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Threads of Healing: Art-Based Strategies for Transitional Justice in Post-Conflict Guatemala

Threads of Healing: Art-Based Strategies for Transitional Justice in Post-Conflict Guatemala

 An Idealistic Discourse in a Harrowing Reality.

In the wake of protracted conflicts, transitional justice mechanisms stand as crucial instruments to foster reconciliation and healing within fractured societies, thwarting the recurrence of violence. While prevailing efforts have predominantly leaned towards legalistic approaches, such as investigative commissions and war crime tribunals, centering on punitive measures for the perpetrators, the paradigm of restorative justice introduces facets of participation, personalism, reparation, and reintegration. A pivotal distinction in the transitional justice discourse resides in discerning justice as an outcome from the broader goals surrounding transition as an ongoing process. Art emerges as a powerful medium in this transitional terrain, acting as a transformative linguistic entity that facilitates profound self-expression. In post-conflict recovery, individuals have wielded art as a tool of paramount significance, erecting a collective language that fosters affection, ameliorates isolation, and unearths the depths of trauma, propelling them towards therapeutic avenues. Central to this discourse is the concept of memory, a pillar in effecting transformation and change in the peacebuilding narrative, as the societal expectations for the future are inexorably entwined with the recollections of the past.


Over 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or forcibly disappeared in a civil war that raged from 1960-1996. Of those victims identified in the U.N.-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission, 83% were indigenous Maya. 93% of these human rights violations were carried out by government forces. The roots of the Guatemalan civil war reach back through nearly 500 years of violence and ethnic exclusion.  The Spanish conquest of Guatemala replaced the socio-economic order of the ancient Mayan civilization with a harsh plantation economy based on forced labor. Although Guatemala gained independence in 1821, it continued to be ruled by a series of military dictators aligned with the landed oligarchy. Despite the efforts of the truth commissions, an ambitious reparations program, and several landmark judgments from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, prosecutions for past (and present) crimes have been obstructed by the lingering influence of former officials implicated in human rights abuses and by the intimidation and corruption of the domestic legal system by narco-traffickers. Transitional justice is not only a matter of law, but also a process of making sense of the past. As Elie Wiesel (1977) argues, “If the Greeks invented tragedy, the Romans the Epistle, and the Renaissance the sonnet, our generation invented a new literature, that of testimony.” This testimony takes on artistic expressions, unlocking the victims' imagination, revitalizing their memories, and generating novel experiences. The arts unveil concealed traumas, presenting them openly for all to witness. They establish a dedicated moment and environment for remembrance, mourning, forgiveness, healing, and envisioning a new future. First, the arts not only tell individual stories but also tell the stories of others as a group. As a result, the arts blend the differences that exist among conflicting parties, religions, classes, and generations and make them irrelevant. And second, the arts give a decisive role to the audience, the creators of the art leave room for the audience to reinterpret the piece, which sparks new emotion, new healing, and forgiveness.




The organization of Trama Textile is a Mayan women owned cooperative focused on backstrap weaving. As Mayan men were “disappearing,” the women of the community banded together in order to support themselves and their families. They did so by doing what they always had: backstrap weaving. Weaving with Trama Textiles not only provides a way for these women to deliver clothing, money, and other support to their families, it also helps these women deal with their trauma. Trama Textiles provides a place of relief for many indigenous Mayan women of Guatemala. Not only is it delivering healing for Guatemala it is helping women in indigenous villages form a community in which they thrive. These women who are often illiterate and do not speak the same language as one another are able to come together to run a cooperative. They earn money and valuable business knowledge while showing the rest of the nation that peace and healing are possible after a violent and turbulent past. The income also serves them to send their children to school and have an education. Artistic and cultural resources are increasingly recognized as beneficial in post-conflict reconciliation efforts and are being incorporated into mental health interventions. Textile making has unique psychological value in Guatemala because of the background and culture in the region and the rich Mayan traditions. The heritage of textiles is a living tradition inherited from ancestors and passed on to descendants. Textile practices allow us to find a shared language, work with psychological wounds and support healing. Through crafting, handwork, and talking about the finished pieces community dialogue is encouraged, and awareness about issues of social cohesion and peace are brought to light.


Art-based healing strategies, with their proven global effectiveness, are not confined to Guatemala; the recent Impunity Watch event in Burundi on May 20, 2022, serves as a testament to their universal impact. This Bujumbura debate highlighted the transformative power of art, specifically referencing the play 'Poli-tue-scène' by Troupe les Enfoirés de Sanoladante. The event underscored the role of art in questioning social relations, acting as therapy, and contributing to cultural identity. These insights gain additional depth when considering diverse artistic approaches in countries such as Afghanistan, Chile, Libya, Peru, Rwanda, and South Africa. In Afghanistan, the arts, including storytelling, theater, and film production, have played a crucial role in the nation's healing process since the implementation of the "Action Plan of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for peace, justice, and reconciliation" in 2006. Similarly, in Chile, women initiated the "arpillera movement," crafting symbolic cloth pieces to narrate the stories of kidnapping, torture, and death during the military dictatorship. Guatemala also employed Christian symbols with "street angels," created by Daniel Hernandez-Salazar, to convey messages from victims and encourage the living to speak out. Libya turned to graffiti as a form of democratic expression after the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi's regime, symbolizing the desire to topple years of tyranny. In Peru, Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani used theater to summon the dead and confront the truth of justice, while Rwandans embraced dance competitions to preserve traditions and foster unity. Lastly, South Africans utilized art, such as the blue shopping bag memorial, to remember the tragic death of Natal Umkhonto.




With the scars of a brutal conflict etched deeply into the collective memory, Guatemala stands as a poignant testament to the exigency of art-based healing strategies within the ambit of transitional justice. The mosaic of over 200,000 lives lost or forcibly disappeared, predominantly among the indigenous Maya populations, attests to the profundity of the wounds that necessitate comprehensive approaches to healing. The struggle for justice in Guatemala is not merely a legal endeavor; it is a journey of reckoning with a historical narrative marred by violence and exclusion. Art, with its diverse manifestations, acts as the pivotal point of this process, allowing individuals and communities to surpass linguistic and cultural divides, weaving a tapestry of shared experiences and emotions. Through initiatives like the Trama Textile cooperative, women of unbeatable spirit have harnessed the ancient craft of backstrap weaving, not only as a means of economic sustenance but also as a conduit for collective healing. As they weave threads of resilience and remembrance, they weave a future where peace and prosperity are attainable. As transitional justice mechanisms continue to evolve, there is a growing imperative to integrate art-based healing strategies as an integral component. Advocating for the establishment of specialized programs that fuse artistic expression with legal proceedings can be pivotal in amplifying the impact of transitional justice efforts. Furthermore, policymakers and stakeholders should consider allocating resources to support initiatives akin to the Trama Textile cooperative, recognizing them not only as engines of economic empowerment but as drivers of collective healing and resilience. By fortifying these endeavors, societies emerging from conflict can forge a more inclusive and compassionate path towards lasting reconciliation.


Written by Lucie Linossier, LL.M. Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (Volunteer)

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