about Chiapas and act when you can. Their future peace depends on it.

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