Ocosingo War Diary:

Voices from Chiapas

Efraín Bartolomé

Illustration by Hong-An Tran

Ocosingo War Diary, Efraín Bartolomé's enduring achievement, is now appearing in English for the first time since its publication in Spanish nearly 20 years ago. The author's poetic resolve, his wish to breathe life into oral history, is clear from the diary's opening phrases in the section "January 4th". The events described take place amid a twelve-day ordeal in which nearly a hundred hostages, doctors, nurses, and a former state governor among them, were taken hostage. All this took place in the aftermath of a New Year's Eve attack on a Mexican Petroleum Corporation facility by members of the Zapatista National Liberation Army who are rumored to have seized 1.6 tons of dynamite, 10,000 detonators, and a truck, then blew up two bridges leading to the Mexican town of Ocosingo (pop. between 12,000 and 20,000, in the southern state of Chiapas near Guatemala) before invading it. Just over two weeks later, on 16 January 1994, the National Human Rights Commission would discover a mass grave in the vicinity.

On January 1, Efraín Bartolomé was startled from his sleep by the sounds of machine gun fire and panic in the streets. In the days that followed, there was a pervading stench of rotting corpses and untreated sewage from the water main interruptions; there were food shortages, rumors of torture, cut telephone and power lines and ensuing chaos; prisoners were freed from jails, and people looted shops owned by Bartolomé's friends and family. He had nothing more to fight back with than a pen and a handcrafted notebook.

This war diary exemplifies the use of "journaling" as a tool of psychological excavation, and 
Ocosingo proves invaluable as an eyewitness to political history. Yet in its fearlessness, the book transcends politics. Bartolomé, to quote the Mexican critic Emmanuel Carballo in another context, "leaves behind folklore, ethnology and easy stereotypes that divide the characters into two factions: good guys (the Indians) and bad guys (ladinos)". What Ocosingo does is dramatize, unhistrionically, the "all-politics-is-local" human dynamic at work behind the military and diplomatic complexities of land reform in Mexico between 1910 and 1994, the final year of Carlos Salinas de Gortari's presidency.

In addition to his work as a psychotherapist, Bartolomé is a prize-winning environmental activist and nature poet. His work builds on the tension between his lyricism and the stark violence—at once economic, emotional, and psychological—of the events matter-of-factly reported here. As a result, his imagery seems self-consciously functional rather than decorative, and the poetry that emerges appears unforced. The book is unique in its balance and in the meticulousness of its construction, down to the very spacing of the lines.

I no longer remember whether Efraín Bartolomé proposed the translation to me or I to him. Six years and a child after receiving a copy of the book from its author, six years, on and off, of chipping away at these 50,000 words, I have come to share, in my personal life, some of the torment, fear, gnawing uncertainty, shock, grief, remorse, and other sufferings and joys described in herein. Even for readers who do not speak Spanish, Efraín Bartolomé's recitation of this excerpt from 
Ocosingo, intercut with studio-quality sound effects, will be a revelation. It conveys in great detail aspects of the domestic terror many Mexicans have been subject to since long before the drug wars began dominating U.S. headlines.

Kevin Brown

"They said this mystery shall never cease
The priest promotes war, and the soldier peace."

—William Blake



I was born in Ocosingo's first valley, when my village was still a gateway to the jungle, and the jungle was still worthy of its name. In that atmosphere of pain and wonder you could plumb the depths of nature and human nature. In that smithy my soul was forged. There, in the old family house, the war took us by surprise. I kept a hasty record of what I saw and heard during those first 12 fateful days. The very valley that gave rise to my verse has also generated the snapshots which, in brushstrokes of stuttering prose, I transcribe below.


7:15 a.m.      The first shots, although throughout the night, in my sleep, I thought I heard others.

Up until last night, calls were coming in but weren't going out.

Today, nothing: line's dead.

Water's getting scarce.

7:32      Heavy gunfire in the northeast.

You can hear it over by the highway.

Also around the school.

Thuds continue, muffled, from high-caliber arms.

Now down by the river and around the school.

Once again, tension.

Roosters crow and birds sing.

Whistling sound of the great-tailed grackle.

Bullets cease.

It's 7:45.

7:51      Another shot.

7:54      And another, by the school, small caliber.

A loud one near the river.
Two more.

I mean the town river, two blocks away, not the Virgin River.

The street's deserted.

There's no electricity, no tortillas, no telephone.

A few women pass by, hugging the wall, headed toward the tortilla shop.

Due to the power outage, there are no lights on at the tortilla shop, but they're selling Maseca.

8:00      A loud shot near the park.

8:11       Two more near the school.

Another one, very loud, near the river.

Today, we were supposed to be roofing our house. That little house we began building seven years ago. We've planted so many trees in that territory with the privileged view. We were excited about the second-floor tiles. The framework was ready. It seemed we could almost see it.

8:21      Gunfire in the southeast.

At this hour, you can't see a thing for the fog.

My wife goes to Carmelino's store; he'll sell us canned goods.

"Everything's running out already", he reports.

8:24      It sounds like helicopters or planes.

8:30      A whooshing sound, like a very large projectile, slices through the air from North to South.

8:32      An unseen helicopter continues flying overhead.

More shots.

Dora and my wife succeed in getting two boxes of merchandise.

There's no electricity.

Gas for cooking is running out.

9:50      Four television and press vehicles pass by.

In the kitchen, it smells like fried plantains.

People in the street: "The soldiers won't let anybody get close, only journalists."

They say Uvelio Rosales was killed.

Dora and my wife go to the tortilla shop to buy Maseca: there's a very long line and lots of news.

I ask uncle Mario to accompany them with his dolly, in order to bring back the bags of Maseca.

The kitchen smells of fried chili peppers.

In the street Capirucho, the big black dog with the paw-like feet, tries unsuccessfully to copulate with a little bitty female

There's been no gunfire, and there's calm in the street.

A lot of people go to the tortilla shop and chitchat on the corner.

Taking advantage of the lull, our neighbor Angela goes running over to see her little sister, who lives at the edge of town,
near the highway that leads to Yajalón.

Aristides reports that there are wounded at the clinic, but that the soldiers are protecting it.

A lot of people return with their purchases.

Chelo's tortilla shop sells sacks of Maseca and cartons of eggs.

The tortilla shop is also local headquarters of the PRD.

Some say the guerillas cut the electricity, and others say it was the Army.

No one is allowed to go downtown.

Doña Filomena, crying, comes to visit her daughter Toli, in the house across the street.

She's crying over the death of Lupe Cabrera, her nephew.


We wanted to re-emphasize the advantages of rationing, and encountered my mother's fierce opposition.

10:09      A bit of calm floats above the funereal hamlet.

11:34      There are corpses strewn about the marketplace, and those left up in the hills are starting to be eaten by the dogs.

11:50      A helicopter flies over the populated area.

Shots are no longer heard.

A second helicopter appears.

They fly over the market and Port Arturo, the area of heavy fighting.

Another helicopter, and another, and another, and another.

Eight altogether.

Camouflaged helicopters with machine guns and soldiers in plain sight.

12:20 p.m.      A helicopter continues flying overhead.

The others flew off en route to Altamirano.

I think of all our interrupted activities.

My father hasn't been able to go to the ranch.

Don Pablo hasn't been able to take chicken feed to El Paraíso, nor eggs to San Cristóbal.

The bricklayers haven't been able to show up or finish the masonry: therefore, they don't get paid.

The workers haven't harvested coffee.

Alfredo hasn't milked or brought milk.

Edgar hasn't seen patients.

Isaiah hasn't come to work.

Nor María, the servant.

Genner and Dora haven't taught class.

Luis and Mapi, either.

Oswaldo and Karen haven't gone back to high school in San Cristóbal.

Rosario and Domingo haven't returned to their medical school classes in Tuxtla.

The youngest children haven't been able to go to school.

Aunt Maguita hasn't been paid, and can't go back to San Cristóbal to check in on her house and her business.

We all do something around the house.

The least active are the ones from San Cristóbal.

Especially Luis and his children.

Just like little Pablo.

They don't like to get their hands dirty.

They don't like to get their clothes dirty.

"That's just how people from San Cristóbal are: city folk."

And I notice they get bored more easily.

They don't know what to do with themselves.

They avoid the sun, the water, the dirt, the thorns and the ticks.

Their favorite areas are the living room and the bedrooms, the kitchen and the dining room.

Mingo studies Quiroz' anatomy all day.

Charo reads Valle Inclán.

It's marvelously sunny again.

We gaze out over the horizon from the inside terrace.

And suddenly a bad sign: vultures are circling overhead, high above the combat zone.

Between the clouds and blue sky, a small black whirlwind.

If that's how the vultures are, just imagine the flies.

13:30      There's a strange calm under the intense sun.

Pellucid air beneath a strikingly blue sky.

So much apparent peace in the resplendent valley!

What a lovely mirror the sun is for the sprawling valley...
I once wrote.

And in that refulgent verdure death was becoming become intoxicated.

Death swilled, yesterday and the day before, its thick red wine.

13:40      Far from the vultures, which seem to have lessened, not even a fly is buzzing in the town air.

I don't see a single movement in doors, patios or windows.

I see the ranches behind the skirts of hills of blazing greenery.

More intense still, flying buttresses of oaks and pines.

And behind that first green range, the greater range of intense blue.

To the right, a barren ribcage, truncated abruptly: the gateway to El Paraíso, at the opening to the second valley, now clogged with farming co-ops and shanties and subdivisions and necessities and redeemers ready to drive us up to heaven at the point of a bayonet.

"All the world's evils come from us mattering to one another", says Pessoa.

And I let this thought take flight into the midday air.

13:55      Short shoot-out.

Every one in the house on the alert.

I look out at the street: again, nobody.

14:05      The sun shines through the garden foliage and lights up the trees whitewashed by my little niece.

"We were always so happy in this town!", says my mother, who has worked all the days of her life from five or six in the
morning till ten or eleven at night.

14:47      On a battery-operated device we hear the news about San Cristóbal: three billion pesos in damage to City Hall.

16:00      A group of soldiers on Lety's corner, where the guerillas were before.

16:15      Electricity is restored.

The helicopter, once again.

The streets are still deserted.

Four Army trucks pass by.

17:58      The sky takes on a rose-colored tinge above the strips of cloud that begin to form flush against the horizon.

Behind the central mass of the church, the only beautiful building that has been constructed in this town for 500 years, the
layers of color follow one another thus: dark green in the hills, blue, the white of low-lying clouds, pink of sky, gray clouds,
whiteish higher above and a grayish blue in the canopy of heaven.

Wind sways the enormous royal palm tree I planted in the courtyard below when my son Balam was born, 18 years ago.

18:11      The streetlights are on.

All's well in the town: let's just say there's no gunfire.

In the yellow building, the pharmacy, soldiers on the roof.

At town hall, too.

22:00      A hundred dead, some say; very few, considering how many shots have been fired.

Who can the dead be?

The local boys, tzeltal Mayans with rubber boots and small-caliber arms? Or their commandants, with high-powered weapons
and impressive equipment?

The television images show only poor indians.

It's painful, the thought of that young tzeltal Mayan who was left for dead three days with three bullets in him.

I think about the chill of mornings, evenings, afternoons.

And about the gradual heat that changes to the savage midday sun.

And about the dead surrounding this youth, who can still speak:

"They left me here to die. ' The war's just about to start,' they told me... I was going out to my corn field. They just dragged
me here."

One entire day bleeding to death on the hard pavement.

And another day.

And yet another.

All over the cold hard ground.

In his own blood.

Thinking who knows what.

Feeling who knows what.

Saying who knows what.

What are we going do with all this sorrow?
, my wife's eyes ask me, welling with tears.

I take her hands in mine and squeeze them, long and tight.

We turn off the lights.

translated from the Spanish by Kevin Brown