Waiting for dawn
It’s approaching midnight on 20th December and, with an apocalypse predicted, the world is drinking like there’s no tomorrow. In Russia – where 13 percent of the population believe the world will end – there has been panic-buying of vodka-powered ‘apocalypse survival’ kits. The French town of Bugarach, optimistically billed as the only place in the world that will survive, has seen an influx of “better safe than sorry” survivalists who have invested thousands of euros in the hope that aliens will emerge from under the ground and fly them to safety. But the country at the centre of the end of the world is Guatemala, home of the Kaqchikel Mayans, in whose name doomsday has been predicted.
In the Guatemalan village of San Pedro Ayampúc all eyes are focused intently on the fierce blaze of an altar, whose smoke billows up into the night sky. But these aren’t our final moments on earth. The world does not end. And not a single Kaqchikel Mayan in this village ever believed that it would. Instead they have gathered to celebrate the beginning of a new era following the end of a 5,200-year ‘Long Count’ cycle, or ‘Oxlajuj B’ak’tun’.
Even without mile-high waves and killer earthquakes, we’re treated to quite a spectacle. Dressed in the loincloths of the ancient Maya, students hold flaming branches and dance to interpret myths from the Popol Vuh, the Mayan bible. Our heads nod to the tremulous sounds of a marimba band, their songs sung passionately in Kaqchikel. There’s a thrilling re-imagining of an ancient Mayan ballgame – effectively a high-stakes version of field hockey with a blazing petrol-drenched ball. There are also various talks in which the meaning of the new B’ak’tun is explained for the people of the village. It’s not a mark of apocalyptic doom, the speakers agree, but of a transition towards positive change and peaceful understanding.
“These aren’t our final moments on earth. The world does not end. And not a single Kaqchikel Mayan in this village ever believed that it would”
The co-opting of their ancient culture to sell doomsday trips to gullible Westerners has irked the Mayans of San Pedro Ayampúc. Under the snappily named banner of ‘The Collective for the Revitalisation of Mayan Science’ they have issued a somewhat terse mission statement. Their culture, they say, has been hijacked by perpetrators of the prophecy, which they regard as an overblown hoax. But they have bigger concerns than apocalypse-themed package tours.
The activists ask why it has taken a false prophecy to get the world’s attention. Where was it when 1,700 Mayans were murdered between 1982 and 1983? Where was it during what the UN described as “acts of genocide” committed by the Guatemalan government against the Mayan people since the 1960s? Where was it in mid-December when some 260 indigenous families living on land purchased by a logging company were forcefully evicted by the National Civil Police with tear gas and firearms?
The world may not be ending, but the Mayans have plenty of reasons to celebrate the end of this particular era.
The narrative of disappearance
The Mayan people have been sidelined since the Spanish invasion of 1524, but it was the bitter Guatemalan Civil War which ran from 1960 to 1996 that was to have the most devastating effect. Rigoberta Menchú, the Mayan activist who earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, told AP that “the armed conflict was used as a pretext to exterminate the indigenous population, physically and spiritually.” During the 36-year Civil War 200,000 people – the vast majority indigenous – were killed or “disappeared”.
The current Guatemalan president, Otto Perez Molina, was the director of military intelligence during the civil war and implemented the scorched-earth tactics of de facto head of state Efraín Ríos Montt, which destroyed the vast majority of Ixil-Mayan villages. Montt is about to stand trial for genocide in connection to the murder of 1,771 Mayans in the 1980s. On a visit to Guatemala last year the UN human rights high commissioner Navi Pillay said that the Guatemalan government still maintains a “narrative of disappearance” towards the Mayan people, and that extreme discrimination, exclusion and marginalisation is experienced in every aspect of Mayan lives.
At least 40 percent of Guatemala’s population is Mayan, yet only 15 out of 158 deputies elected to the country’s national assembly are indigenous. It has been alleged by activists that efforts are made to restrict Mayan representation at the polls: elections are usually held during harvest time and there’s inadequate transportation to and from polling stations, which severely restricts the voting capability of the largely rural Mayan population.
But it’s the politics of progress that really threatens the Mayan way of life. In its rush towards development, the government has sold off land to build mines, dams and plantations. Mayan people have lived on this land for generations but rarely possess documents to prove their ownership, and violent evictions are becoming ever more common. There are regular reports of crops being destroyed, animals being seized, houses being burned to the ground and the arrest of local leaders. No alternative housing or compensation have been offered to displaced Mayans.
“During the Guatemalan Civil War 200,000 people – the vast majority indigenous – were killed or
“Our culture has always been marginalised,” says Victoriana Sam Mantanic de Xiloj, the Mayan benefactor of the school in San Pedro Ayampúc. “There have always been unequal rights in education, religion, politics and society. You can see that the government has failed us just by looking at the rural areas; there are no good health services, there’s very limited access to education and the roads are in a terrible condition.” José Alejandro Grande, a teacher at the school, agrees: “The sad truth is that any progress the government may have made in terms of the indigenous population is barely noticeable when you consider the wave of human rights violations my people have suffered.”
Grande, along with the other Mayans of San Pedro Ayampúc, believes that the era of the new Oxlajuj B’ak’tun is about peaceful understanding. “This is a new opportunity for us to harmonise with the cosmos and one more chance to strengthen our identity,” he says. “It is a time to promote a culture of peace.” And there are some early signs of optimism, not least the trial of Efraín Ríos Montt. “Until recently, the idea of a Guatemalan general being tried for these heinous crimes seemed utterly impossible,” says José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that a judge has ordered the trial of a former head of state is a remarkable development in a country where impunity for past atrocities has long been the norm.”
Back in San Pedro Ayampúc on “doomsday”, the entire village encircles the altar as the spiritual leader appears, a barefoot woman swinging a metal canister of incense. She shuffles round the flames, saluting each cardinal point as she goes, throwing sand into the fire and leading prayers in Kaqchikel and Spanish. As the night draws on, many people peel away to carry home drowsy children. But others stay until the new dawn. One of them is De Xiloj. “Mayan people have always been attacked and considered ignorant,” she says. She pauses, then continues defiantly.
“You can cut our branches, you can cut our trunk, but you cannot destroy our roots.”
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