Unburying a Genocide

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.

Mass grave, Acul, Guatemala. Photo: Plaza Publica.Feliciana Chavez at the site of her village’s mass grave. Photo: Plaza Publica.

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).

Mass grave, Acul, Guatemala. Photo: Plaza Publica.Diego Cobo, 78, digs for the remains of his mother and his brother, both of whom starved to death. Photo: Plaza Publica.

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.

Mass grave, Acul, Guatemala. Photo: Plaza Publica.Catarina and Feliciana, barefoot, begin their workday. Photo: Plaza Publica.
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.

Mass grave, Acul, Guatemala. Photo: Plaza Publica.The body of a child, probably less than 10 years old and wearing a boy’s clothes, emerges from the earth. Photo: Plaza Publica.
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.

Mass grave, Acul, Guatemala. Photo: Plaza Publica.Catarina studies the exhumed remains. Photo: Plaza Publica.
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.

Mass grave, Acul, Guatemala. Photo: Plaza Publica.Authorities will take DNA samples from surviving villagers to try to identify the bodies as they emerge from the earth. Photo: Plaza Publica.
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.

Mass grave, Acul, Guatemala. Photo: Plaza Publica.

Catarina Chavez does not know her own age: she is searching for her grandson Andres, dead of hunger at the age of 5.
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.
Mass grave, Acul, Guatemala. Photo: Plaza Publica.
Domingo Ramos, 56, together with his son Pedro, searching for Domingo’s brother Jorge, beaten to death by army soldiers at 22As always they are left aside by the state, left aside by the peace process, left aside by the proposals to economically quantify and compensate the dead, without regard for the trauma of those who survived them.
Mass grave, Acul, Guatemala. Photo: Plaza Publica.Left, Maria Brito, 59, searches for her two daughters, Cecilia and Engracia.Center, Isabel Aviles, 73,looks for her mother and brother-in-law. 
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.Mass grave, Acul, Guatemala. Photo: Plaza Publica.Days end and a long walk back to the village; the search will go on. Photo: Plaza Publica.

Simone Dalmasso