Desperate wife fasts for facts on spouse lost in Guatemala

March 17, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

Washington -- Jennifer Harbury wants her husband out of the hands of the Guatemalan Army. She wants him back, dead or alive.

Each day she presents herself before the only agency she believes has the power to deliver him, one way or the other: the White House. She stands across the street from the president's house among the myriad protesters, the flowing tour groups, and the ordinary folk lounging in the grass of Lafayette Park.

"I just have to stay here," she says in a tired, scratchy voice. "The White House will get the message."

Ms. Harbury is staging her second hunger strike in less than a year to make sure the White House gets the message. She drinks only water, she says, and an electrolyte solution, "to keep the brain functioning." She promises to fast "as long as is necessary."

All this is done on behalf of the man whose picture she cradles, a youthful-looking man with straight black hair and Indian features. It is her husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a Guatemalan guerrilla leader she met while visiting the forested slopes of the Tajumulco volcano four years ago, researching a book on the Guatemalan insurrection.

The Guatemalan government says he's dead, killed in a firefight with the Army March 12, 1992, near the Ixcucua River. They even produced a body. The deceased was the same size, but much younger, she says. She thinks her husband is still in their hands.

"I think he may be alive," she says in an odd, matter-of-fact tone, as if the course of her future were not at stake. She says it despite the State Department's opinion that her husband probably died in military custody in 1992.

"A number of people, from his own village, saw him at a military checkpoint. He was in a uniform, looking into passing cars," she says, suggesting he may have been turned against his #i comrades. Another man and a woman came to her separately and said they knew where he was held. Others reported they had seen him being tortured.

From different worlds

They were, or are, the most unlikely couple.

Born in Baltimore 43 years ago, Jennifer Harbury is a product of the American academic elite. Her father, a graduate in chemistry from Johns Hopkins University, was on the faculties of Yale and Dartmouth. She graduated from Cornell and got her law degree at Harvard.

He was born on a coffee plantation in the Guatemalan highlands. Mayan Indian, 33 when they met, he spent most of the first two decades of his life illiterate. At 17 he joined one of the guerrilla bands perpetually at war with the Guatemalan army. He learned to read and write. He was a guerrilla for 17 years, using the nom de guerre Comandante Everardo.

She went to Guatemala in the mid-1980s after working in Texas with Guatemalan refugees. She met her husband in 1990, and they were married Sept. 25, 1991, in Austin, Texas.

She is slight, with light brown hair and green eyes that overwhelm all her other features. She wears no makeup; her clothes are casual-- jeans and sweaters.

Though she talks a lot, and fast, she doesn't dramatize her

situation verbally. But she does have a penchant for theatrical acts, like the hunger strike she began Sunday.

Her mother, Dorothy Harbury, from Etna, N.H., sits off on a park bench nearby watching over her daughter. "She has to do something," she says. "There aren't many choices."

Seeking 'adequate steps'

The younger Ms. Harbury's motive for the fast is ostensibly personal, but she says she has a broader purpose, one which people have responded to. "I want the Clinton Administration to take adequate steps to do two things. I want this case resolved. I want his case to be presented to the courts [in Guatemala]. If he is dead, I want his body."

But she also wants the administration to help ameliorate or call attention to the general human rights situation in Guatemala, where, by some estimates, nearly 140,000 people have died or disappeared as a consequence of the warfare.

Though Guatemala has a civilian president, it has been dominated by its armed forces for most of the years of its existence. The 30-year conflict is the longest and probably the bloodiest in Latin America's history. The indigenous people, the Maya, who constitute 70 percent of the population, have been its principal victims. A rural people with their own language and culture, the army has always suspected them of supporting the guerrillas, and treats them as collaborators.

More than once the blood-letting in Guatemala has provoked U.S. sanctions. The latest were announced last week when the State Department said it would suspend the training of Guatemalan officers until more progress was made on six human rights cases involving U.S. citizens. One of them was Mr. Bamaca's.

A spokesman at the department says these measures were not a response to Ms. Harbury's pleadings, but had been planned for some time.

Ms. Harbury, however, believes she has a small amount of influence in these matters.

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