Kidnapped! Shared Tears of Grief and Hope
Leslie Carol Baer
The men and women clad in colorful, hand-woven garments lining the dirt road looked like a rainbow. These were the rural Maya of the Guatemalan highlands, survivors of nearly three decades of raging civil war that had killed an estimated 400,000 of them. In the summer of 1995, I joined thirty volunteers to hold a health clinic for them.
Each day of the four-day clinic, more than 500 people would arrive for help, and we would be able to treat only about 100. As I walked the rainbow line-up with a nurse and translator, seeking out the most life-threatening cases, I was shocked at what I saw.
One woman had a horribly swollen leg that had been broken a month earlier and never set; the bellies of a half-dozen toddlers bulged from malnutrition and parasites; Pedro, 11, sobbed in pain, his blood-red eyes having been burned with solvent nearly a year earlier. Then there was little Jesus, age 5, whose head was soft on top due to parasitic worms. It had taken three of us to assist the doctor in removing the peanut sized Bot-fly larvae incubating in his head. Afterward, we found a secluded back room where we held each other and cried bitterly from the horror. No child should have to go through that!
On the third day, we were running low on anti-parasitic medicine and planned a trip to stock up in San Juan Ostencalco about an hour away. Gretchen, a novice, and Ehlers, a veteran humanitarian worker, volunteered to accompany me. They hopped into the back of a well-used pick-up. I climbed into the cab to drive--something that always made the locals smile; in Guatemala, it was still uncommon in 1995 to see a woman behind the wheel of a car, let alone a truck.
Finding medicine was easy; we didn't need a prescription and it was quite inexpensive. Jubilant at our success, we headed back down the bumpy, dusty road to the clinic.
I was the first to see them. They stood like misplaced statues in the middle of the road ahead--three men wearing black ski masks. They were holding machine guns which they raised and pointed directly at the truck. I paused for a moment before turning and saying calmly through the open cab window, "I think we may have some trouble."
Ehlers and Gretchen were still facing backwards. Gretchen turned around first, gasping and covering her mouth as she caught a glimpse of the ominous figures. Ehlers saw them and stayed very cool, answering, simply, "O.K."
As we drew near, they motioned us to pull over. One man approached the car: I felt my face flush and my heart speed up. Perhaps this would be the last moment of our lives. Had I failed at keeping my team safe? I took a deep breath, and focused on making the moment full of peace and acceptance.
I asked if there was a problem: "Hay un problema?"
"You'll have to come with us."
As if in a dream, I replied, thinking of the others waiting for us at the clinic: "We're really busy right now. Is there any way we could do this another day?" (The things people say in life and death situations!)
I will never forget the man at the window repeating what I had said to the other two, then the three looking at each other and laughing.
"Drive down this road," the man at the window said to me sternly, motioning toward a dirt path, "and don't try to turn back or we may have to shoot you." O.K. Got it. I remember feeling relatively calm and focused.
We soon reached the town square at ConcepciÛn. The village had only one road in and one out, and was the perfect place to stage a mandatory public meeting. The Commander, a light-skinned man with green eyes and a beret, spoke to the crowd of about 300:
"Corrupt politicians have taken away our land and our children's future. We want to work, but there is no work; we want to learn, but there are few schools or teachers in our rural villages. We need medical care, but there are few clinics and less medicine. All we have left is the hope that we can take back what is rightfully ours."
The crowd clapped softly, apparently fearful of taking sides.
The three of us, fair-skinned and tall by local standards, stood out painfully in a crowd of dark-haired people who were generally much shorter. Almost immediately, the Commander's eyes found mine. He began to make his way toward us and was joined by a half dozen associates clad in tattered uniforms.
I greeted the Commander with a firm handshake, and looked him directly in the eyes. Ehlers followed suit. Gretchen hung back, thoroughly and justifiably frightened.
"Pleased to meet you." I said. "We are humanitarian aid workers."
He replied: "As a humanitarian worker, I know you understand suffering. I have people in these mountains who are fighting for the rights of the poor and who need medicine. Will you help us?"
This was a terrible moment. If I said yes, our entire team could be in great jeopardy; at this time in history, the Guatemalan government did not take kindly to groups helping what they called the "guerrilla," or revolutionary fighters. If I said no, perhaps the three of us would be killed on the spot.
In a moment of trust, I decided to speak my heart:
"Sir, you are the commander of a group of people whom it is your duty to protect. In the same way, I have to protect my people.
"If we give you medicine, the government may believe that we are affiliated with your movement, making it impossible for us to return to help your poor."
I paused for a moment to think. He studied my face, clearly undecided about whether to treat us like friends, enemies, or perhaps dispose of us with no further ado. My heart ached for these ragged, young soldiers at his side, many of whom wore blood-soaked bandages.
"We never ask who comes to our clinics," I offered. "Our clinics are open to everyone," I emphasized, "toda la gente."
The Commander's gaze was intense, as if he was searching my eyes and the nuances of my expression for the truth of my heart. I had spoken in earnest and offered the best compromise I could muster. This situation was now out of my hands.
The Commander motioned for his colleagues to follow him, and they convened to speak just out of earshot. Ehlers, Gretchen and I stood by, unable to do anything but wait.
When the Commander returned I noticed immediately that his eyes had softened, and I was dumbstruck to see tears welling up! "God bless you for the work you do helping our poor," he said kindly. "You are free to go."
In stunned silence we drove back to the clinic. Later, we wept for the suffering of so many amidst the cruelty of this civil war. In the oddest of ironies, we were crying for the same injustices that moved the Commander to tears. We became one with our kidnapper in our grief, sharing hope that when the truth of the oneness of all people becomes self-evident and we boldly live in ways that are consistent with this understanding, there will be no more tears.