USC hosts first conference about Mayan genocide

The USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research held its first conference on the Guatemalan genocide this week to bring together researchers for informative panels on the little-known history of this era in Latin America. The conference, “A Conflict? Genocide and Research in Guatemala,” began Sunday and will continue through Wednesday.

Attendees included award-winning activist and professor Victoria Sanford, as well as Fredy Peccerelli, a forensic anthropologist and 1999 winner of the CNN and Time Magazine “50 Latin American Leaders for the New Millennium.”

In the 1980s, the Mayan people were targeted within Guatemala for protesting against a repressive government. According to the Holocaust Museum of Houston, around 200,000 people went missing or were killed, and 1.5 million people were displaced when the Guatemalan army obliterated villages. The conflict lasted around 36 years and ended with the 1996 Oslo Accords. However, since the 1990s, the genocide has been somewhat pushed aside and forgotten.

The Shoah Foundation’s mission is to share the stories of genocide survivors through the platform of audio-visual interviews. The organization has collected close to 53,000 survivor testimonies from 63 countries in 41 languages and hopes that their videos will help to better convey the lives of the survivors and teach future generations. The Shoah Foundation and its partners aim to bring attention to the genocide and share the unheard stories of the Guatemalan victims.

Brigitte Suhr, an attendee that worked in Guatemala through the Guatemalan Truth Commission, emphasized the need to stay up-to-date with what is happening in the country. Like many participants, Suhr hopes to see an increased awareness of the genocide and accurate representations of the accounts of the victims.

Sanford, a professor at Lehman College, presented a similar idea in her speech.

“We know this knowledge must be shared,” Sanford said. “How do we keep the voices and the survivors at the front?”

Fredy Peccerelli, who worked with the Mayan peoples as a member of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, painted a picture of the “raw emotions” of the people in the community. With the help of families, Peccerelli and his crew have been able to further research the conflict and identify genocide victims. Furthermore, through collaboration with the Shoah Foundation, 217 interviews have been conducted and the victims have shared stories of rape, mass murder, the loss of loved ones and the psychological aftermath of a genocide.

Conference speakers emphasized that genocides are not a thing of the past, as there are ongoing genocides in Syria and throughout Africa; however, through education, future generations can learn how to tackle these issues.

“Education is one solution to the problem, along with certain political matters, so it’s a complex of things,” said Wolf Gruner, director of the Shoah Foundation. “But we need to change so genocide will not happen again. First and foremost, we want to raise awareness and spread knowledge.”

Stephen Smith, UNESCO co-chair on genocide education and a member of the Shoah Foundation, explained that through resources like Shoah Foundation’s iWitness — the online compilation of all the video interviews that the foundation conducts — younger generations can learn and prevent mass genocides. 

“We really can’t compare human suffering, but the causes and consequences of violence in genocidal societies we need to understand better and deeper,” Smith said. “Our attitudes really do matter to the way in which the world works.”

The conference is one in a series of events meant to address genocide in Latin America, including a conference co-hosted with UNESCO last Friday. The Shoah Foundation also partnered with Visions and Voices to bring Rebeca Lane, a Latin-American hip-hop artist, to campus on Tuesday. Lane was raised during the time following the Guatemalan Civil War and Guatemalan genocide and is not only an artist, but also an activist, sociologist and educator.