Last May, my boyfriend Jon and I drove from Guatemala City to Petén, the northernmost region of the Guatemala. When you reach Petén, you instantly become swallowed up by the jungle. The air is thick and humid, animals and insects cry out in the night, and everything is green; the moon is barely visible through the thick branches and leaves of the trees. At one point, we stopped at a dingy gas station and got out of the car. I remember staring into the immense darkness and thinking, this is the jungle, and it has so many secrets.
A week after I got back to California, I heard episode 465 of This American Life, “What Happened at Dos Erres.” Produced by Habiba Nosheen and Brian Reed, this podcast tells the horrifying story of a military orchestrated massacre that took place in 1982 in the area I had just visited. The amazing thing is that his story, while horrifying, finds a way to inspire listeners.
During the Guatemalan Civil War, a unit of the Kaibiles, an elite special operations force, was sent to Dos Erres on a mission to recover stolen guns. The Kaibiles’ interrogation of the villagers escalated into a mass execution in which men, women, and children were systematically killed. Everyone in Dos Erres was murdered, with the exception of an 11-year-old boy, who escaped, and two younger boys who were adopted by Kaibiles.
Telling stories of atrocities, famines, war—essentially stories of very large scale injustice or devastation—has always been a challenge for reporters, journalists or anyone who has witnessed them. In this piece, we learn that over 180,000 people died or disappeared during the Civil War, and that over 200 people were slaughtered in Dos Erres. When faced with daunting statistics such as those, it’s hard for almost anyone to really grasp the tragedy much less how to communicate it to others. And most people feel exhausted by stories of injustice and widespread maltreatment; we learn to tune them out.
One way to give readers or listeners a way to relate to such large scale tragedy is to tell the story of just one or a few people who experienced this, and this is just what This American Life and the producers do here. “What Happened as Dos Erres” is not a fiery human rights piece, or simply a document of tragedy. The hour-long episode is grounded in the story of Oscar, one of the two adopted children from the village, and even though his story involves massive tragedy, it is not a downer. When we look at the effects of the massacre through the eyes of Oscar and his father, we are able to begin to understand both the immensity of the loss and the resilience of the remaining survivors, who are beginning to cope.
For example, in one segment of the story Oscar’s father Tranquillo stops the reporters in the middle of an interview to ask if he can tell them the names of his children. While he speaks Spanish, the translator’s voice lists the names: “Esther Castaneda… Etelvina… Enma… Maribel. She was around 13 when she died. Then, it was Luz Antonio… Then, it was Cesar. Cesar was seven years old. Then, two other girls, Odilia and Rosalba.” There’s little in the world that’s as emotionally difficult as a father listing the names of his murdered children, but we do and it means something to us because we are hearing one person, one voice, transmitting an experience.
Another strength of the way the producers handle this story is that it does more than simply relay the tragedy Oscar and his father experienced. Case in point, when he shares the names of his children, he does it out of a sense of reverence, not out of a sense of devastation. And the story ends with Tranquilino getting on a plane to visit Oscar. By focusing on a story that ends on a positive note, this episode helps listeners’ ears stay open to an extremely painful story – and it also allows the opportunity to call out for justice – specifically, for military and government officials to be tried.
By the time I finished listening to the piece, that’s exactly what I was hoping for, so I was excited to see that the story of Dos Erres has continued to develop in positive ways, with a few months of the episode’s release.
Sometimes it takes a powerful investigative piece to help us understand an event as horrific as the Dos Erres massacre. Let this episode guide you through the northern region of Guatemala and show you how focusing on the people affected by the massacre can bring a ray of humanity to an otherwise dark and overwhelming story.
“What Happened at Dos Erres”
Produced in 2012 for This American Life by Habiba Nosheen and Brian Reed,
With reporting from Sebastian Rotella and Ana Arana