Harvard law graduate Jennifer Harbury leaped across the widest of cultural divides when she married a Guatemalan guerrilla commander, a peasant who grew up hungry and illiterate on a coffee plantation.
But rather than turning into a happily-ever-after tale, it has become a heartbreaker: Harbury has not heard from her husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, since March 12, 1992, when he disappeared during a firefight with a Guatemalan Army unit.
Harbury says he’s alive, and claims to have witnesses to prove it. To press her case, she has begun a hunger strike in front of the National Palace in Guatemala, threatening to starve herself to death unless the Army owns up to what she sees as a 2 1/2-year record of unbroken deceit.
“My life and the life of my husband . . . are in the hands of the Guatemalan Army,” she said.
The army says it never held him.
“If the army had any knowledge of Bamaca, we would have handed him over,” said Gen. Mario Enriquez, the defense minister.
It seemed for awhile that Bamaca, 37, known by his nom de guerre, Commander Everardo, was yet another faceless victim of Guatemala’s long and brutal civil war. Thirty-three years of conflict have claimed more than 100,000 lives, far more than any other in the hemisphere over the past half-century.
Guatemala has had three constitutionally elected civilian presidents since 1986. None has been able to curb the military’s pervasive influence, even Ramiro de Leon Carpio, who took office last year with a spotless record as a foe of human rights abuses.
In Everardo’s case, the Army maintains that it found a cadaver after the March, 1992, battle and buried it in a nearby town with the inscription “xxx"--unidentified.
“He was the only guerrilla member who disappeared in that battle,” Harbury said in an interview before her recent return to Guatemala. “So it had to be him, logically. Who else could it be?” She grieved his loss. Since the Army had a history of not taking prisoners, she assumed the worst.
But the saga took a dramatic turn in December, 1992, when a guerrilla companion of Everardo named Santiago Cabrera Lopez escaped from military detention with news that Everardo was alive, a war prisoner.
Cabrera said Everardo had been tortured mercilessly. All of his toenails had fallen out from beatings with posts. He had been hung up on a rifle rack with his feet tied. But he survived. A second witness said he also saw Everardo alive.
Harbury, 42, is aware that Everardo and other guerrilla prisoners spotted by witnesses may have been killed by now. But she won’t let such uncertainties deter her.
After two years of fruitlessly bucking Guatemala’s military bureaucracy for information, she launched her hunger strike Oct. 11. She insists that her husband be treated according to international law, with access to medical care, family members and human rights monitors. If he isn’t, she said, she will starve herself to death.
Consuming only water sweetened with sugar, Harbury has been weathering wind, cold and torrential rains with only a thin piece of black plastic for cover. At night, she uses a sleeping bag. Police told her if she erected a tent, they would have to move her on.
There is hardly anything conventional about the relationship between Harbury, the daughter of a professor father and an artist mother, and Everardo, who, despairing of his bleak surroundings as a teen-ager, joined a guerrilla unit and became one of his country’s most wanted rebels.
They met at the top of a volcano, of all places. Helped by guerrilla guides, Harbury made a six-hour, dead-of-night upward trek through the ghostly mists. And there at the top, protected by boulders, was the base of operations set up by Everardo and his companions.
Harbury, who was reared in Connecticut and now calls Texas home, took an interest during the 1980s in the hordes of desperate Central Americans, including Guatemalans, who fled to South Texas to escape the civil wars ravaging the isthmus.
She went to Guatemala in 1985 to document the abuses by the military and stayed for two years. She met Everardo after she returned to Guatemala in 1990 to write a book about the Guatemalan revolutionary movement. They married a year later.
“There are days when they (her parents) might wish that I married an insurance agent,” said Harbury, laughing at the thought, escaping momentarily from her pain.
She has sacrificed almost everything trying to obtain humane treatment for her husband. She has no job and little money. But she remains cheerful, never doubting that she is doing the right thing.
Her romance with Everardo is about as startling as the events since his disappearance. While she was an undergraduate at Cornell a generation ago, he was living the life of a “pack mule,” hauling heavy sacks of coffee and other commodities in the dirt-poor southwest region of Guatemala.
“He just remembers going out like a donkey for 13-14 hours a day and really being hungry for most of his life,” said Harbury. He joined a local guerrilla movement on his 18th birthday, attracted by their emphasis on improving conditions for the 60% indigenous population of Guatemala. His companions taught him how to read and write.
He saw his first wife shot to death in an army ambush. His second wife was captured by the Army and tortured to death, Harbury said.
“He’s a phenomenally intelligent person. It was just absolutely fascinating to talk to him. He didn’t talk much. When he did talk, he would have something really thought out and interesting,” she said.
“What really attracted me is that he was just a very simple person, very humble. And here is a commander. . . . Everyone was supposed to accept him as an authority figure. He wouldn’t let anybody salute him.”
Their life as a couple was brief. They lived together for a time in Mexico in 1991 when he was a delegate to peace talks with the Guatemalan Army. They were in Texas together in early 1992 when he was summoned back to Guatemala during a difficult period for his rebel colleagues. He disappeared shortly after his return.
One attempt in 1992 at exhuming the remains of the man said to be Everardo was called off. In August, 1993, the remains finally were unearthed in Harbury’s presence. She was handed a half-decomposed head and was asked in Spanish: “Is this your husband, Mrs. Bamaca?” She knew it was not, and her conclusion was confirmed by experts.
Among her sparse belongings as she fasts is the last letter Everardo wrote to her, which reads in part:
“I would have liked so much if you were with me and if you could have accompanied me to the front. . . . You do not know how much your love has carried me, your caring, your complete commitment during the days and moments we spent happily together.”
On the third day of her hunger strike, she wrote her own letter, addressed to “Friends” in which she says that Guatemalans crowd around her and “are enormously supportive. . . . They all tell me they lost family members, and tell me I am speaking for thousands of others.”
Christena Colclough contributed to this story.