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Lucio Yaxón Guarax / Kyra Sell / Laura Cwiertnia

Interview: The Past Is Not Forgotten – Nim Alae, Musician and Protagonist of the Film "La Isla"

As a child of the civil war, Guatemalan musician Lucio Yaxón alias Nim Alae has rapped about the violence and against forgetting. For the documentary "La Isla - Archive of a Tragedy" he wrote the theme music and reported on his work in the former National Police Archive. In 2005 over 80 million documents were discovered there. They provide information about the crimes committed over 36 years of civil war.

What is behind the name "La Isla"?

This is what the archive was called during the dictatorship. Back then it was primarily a secret prison where the National Police tortured or "disappeared" prisoners. Whenever someone was picked up or disappeared without a trace, people said "he was brought to the island."

When the place was later discovered by accident, it was soon clear that it had to be La Isla. This was ultimately confirmed when a woman recognized it. She was a former guerilla who had been held and tortured there by the police. She was able to flee though and discovered that she had not been held somewhere outside the city, and had been inside the police station the entire time.

You were one of the 160 people who helped evaluate the documents. How did you get involved?

I was there from the very beginning. I had worked on another project with victims of the civil war. When the archive was found by chance in 2005, the alarm was sounded immediately and all the employees from social organizations and movements were asked to pitch in. The documents needed to be secured as quickly as possible so they could not "disappear". But back then it was not yet an institutionalized project, so we started as volunteers. Later when financial support came in from Switzerland and the USA, we were paid.

What exactly needed to be done in the archive?

I did a little bit of everything. Many of the documents needed to be cleaned and restored. We had absolutely no experience here, so we created our own methods. Then I worked in research for a time. The National Police Archive was huge and its organization was complicated. Important documents kept showing up, particularly about well-known people from the 80s. Our job was to search everywhere for similar papers. But the poor and chaotic state of the documents meant we would find nothing for weeks, then something would show up by pure chance. It caused us a lot of headaches

What motivated you personally to work in the archive?

The most important thing for us was to find proof. Information about what happened to all the "disappeared". This was a way of making the archive a place for the families of the victims above all. By now we even have a database where you can enter the name of your relative and it will tell you whether something has been found about them in the archives.

You are one of the protagonists of the film and you wrote the theme music. How did Uli Stelzer get the idea to approach you?

I meet Uli in Guatemala through a friend. He knew my history and had heard of my music. He was interested in a boy who had lost a lot in the civil war and left his village for the city to make music there. But initially I didn't listen to him. I thought "he is just a dumb foreigner, what is he going to achieve?" But then I realized that the film would be about something special, about a critical confrontation with Guatemala's past.

So the film has personal significance for you?

I think it was one of the most personal things in my life. Bringing myself to talk about my past, my family, about what happened, was hard. We recorded a very long interview, but in the end I decided what was shown in the film and what things I did not want others to hear about. But I identify myself even more with the song I wrote for the film than with the film itself. The lyrics especially mean a lot to me.

"The past is not forgotten" according to the theme song. Have you written music about the civil war before?

All my lyrics are about it. Not just about the archive, but about the dictatorship, the situation in Guatemala today and the youth gangs.

You have worked a lot with youth gangs in the past. What inspired you to do so?

Hip hop gave me easier access to young people and I got to know more about their lives. For me it was really about raising consciousness. In part I wanted to show young people that the system is causing their situation. I also want to take a stand, since in the media these young people are portrayed as if the only things they do are kill and hinder the country's development. But when you enter the world of youth gangs and succeed in thinking a little like them, then you notice that their lives simply don't offer any other alternatives.

But working with the gangs was very hard. You really have to walk a mile in a gang member's shoes to understand them. Hip hop helped a bit, but these youths are never really open because they are always worried about being killed.

What was the reaction to the film in Guatemala, how did people receive it?

It was screened in the larger cities, in Queztaltenango, Chimaltenango and in the capital. The film opened a wound in people. When the film was shown, people began crying, remembering that that really happened to us. There is a saying in Guatemala that the Guatemalans suffer from memory loss. One day we remember, the next day we forget again. Unfortunately that is the way it is. But after the film people got a little closer and started talking about their own pasts. Our young people are now interested in their parent's history. I think that the film is the beginning of a debate about the past.

How interested are the mestizes or people from military families?

Perhaps a few who have understood what their parents did are interested. But the military families present a very united front. They will always stand behind their parent's actions. The rich families are not interested either. But of course there are other mestizo groups who seek information, such as the students. But our society is really very divided.

Were the showings of the film tolerated or were there incidents?

There was a bomb threat in the capital. 4,500 people came to see the film. The director received a call that there was a bomb in the lobby. But happily nothing happened. The film was shown anyway.

You live in exile in Germany today. Did you have problems because of your work in the archives and with the youth gangs?

My work in the archives and especially with the gangs was not easy. If you initiate contact with them, you are immediately stamped as a member of a gang. Then you are watched, threatened, followed. This is not necessarily carried out directly by the state, but more by parallel groups to the military or people who do not want the official written history to be questioned. But in Guatemala being threatened is nothing special. No one pays attention to you if you constantly claim that they are threatening you. Immunity from punishment is our biggest problem. The justice system pays no attention at all to evidence about persecution and selective murders. One reason is that the government ascribes such murders to normal criminality and ignores the political background.

In November 2011 Guatemala elected ex-general Pérez Molina as its new president. How do you assess the current situation in Guatemala?

Many people in Guatemala are still very scared and hope that Pérez Molina will solve all of Guatemala's problems and that he will end the violence. Many Guatemalans think that the military can solve all our problems. But Pérez Molina won the election through money, fraud and threats.

Has Pérez Molina ever responded to accusations from human rights organizations?

He denies participating in any crimes. He is now likely to make the work in the archives and that of human rights organizations more difficult. Of course he cannot apply measures as oppressive as those in the 80s. There are now international observers. Nonetheless I can imagine that a wave of violence will follow. It will hit those who want to process the past. It is possible that the military will also be cleared of all charges.

When he won the election, the military hit the streets to demand that their colleagues be released. At any rate, the fact that the new president is a former military general is a great step backwards for Guatemala.

What hopes and dreams do you have for Guatemala?

That the indigenous people step into the spotlight more and become protagonists of their own rights. They represent a majority, 60 percent of the population in Guatemala. To this day though they still do not have their own voice. It will not be easy, but I have hope.

(Questions by Laura Cwiertnia and Kyra Sell)

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