Memory of 41 who died in shelter fire is focus of Women’s Day in Guatemala

Women participate during the march for the Internacional Women's Day in Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 8, 2018. EPA-EFE/ Edwin Bercian

Women participate during the march for the Internacional Women’s Day in Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 8, 2018. EPA-EFE/ Edwin Bercian


The 41 girls and young women who died two years ago as the result to a fire at a government-run shelter were protagonists again Friday as Guatemalans observed International Women’s Day .

The second anniversary of the deadly blaze of March 8, 2017, was marked with the release of 41 white doves.

“Fly! Fly!” Daymi Hernandez, the older sister of one of the victims, Ashly Hernandez, cried as she held her young daughter in her arms.

The tragedy has changed the meaning of International Women’s Day in Guatemala. March 8 is now a day of struggle and grief. Grief for the 41 who were burned to death and for the 15 survivors left with physical and psychological scars.

To remember them and to give voice to those who no longer have a voice, loved ones of the victims gathered in front of the scene of the tragedy, the Virgen de Asuncion shelter in San Jose Pinula, a Guatemala City suburb.

The center, overseen by the Social Welfare Secretariat, was meant to hold 400 people but was housing 748 minors of both genders at the time of the blaze. And the residents included not only orphans and at-risk youngsters, but gang members and other offenders.

Some of the older girls, who had been locked inside a small room as punishment for trying to escape, started the blaze by setting a mattress on fire to protest alleged physical and sexual abuse at the facility.

In front of the portraits of the 41 victims, Viannei Hernandez, Ashly’s mother, remembered the last days of her daughter: her suffering, the cold, the hunger and her struggle to survive.

Viannei, with Ashly’s photograph on her chest, said that the state was responsible for the deaths through a lack of “ability or willingness” to help the girls and young women.

“They washed their hands,” she said, urging the courts to bring to trial the half-dozen people charged in connection with the fire.

Among those listening to Viannei were three volunteer firefighters that were the first to reach the shelter on March 8, 2017.

Each holding a bouquet of flowers, they came to honor the victims and to offer “peace and love” to all women.

Emilio Najera, one of the firemen, said that the fire remains in their minds as an “indelible image” and in their hearts as an open wound.