In the 1980s, with the full support of the Reagan administration, Guatemala’s army rampaged through the indigenous, Mayan speaking mountain villages of Guatemala, massacring thousands of peasant women, children and men on the pretext that they were harboring guerillas. This year, the country’s former president has finally gone on trial for the horrors of those bad years; the genocide trial of Efrain Rios Montt and others has proceeded in fits and starts, with judges issuing suspensions and others overruling the suspensions.
Last month, with the trial in the capital temporarily halted, Plaza Publica‘s reporter visited a remote village and watched as its women and men, now grown old, tried to find the remains of their murdered youth.
On Thursday the 18th of April, Feliciana went to the cemetery as she has for the past two months. She greeted the relatives of other victims, hung her morral bag from a tree, removed her shoes and started to dig. That same day in Guatemala City, the genocide trial would be suspended. Feliciana, who heard nothing of this, continued to dig.
Feliciana Bernal Chavez is 62 years old and lives in Acul, a village in the municipality of Nebaj, scene of one of the 97 massacres committed by the Guatemalan Army in the Ixil area during the civil war, according the interdiocesal Report on the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI).
At the end of 1981 and the beginning of the following year, following a phase of intensive massacres in the Nebaj area, the civilian population fled en masse to the mountains in the north of the municipality; hundreds of people seeking refuge from the bombings and slaughters.
Lack of food, miserable living conditions and army persecution decimated the population and the first to die were the most vulnerable: children and the very old.
It was in these circumstances that Feliciana lost her son Diego, dead at the age of one from “fright” and starvation. Like others in the area, she buried her son in an unmarked clandestine graveyard near the village of Xe’xuxcap, an hour’s walk from Acul.
Thirty years later, at the end of February, 2013, the Forensic Anthropology foundation of Guatemala-FAFG- launched an exhumation project at the site, awakening Feliciana’s hope that she might recover her son’s remains and mark his memory.
With an infinite patience and energy, armed with a pick and shovel, she has done this work as she has always worked: relying on her own strength and that of her friends, indifferent to the rumors that filter in from the capital, rumors that that the trial for the genocide of her people would be suspended for some reason after all the hopes that it had raised.
In Xe’xucap’s clandestine graveyard, only the forensic anthropologists from the capitol seemed to be frustrated by the news coming from the tribunal, angered that the process had been ended so abruptly.
The Ixil men and women, by contrast, kept on digging down into the earth, not even realizing that they were at the center of the discussion.
Every one of these people, those who survived those bad years, wants nothing but a dignified burial for their relatives; to pull off of them, as they pull off the dirt from these graves, this shroud of forgetting that for now lies over them, intact.
09 May 2013