Robert Nickelsberg Returns to Guatemala After Three Decades

OPC member and former Governor Robert Nickelsberg has been awarded a fellowship at the Logan Nonfiction Program, which is part of the Carey Institute in Rensselaerville, New York. He plans to write about his return to Guatemala’s Ixil region, where from 1981 to 1984 he worked on stories for TIME magazine on the massacres committed by the Guatemalan Army during its civil war. He returned this January to find survivors more than three decades later.

The images on this page were shot on Jan. 4 and Jan. 5 this year. Nickelsberg wrote that “the first two frames were taken in Nebaj, Guatemala where I’d last been in May 1984 and the third photo in San Juan Cotzal, Guatemala where I’d been on January 20, 1982. Both cities are in the Ixil region and were in the heart of guerrilla territory where civilians were heavily massacred during the early 1980’s.” He was able to find half of the 14 people he photographed in 1982 and 1984.

Josefa Cedillo Marcos, 48, left, and her niece, Juana Cedillo Perez, 40, hold a picture taken by Nickelsberg for TIME magazine in May 1984 in Nebaj, Guatemala nearly 35 years later on Jan. 5. Both survived the violent 36-year civil war and numerous massacres perpetrated in the ethnic Mayan Ixil region by the Guatemala Army. They witnessed civilians being killed and still recall the trauma all of them experienced. Over 200,000 civilians were murdered, the majority by the Guatemalan Army, with 40,000 disappeared, many still unaccounted for since peace was declared in 1996. Josefa’s mother, on the right in the photo, had passed away due to health reasons. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg

Pedro Antonio Cedillo Marcos, 36, holds a picture taken by Nickelsberg in May 1984 in Nebaj, Guatemala on Jan. 5. Pedro, center in the black and white picture, was 2 years old in 1984. Pedro and his two sisters survived the violent 36-year civil war and numerous massacres perpetrated by the Guatemala Army in the ethnic Mayan region. Pedro is now a high school physics teacher. His two sisters are also school teachers. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg

Juana Cordova Marroquin, 56, holds a picture of her and her sister-in-law taken by Nickelsberg on Jan. 20, 1982. Nickelsberg wrote: On that date, a group of journalists were flown by helicopter into San Juan Cotzal, in the ethnic Mayan Ixil region of Guatemala. This was a day after a massive attack, Jan. 19, by the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres, or EGP guerrillas, on a military base in San Juan Cotzal. The government publicly reported 12 soldiers were killed. We saw 5 to 6 dead soldiers being unloaded in Santa Cruz de Quiché earlier in the day – the attack was a significant one and General Benedicto Lucas Garcia, leading the military response, was fuming with anger. Jim Willwerth and I were there for TIME magazine. Pamela Yates and her film crew were along. Dial Torgerson from the Los Angeles Times was also present. The woman shown in the picture, 20 years old in 1982, was being interviewed by us while she collected water. The water spigot is no longer there. Fear was clearly on their faces. The local residents knew a violent response by the military was inevitable and were clearly anxious about their fate. True to form, 67 civilians were killed by the army in response to the attack. I went back to Cotzal and found the woman who recalled the event 37 years ago. She’d been hired to work inside the military base for cooking and doing laundry. She’d been asked not to come to work on Jan. 20 as there was going to be a birthday party for an army officer the night before. The EGP guerrillas were the uninvited guests that early morning. From questions I’d asked on my return, 37 army soldiers were reportedly killed in the attack, far too many than what the military wanted to admit. The woman on the right is Juana’s sister-in-law, Manuella Cordova Ordoñez. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg