"E.G.T. [Guerrilla Army of the Poor] give yourself up to the national Army and you will be pardoned. Think of your family, children, plot of land, house and your life." --scrawled message on graveyard chapel.
Something terrible happened here.
The charred remains of houses, the crude wooden crosses that march raggedly across the little cemetery, the shortness of breath that marks the peasants' voices when they are asked about "the problems" of the last year, all testify to the suffering.
The Indians of this village near the town of Solola at the center of what has been bitterly contested territory, say more than 100 of their people have been killed since December 1981 and that the killing did not end until three months ago. Some say the total number of dead, including women and children, is closer to 200.
The villagers say that from early April until late September of last year much of the village was deserted, its residents in hiding or having fled to the coast or to Guatemala City.
But no one says who decimated the population of this village. Asked that question the answer, always, is "a saber"--who knows?
The clear implication here is that, whatever security the villagers have they find in real or professed ignorance of the cause of the horrors around them.
In a confusing and bloody war where guerrillas are said to dress as the Army and the Army as guerrillas--each to raise the level of alleged atrocity for which the other is blamed--where each side demands peasant loyalty and tends to view failure to support it as betrayal, and where thousands of peasants have died because their loyalties were suspect, it is rare for the bystanders, who often become the victims, to talk openly.
A priest with long experience in the region tells of Indian parishioners who say they know nothing at all about the killing until they go into confession and know nothing about it again when they come out.
But if the peasants practice a see and speak no evil policy to survive, other players and sideline observers in the Guatemalan conflict seem more than ready to provide definitive versions of what is going on here.
A steady barrage of guerrilla propaganda invariably defines rebel attacks on the government's militias as blows against the official agents of repression, and the government's attacks on guerrilla militias as massacres of civilians. Thus, in November, the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People could claim 2,305 casualties inflicted on the enemy in three years of operation while reporting only 69 losses of its own.
The government plays a similar game but on a larger scale. At the beginning of all-out war against the guerrillas in November 1981, senior Army officers stated openly that they would have to wipe out what they called "family nuclei," including children, whom they considered essential to the revolutionary organizations in the countryside.
Although the Army no longer talks openly about such measures, that basic policy continued well into the summer, until the Army believed it had established a foothold in previously guerrilla-held territory.
On the sidelines, adding fuel to various positions within the extremes of government and guerrilla propaganda are human rights groups, the press and the U.S. Embassy.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International accused the military government of President Efrain Rios Montt of killing more than 2,600 peasants in a military offensive last year. It listed more than 100 incidents in which it said civilians were killed. Other international and U.S. rights groups have also issued studies blaming the government for most of the killings of civilians in the countryside.
U.S. Embassy studies distributed to visiting reporters devote dozens of pages to debunking Amnesty International's statistics indicating government responsiblity for atrocities. It finds that not one government massacre reported by the human rights group between March 23 and July can be confirmed as such.
The embassy, citing the Army or the local press and dismissing Amnesty sources as "Marxist," determines that two reported incidents in April--when 45 people allegedly died in this village--are either "unverifiable" or may have happened during combat.
Pujujil is 90 minutes and perhaps a quarter tank of gas from Guatemala City beneath a scenic overlook on the Pan-American Highway.
But the people of Pujujil and other victims of the war in the ravaged countryside are rarely interested in assigning responsibility anymore. Clearly, the last year has been a nightmare they are trying to forget.
Mateo Jose Kin, 35, for instance, says he remembers only that it was impossible to go up to the Pan American Highway without dying. People would leave to take their goods to market, and, again and again, be found dead by the road. The highway, for him, became synonymous with death.
More educated residents of Solola provide a little more detail. Some remember that not long after the guerrillas briefly captured that town, killing about 10 people including the provincial governor on Oct. 28, 1981, the Army of then-president Romeo Lucas Garcia began a steady, hard-fought campaign "to cure" the area, moving up the highway and the mountains from Santa Apolonia, through Xepol and Pujujil toward Los Encuentros and Solola.
The guerrillas fought back hard. Although the Army had set up a major base at Xepol, a former Catholic church and rectory, by January 1981, the rebels continued sporadic attacks and sabotaged the area's highways at least into mid-April, according to their own literature and local accounts.
Even among social activists in Guatemala City, who generally attribute major responsibility for the massacres to government troops, there is disillusionment with guerrilla tactics that tended to sacrifice civilians in Army traps.
"If you have a lion in a cage and put a baby in the cage," said one priest in the capital, "and you stand outside and start poking the lion and poking the lion and then say, 'My God, look what happened to that baby,' well, you kind of knew that was going to happen in the first place."
Juan Tun, 50, and his nephew, Mariano Tun, 32, remember that there was a big "confrontation" between "the armies" in April or March when many people left. But they hid, they said, and were not sure what happened.
A resident of Solola recalls at least 40 people from Pujujil being buried after the Army tried to trap a group of guerrilla fighters in a pincer movement. The noncombatant villagers, according to accounts heard in Solola, tried to flee up a steep hill toward the highway where the Army was already positioned and opened fire with devastating effect.
But, according to Juan Tun, most of the people in the village died "little by little," week after week, and month after month.
"Some were taken out in the night and never came back," said his nephew.
Who took them?
"One doesn't know."
The Tuns and Kin are members of the civil patrol, along with every other boy and man capable of working. Since the patrols were organized in October, everything is calm, they say.
But on New Year's Day I was making my third visit to Pujujil and was writing down the warning to guerrillas on the wall of the cemetery chapel when a man appeared nearby moaning unintelligibly as children watched in fascination and with what might have been fear.
He wanted, it seemed desperately, to explain something. But as his identification papers said, Juan Xoch is a deaf mute.
He pointed to the children and suddenly made his hands hold an imaginary machine gun shooting them down. Again and again he made the gesture and wept.
Xoch took my hand, kissed it in reverence, perhaps thinking I was a priest, and led me up through the cemetery to seven fresh graves. The dates painted crudely on the wooden crosses ranged from Nov. 20 to Dec. 29, 1982. One of the two who died on Nov. 20 was named Xoch. So was one who died on Christmas Day.
The mute pointed to the valley below, to the graves, then again to the valley. Again he made as if to shoot. He suddenly stood at attention and saluted. He whirled his hand over his head and pointed to the sky.
He seemed for a moment to despair of my not understanding what had happened or to whom. Slowly he pulled one of the crosses from the loose, dry dirt. He held it in an embrace and wept.
A little boy tried to explain: "He is saying, 'bullets ate my children.' " But the boy could not explain where the bullets might have come from.
There are no official reports of any military action in those days in the area. Local commanders and soldiers denied rumors that there was an incident in or near Los Encuentros. "Lies," said several.
Something terrible happened here to Juan Xoch. But what it was, who was responsible, exactly, remains "unverifiable."