Activist to share horrors of seeing human rights abuse in Guatemala

January 28, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

For years, civil rights attorney Jennifer Kristina Harbury has helped Guatemalans in danger. Today, she is frustrated that she can't help her husband who she says is imprisoned in a Guatemalan prison.

"It's an uphill fight, and I intend to win," said the 42-year-old labor and civil rights attorney, who is scheduled to speak about her struggle tomorrow in Howard County. "He's worth it."

The Baltimore native will talk about the case to members of the Howard County Friends of Central America, a group of county activists concerned about human rights abuses in Central America.

She also will discuss her 1993 book, "Bridge of Courage: Life Stories of the Guatemalan Companeros & Companeras," a collection of interviews with Guatemalans who have suffered human rights abuses.

Audience members also can view a photo exhibit of Guatemalan women called "Granddaughters of the Corn," which shows the destruction Guatemala's civil war caused to women, said Lynn Yellott, the local human rights group's assistant coordinator.

The event takes place at 7:30 p.m. at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.

"There are some chapters [of the book] you can't read without getting your eyes teary," said Leslie Salgado, an Owen Brown resident and coordinator for Howard County Friends of Central America, which invited Mrs. Harbury.

The group began in fall 1986 to inform people about the plight of the poor in Central America and has taken an active stance in opposition to U.S. policy in that region. There are about 20 members, who rotate meetings between their homes.

Originally called the Howard County Pledge of Resistance, the group works with the human rights group Amnesty International, local churches and other groups to end human rights violations in Central America. Members also send emergency telexes to Central America to encourage the release of prisoners.

In addition, the group opposes the U.S. embargoes against Haiti and Cuba, and later this year will sponsor its third caravan to Cuba to help handicapped children. In February, the group will sponsor a Cuban art exhibit at the Baltimore Institute of Art.

Locally, the group in 1989 protested Oliver North's appearance in the county, because "he was a very important person in the Reagan administration funneling aid to the contras," Ms. Salgado said.

Opposed to U.S. aid in the 1980s for Nicaraguan rebels and for the government of El Salvador, the group sponsored petition drives.

There is "a better way of using the money, the taxes, than allowing the government to use it to fund governments or military organizations that use it only to hurt people," Ms. Salgado said.

The atrocities occurring in U.S.-financed Guatemala are worse than the human rights abuses in El Salvador but go unreported, Ms. Salgado contended.

"I think it's because a lot of the disappeared are indigenous," said Ms. Salgado, a native of Ecuador. "Unfortunately, we still live in a racist world."

Mrs. Harbury has her own horror stories.

"Guatemala is like South Africa, the racial majority has no . . . clout, nothing," said the 1978 Harvard Law School graduate. "The majority of them are malnourished, ragged. . . ."

While in Texas in the early 1980s, Mrs. Harbury worked with migrant farm workers and Guatemalan refugees seeking political asylum. She went to Guatemala, a mountainous country of about 9 million people, to collect stories. She thought she'd stay for a month but stayed for two years, often hiding people from military death squads.

"It was just a nightmare," she recalled. "A friend a week was being killed by the death squads."

In 1990, she met a Mayan Indian commander in the resistance army, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, 35, who she married a year later.

During a skirmish on March 12, 1992, he disappeared. The army said a body, believed to be Mrs. Harbury's husband, was found near the Ixcucua River. But in early 1993, a man who escaped from a military jail told her that he saw her husband being tortured.

Last summer, carrying her marriage certificate, she had the body found near the river exhumed.

The body was "as a completely different person. It was 5 centimeters too short and 10 years too young," she said.

Mrs. Harbury continues her struggle on behalf of her husband, with the support from 30 members of Congress, former President Jimmy Carter and various organizations.

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