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“The bullets fell from above like rain:” accounts from the Ahuas tragedy

“The bullets fell from above like rain.” Recently, Witness for Peace partnered with PROAH, which provides International Human Rights Accompaniment in Honduras, to accompany a group of Honduran human rights defenders from COFADEH (Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras), on an investigative mission to La Moskitia. One of the nights that I spent in there, I dreamt that I was being shot at by machine guns. It was dark and all I could see were bright lights showering down like fireworks. For a passenger boat in the Patuca River a few weeks ago this nightmare was their reality. Early in the morning on May 11th helicopters from a DEA supported drug raid opened fire onto the canoe. Among the victims who lost their lives were two pregnant women and a 14 year old boy.

Hilda, a survivor who I met in the local hospital earlier that day, said that she had fallen asleep on the boat and woke to bullets falling like rain. One of those bullets left her with a grave wound in both of her legs. She recounted from her hospital bed that she went into the water to try to escape the overheard attack, but her injury and the continued gunfire prevented her from getting out of the river for almost two hours. Hilda’s family had gone out to search for her as soon as they heard the news of the attack, but they too were stalled for hours by the violent raid. Hilda’s wounds became seriously infected, likely due to the amount of time she was stuck in the water before being rescued. As she lay bandaged in the hospital she recalled no warning from the DEA helicopter; no lights shone down from above. She lamented that if they had, they would have seen that the small boat was filled with innocent women, children and men. Rather all she remembers was waking up to a barrage of bullets.

The next day I shared my dream with one of the members of the group of human rights defenders and journalists that I was accompanying on their mission to investigate the deadly attack. He responded that he’d had a similar nightmare. I wondered if we were so affected by these events, how the victims and survivors manage to cope with this trauma.

After that conversation I met a two year old girl who had been another passenger on that boat while she was sitting on the wooden steps of her home with her 11 year old sister who also survived the botched raid. The toddler watched us curiously as her sister shyly described how they managed to reach land that morning. The youngest sister rode on her mother’s back to shore; the oldest fended for herself even though she doesn’t know how to swim. They appeared physically unscathed but looking into the young girls’ eyes I asked myself what kind of dreams they have at night and what kind of memories they will carry with them throughout the rest of their lives.

Other nights since Ahuas when I close my eyes I see the face of the 14 year old boy who was killed. Sadly I don’t see a smiling young teenager. I see the image of his recovered body that his older sister showed me when we visited their home. His body was missing for almost two days before it was found.

For me the pain of the survivors and families of the victims is tangible and visceral, because I saw the tears, the wounds, the canoe with 20 bullet holes, the grief and indignation. But it should not just be the international accompaniers, the Honduran human rights defenders, and journalists who see this first hand in order to piece together who was responsible for that fatal morning. Where is the official investigation?

The official U.S. government line is that the Honduran authorities are investigating the events. Due to the level of U.S. involvement in this incident and the State Department’s own human rights reports documenting the rampant impunity in Honduras, why is the U.S. not conducting its own investigation or at the very least providing more direct support to the Honduran investigation? It would only be fitting since the U.S. DEA was “supporting” the operation.

Over a week after the attack the investigation that the U.S. government is putting all its faith into was sitting in Puerto Lempira with the Direccion Nacional de Investigacion Criminal (DNIC). COFADEH found that no official autopsies had been done and important pieces of evidence had not been collected. While some witnesses and families of the victims that COFADEH and the journalists spoke with had been interviewed by the DNIC commission, others had not.

The truth is that it is much more convenient for the U.S. to allow the memories to fade, the evidence to disappear, and the investigation to drag out indefinitely like thousands of others. That way they can more easily evade answers to questions about what type of support and advice the DEA gave, what role they actually played in the operation, and why the U.S. are supporting Honduran security forces that have been implicated in human rights abuses.

It is time for the U.S. government to look into the eyes of the survivors and families of victims themselves.

*WFP partnered with PROAH which provides International Human Rights Accompaniment in Honduras


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