GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Ana Caba fled her home to live in remote mountains for nearly a decade after Guatemalan troops razed her indigenous Maya village and dozens like it in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in the early 1980s.
Caba witnessed rapes and kidnappings and endured bombing raids after dictator Efrain Rios Montt took power in a 1982 coup and conducted a “scorched earth” campaign that killed tens of thousands of suspected Marxist rebels and their civilian supporters.
“They grabbed us, raped us, burned our homes and killed our animals,” the 51-year-old Caba said, recalling the worst years of a 36-year civil war that claimed as many as 250,000 lives, most of them Maya peasants.
After decades of suffering, the hardest hit of Guatemala’s Maya groups are finally seeing some justice.
Rios Montt, whose 17-month rule was the most brutal period of the civil war, was convicted on Friday of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years.
He is the first former head of state to be convicted on genocide charges in his own country.
The court concluded that Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used massacres, rape, torture and arson to try to rid the country of leftist rebels.
After Friday’s verdict came down, Caba set off fireworks with her neighbors in Chajul, an Ixil Maya community in Guatemala’s western highlands.
“I thought of everything that we went through and all the suffering,” she added. “I’m happy.”
Although many thousands more died during his rule, Rios Montt was put on trial over the killings of at least 1,771 members of the Ixil indigenous group.
Usually reserved, dozens of Ixil men and women stood up inside the courtroom and applauded the guilty verdict, chanting ‘Ta’ntiixh,’ the Ixil Mayan word for ‘thank you’.
Rios Montt denies committing genocide and his lawyers have vowed to appeal a guilty verdict. “I am innocent. I never had the intent to destroy any national ethnic group,” he told the court. “I have never ordered genocide.”
Maria Raymundo was just four years old in 1982 when soldiers stormed her village near Nebaj, in the western department of Quiche.
They burned homes and killed farmers accused of aiding leftist insurgents. She fled into the mountains where she lived for nearly a year and watched her grandfather die of hunger.
“We could only eat herbs and grass because that’s all there was,” Raymundo said, wearing a brightly colored traditional Mayan dress as she attended Rios Montt’s trial last week.
“There was a lot of suffering. The judge knows that we suffered and we are happy that she has recognized us.”
Guatemala’s Ixil region was subject to fierce repression during the civil war. Many people were forced to join paramilitary groups and live in so-called ‘model villages’ patrolled by soldiers where residents were forced to work and harvest crops without pay and had to ask permission to leave the area.
The civil war ended with peace accords signed in 1996, but the Central American nation remains deeply divided with indigenous areas mired in poverty and society locked in a fierce debate over whether civil war crimes should be punished or are best forgotten.
Until August 2011, when four soldiers received 6,060-year prison sentences for mass killings in the northern village of Dos Erres in 1982, no convictions had been handed down for massacres carried out during the war.
Rios Montt’s conviction has helped restore some faith in a justice system that has long been viewed as flawed and corrupt.
A corruption case against the sister of former first lady Sandra Torres was dismissed by courts last year. And former president Alfonso Portillo, who is awaiting extradition to the United States for money laundering, was absolved of embezzlement in 2011 and defeated an appeal this year.
During the genocide trial, judges squabbled over jurisdiction and issued contradictory rulings that temporarily stalled proceedings.
“I am happy because for the first time there is a perception that we are all equal before the law,” Ixil university student Matilde Terraza said. “I feel that we are moving forward, that we are getting rid of the labels of injustice and impunity.”
Editing by Simon Gardner, Kieran Murray and David Brunnstrom