Late December 1997. We went to build an autonomous school. To haul concrete block. At Oventic Aguascalientes II, a Zapatista run space in Chiapas. We arrive 5 days after the massacre of 45 indigenous Las Abejas on December 22, 1997, by paramilitaries.
Muddy, rainy, foggy. Every meal--beans, rice, tortillas, coffee. Tortillas, coffee, beans, rice. My clothes and boots wet and stiff. We sleep on hard wood bunks. The rain blows in all night. Soaking us through.
The massacre changes our plans.
We travel to Polhó to deliver humanitarian aid to displaced refugees. For hours, they told us their stories. To be documented. What happened to them. For the world to know. Paramilitaries came and fired guns. And raped. And killed their daughters and sons, their husbands and fathers. They ran. They hid.
On New Year’s Eve, we gathered with the Zapatistas. The veterans of the armed January 1, 1994, attack on San Cristóbal de las Casas jog in with wooden guns and torches. Glowing in the dense fog. They made several laps shouting "Zapata Vive" before coming to a standstill in front of a stage. Surreal.
On stage Zapatista leaders gathered to give talks. Punctuated by fireworks. When the ceremony was done, we danced. In the light mist. With the Zapatistas. A Mexican newspaper from the next day has a photograph with the caption "Zapatistas and their supporters celebrating the New Year."
We barely laid down on our hard bunks, dizzy from the celebration, when we were called together again. Commandante David told us that paramilitary forces might attack the camp that night. We would have to evacuate under cover of night on foot. "Es un orden." "It's an order." With urgency, he whispered, "Preparate! Preparate!"
We gathered a few things together. And were given a can of tuna, so we had food if we were separated. Ropes were laid out for us to hold, to keep us together in the night. They divided the women and men. We waited. For hours. For the signal. To leave in the night.
It came. I took hold of the rope. We move like a lurching caterpillar from the auditorium and onto the road. We climb up a steep, muddy trail. Armed Zapatista soldiers with radios guard our column of evacuees.
We slip and fall in the dark for about an hour. Long minutes, trying to move quickly and quietly. The mud sucks me in. Up to my thighs. And Zapatistas come to pull me by the armpits out of the mire. And we keep climbing. Until we reach a group of houses in the mountains. The women are put into a house, and the men under huge sheets of plastic outside. The thwap, thwap of helicopters overhead. Helicopters and planes. With infrared equipment. They knew where we were. The big hot spot on the top of the mountain.
The house was small, and we had our knees pulled into our chests all night. It was cold. There was no sleep. The women bonded instantly. We talked about how we were afraid. And we cried cold tears. The urge to straighten my legs became overwhelming, but I dared not move.
The night passed. Without incident. We hiked down the mountain. And got on the buses. And it was over. A tale I am glad to tell without a more dramatic end.