Voices From The Land Of Trees

Voices From The Land Of Trees tells the story of Guatemala's thirty-six years of civil war. It is a familiar tale of exploitation, poverty and repression in pursuit of 'US interests'. But the 'Silent Holocaust' of Guatemala was extraordinarily brutal even by the standards of Central America, involving CIA-trained death-squads, the widespread use of torture and rape, the deliberate targeting of churches and the genocide of 200,000 Indians.

These poems are spoken by many different voices - mothers, missionaries, children, soldiers, guerrillas, Indians, students and journalists - each struggling to be heard above the sound of gunfire and weeping, each trying to break the silence.

Voices From The Land Of Trees is a work of bold historical imagination and sympathy, a contribution to the process of recovering these terrible events from official silence and collective amnesia. It is a book about suffering and liberation, about the mysteries of Mayan culture and the beauty of the small country known as the 'Land of Trees'.

Sample Poems

Workers on a Coffee Plantation

Saber. Saber.
Who knows?
We know nothing.
There has been no war.
Not on this plantation.
Not in this area.
There are no guerrillas.
Only the army.

Saber. Saber.
No. We haven't heard the bullets,
and if you've heard them
let me tell you,
this is God's will;
everywhere, people fight –
there's war too,
somewhere in Eastern Europe.
Let's pray.
Let's read the Bible:
'There shall be wars
and rumours of wars.'
It explains it here.

Saber. Saber.
No casualties in La Patria.
There's been no fighting.
No machetes, no bullets.
These are coffee plantations.
We have berries, shade trees.
The landowners are good to us.
They keep us safe.
We live in peace.
We belong to them.
There's been no shooting.

Saber. Saber.
Who knows?
Ask elsewhere.

An Indian Soldier

I brought them a pink panty,
the lace stained a dirty yellow.
One officer guffawed,
ruffled my hair,
'Now you are a man,
a true soldier,' he said, 'make sure
you rub that little cock of yours
with lemon, keeps the venom
of your Indian hussies out.'

After that, they stopped
spitting in my food,
mixing chilli with my tortillas,
ramming my elbow
into my stomach; instead,
I handled new recruits – boys my age &ndash
tied their feet with sticks as I
pushed them to their knees,
placed snakes around their necks,
lowered rubber hoods
onto their heads.

You cannot be a soldier
if you're not strong enough
to withstand interrogation.
You might cry, shout
for your mother, beg for mercy,
but mutter an officer's name
under fear of torture,
and you're as good as dead.

The first time I killed a man,
I screamed like a woman.
The colonel laughed, said I'd
cure myself through practice.
I left the cuartel feeling very macho,
insulted people, took no shit
from civilians. They made me
a Corporal; I delivered messages
for the kidnapping of people.

When I returned to my village,
I could no longer hang out with guys
who weren't in the army:
we saw things differently. Some said
we should have stayed at home,
become civil patrollers.
I thought, better be a recruit
with sixty quetzals in your pocket
than a civil patroller,
unpaid, unarmed,
with everything to lose.


Every day I died a little,
I was consumed.
I asked the patron
for a minimum wage –
he paid for my football gear.

So we wrote ORPA on the walls.
Every day we died a little bit,
we were consumed.
The volcano was our seal;
we were the eruption,
fighting injustice,
the enemies of the people,
the government, the army,
the rich, the foreign power.

Workers received us warmly:
'Qué viva ORPA!'
We wanted revolution,
a better education,
better health, better salaries,
the right to work our land.
So we wrote ORPA on the walls.
We were the eruption.

Our fathers were gentleman –
they fought with words.
'Viva La Paz!' they said,
and disappeared.
So we wrote ORPA on the walls.
'Everyone to war now!'
We had no choice.
We were the eruption.

We fought the army,
hiding in the woods,
training in secret.
The people didn't speak –
in Sacuchum we hid for months,
walked the woods with the cucheros.
They guarded our secret.

In Sacuchum they killed our people.
So we wrote ORPA on the walls.
Every day we died a little bit,
we were consumed.
The volcano was our seal.
We were the eruption.


'great skill... extraordinary sensitivity, bravery and generosity'

Penniless Press

'In this collection, to adapt Auden's phrase, poetry makes something happen.'

The South

'empathy, compassion and insight'


'beautiful moving and heart-wrenching poetry... a brave, bold and important piece of writing.'

Small Press Review

'Voices From The Land Of Trees is a visceral and moving poem wrenched from Guatemala's violent past: soldiers, peasants, workers, guerillas, priests, generals and journalists create a complex polyphony that discloses a brutal and unaccommodated history. Angry and compassionate, Abigail Zammit's own voice discovers an excoriating yet redemptive timbre, confronting oppression and suffering whilst remaining true to moral complexity and ambivalence.'

Graham Mort