The Puma’s Daughter was finally published in 1986. The book was well-received in Sweden and abroad, wining several prizes for its commitment to a humanitarian cause. In 1991, Zak returned to Central America to help have her book made into a film. As the war in Guatemala was ongoing, filming had to be done in Mexico. Even so, Monica tells me it was a highly dangerous project. “We expected sabotage from the military in Guatemala because they didn’t want the story to be told. The military had come into Mexico from Guatemala to murder Guatemalan refugees before, so that was a danger. The project was kept very secret and every time a scene was completed, the roll of film was immediately sent away to Denmark.” Since then, the incredible risks taken by Monica and many others in completing the novel and film seem to have paid off. In response to the novel, an organisation called Colchaj Nac Luum (A rough translation from the Mayan language would be ‘Saved by land and freedom’) was set up in Sweden to raise money for the Mayan community Zak had written about. Almost all the money collected by the charity has been raised by Swedish school children, and has been spent on new homes, a secondary school and land for the Mayan community. The profits of every copy of The Puma’s Daughter sold in Guatemala also go towards the organisation. The novel has now become part of the Swedish syllabus and secondary school students across the country study both the novel and the film adaptation. In fact, though her works are read by children and adults alike, the majority of Zak’s novels are aimed more specifically at children and young adults. She explains that she likes to write for younger age groups because they have been so passionate in getting involved in the causes her work deals with. “If you write for grown-ups, it just doesn’t have the same impact,” she argues.Zak is also convinced of the enduring power of novels to effect change. And as far as her own work is concerned, she seems to have a strong case for her argument. In response to her novels, a student organisation called Elevorganisationen (Organisation of the Pupils) was established, which on the 6th of May each year organises Operation Dagsverke (Operation Day-Work). Pupils take the day off school to work, and the money raised is donated to a charity in a different country each year. Zak tells me that with the money they raised for El Salvador, three dozen new schools were built.Zak is keen to emphasise that despite the often very bleak issues she tackles in her writing, she and her works ultimately remain positive. She recalls in particular the hope she found in the children and young adults she met during her visit to El Salvador, some of whom were child soldiers, others political prisoners at just 11 years old, others orphaned by the war. “I was struck by their tragic and unbelievable lives, but also by their spark, their strength, their humour, their intelligence and their desire to live. They will never leave my memory,” she tells me. “I met a boy of fourteen who’d just been let out of prison. He told me about the terrible torture he’d suffered there, and then of his dreams of a future of peace, without torture, or children in prison. “I’ve written about war and torture, but it will always have some positive twist – it’s not completely black. I’ve found a lot of fantastic people and hope in the world, and I remain an optimistic person.” With authors like Monica Zak working to make a difference it seems that this hope is gradually being made reality. The Swedish journalist who exposed human rights atrocities to the world talks to Iona Bergius about torture, terrorism and life undercover Monica Zak first travelled to Latin America in 1965 on an old fishing boat. Since then she has travelled extensively across the continent, reporting, writing novels, and producing films about the child soldiers, genocide, drugs cartels, and racism which have blighted much of Latin America’s history. She has risked her life on more than one occasion while researching for her work, convinced of the power the pen can have in making a positive difference in the world. Of the fifty novels Zak has written to date, one of the best-known deals with the 36-year Guatemalan civil war. The novel centres around the true story of a young girl’s search to find her brother, who was kidnapped by government soldiers for supporting the guerrilla movement. Zak tells me about the long and dangerous journey which led her to write The Puma’s Daughter. In the early 1980s she met Marianela García Villas, a lawyer from El Salvador forced into exile after her defence for human rights had led to her attempted murder. Zak befriended Villas and the two decided to travel to El Salvador – then in the midst of a bitter twelve year civil war – to write a book about the government’s abuse of human rights. Zak is reluctant to talk about exactly what happened when she first arrived in El Salvador, and skims over the details. “I arrived in the capital and then Marianela and I met up in the countryside. But there was an army invasion and we lost contact. She was captured and tortured to death. I was never able to write the book because all the material was stolen – I returned only with my life.” She was forced to flee the country because when the military had captured Villas, she had had a photo and a taped interview with Zak on her person. “I was accused of being an international terrorist with plans to destroy the country. It took me several months to get out of El Salvador under false papers.” Eventually Zak succeeded in escaping from El Salvador and crossed the border into Guatemala. Fearing for her life, she was forced to hide out in the Swedish Embassy. It was there that she learnt about the repression of the indigenous population taking place in the countryside. She tells me her greatest motivation for writing about Guatemala was the dearth of coverage of the people’s plight. “The world had no interest in Guatemala. No one wanted to go there. So I felt I had to write about it. I wanted to write this book because no one cared about the horrible things that were happening there. I wanted to tell people what it was like. The purpose of my writing is to try and make a difference,” she explains. Zak returned to Guatemala on two more occasions to research her novel, spending much of her time interviewing survivors of the government-led repression. She explains that some of the things they described were so terrible that she felt they could not be included in the novel, because no one would want to read about such atrocities. “The violence described in my book is all true. For example, the massacre of the villagers of San Francisco took place on 17 July 1982 and is told just as I heard it from the mouths of the survivors, except that I had to leave out some things, because if I had explicitly described the way in which many children were murdered, I think most people would have stopped reading the book.”Her research was fraught with difficulties and dangers. “I wanted to get to the Mayan village of Yalam, but the military forbade anyone from going in. Two American journalists had tried and then they had disappeared. A few years later their bodies were found – they’d been beheaded. I could get in thanks to a letter from my editor in Sweden which claimed I was writing a book on Mayan culture and wanted to look at the Mayan ruins of Yalam. At that time, there were no roads to the village so I had to walk for three days to get there, and to the neighbouring village of San Francisco, where the massacre had taken place.” On another occasion, she befriended some Guatemalan nuns who lent her a habit so that she could enter a Mayan village occupied by the military, in order to gather testimonies from the indigenous people. Zak denies that she acted bravely, simply stating, “There’s a magic to not being afraid. I never imagine the bad things that could happen to me.”
DEREK MONTGOMERY / Herald photoThe University of Wisconsin is renowned for perennially producing NFL-caliber offensive linemen. Wisconsin alumni Dan Buenning, Al Johnson, Casey Rabach, Corey Raymer and Mark Tauscher are all offensive linemen in the NFL.With a trio of seniors in its interior — Donovan Raiola, Jason Palermo and Matt Lawrence — this year’s Wisconsin offensive line is performing up to the standards of previous seasons, opening plenty of holes for tailback Brian Calhoun. Calhoun has taken advantage, rushing for 4.8 yards-a-carry and 11 touchdowns behind the group. And to think the new-look offensive line was a question mark entering the season.The three senior linemen are a unique story because they all came to Wisconsin in the same class, redshirted in their first season and are now fifth-year senior starters.Palermo, one could argue, was always meant to come to UW. As the son of assistant head coach and defensive line coach John Palermo, the school’s combination of top-level football and academics hooked him early on.”I always thought ‘I want to get a degree no matter what,'” Palermo said. “Wisconsin is a good school, so it has something to back [the degree] up.”When Palermo became a Badger, he was expecting to play on the defensive side of the ball and learn from his father — he was first team all-state with 100 tackles and eight sacks in his senior year of high school.”Freshman year I was playing defense,” Palermo said. “We had some [younger offensive linemen] quit. My dad told me ‘[we need offensive linemen,]’ and I liked it. It ended up working out fine.”Lawrence and Palermo found themselves in the same boat this season — finally getting a shot to start after biding their time as reserves behind former UW standouts Buenning and Jonathan Clinkscale. Despite growing up halfway across the country from each other (Lawrence comes from Millsboro, Del.) the two quickly bonded, forming a strong friendship early on. They are roommates, and that chemistry has shown in their play on the field this season.”[Palermo and Lawrence] are getting their opportunity,” Raiola said. “They leave it all out there. Every play they play it like their last. It is a good time.”Raiola’s story is very different. The brother of former Nebraska star Dominic Raiola, he came to Wisconsin from Honolulu, Hawaii — 4,158 miles away from Madison. And Raiola had plenty of game experience under his belt entering the season, having started 25-straight games over the course of the past two years. This year has been no different, as the fifth-year senior has extended that streak to 31 contests.This preseason Raiola was named the No. 5 best center in the nation by “The Sporting News” and was named in the preseason as an honorable mention All-American offensive lineman by “Street & Smith.”However, Raiola doesn’t get caught up in the honors — he’s focused on the task at hand.”I don’t think [the accolades] really matter,” Raiola said. “I just want to go out and perform to show that [I’m] effective on the field.”This week, the trio of senior offensive linemen will look to continue its nice start to the season when Wisconsin faces a Minnesota defense that has allowed 924 rushing yards in six games.And even beyond trying to hold onto Paul Bunyan’s axe with a strong showing against the Gophers, the trio is treasuring the opportunity in front of them in the season’s final six regular season games.”It’s awesome,” Palermo said. “I came in with these guys … We’re very close and being able to finish out this last year together is something special.”Tom Ziemer contributed to this report.