An inside look into the exhumations of Guatemala: Panzos

The years between 1978 and 1982 were the most brutal of the Guatemalan civil war culminating in ethnic cleansing campaigns now labeled as Genocide by the UN truth commission (CEH).  With varying styles, the Romeo Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt leaderships ordered the massacre of entire indigenous communities often with disregard to any link or supposed link with armed rebel groups. This has led to many exhumations to take place throughout the country since the signing of the peace accords in 1996. These exhumations seek first and foremost to identify the deceased and to bury those who died in the war in dignity, it is a process of drawing a line in the sand under what has happened and to allow the healing process of the family and community to begin, and to record on a national level the specifics of the deceased and the nature of their death. The recognition of those massacred and war crimes committed in general is a central theme to the work of ACOGUATE.  
 
As an accompanier, and international observer of an exhumation in the Forest of Sierra de las Minas, Alta Verapaz, I was able to experience a taste of the plight of those who continue to seek above all peace for their fallen family members. Shortly prior to the 32nd commemoration of the notorious Panzos massacre (distinct but related), in April I spent three weeks travelling and camping in the forest with the survivors of the ‘Comunidades De Poblacion En Resistencia’ (Communities In Resistance), or CPR, retracing their footsteps in search of the remains of their fellow community members. As well as a fascinating personal experience it was also an informative opening into some of the great challenges facing post-war Guatemala. 
 
According to Mariano, a son of one of the deceased and the head of a campaigning organization on behalf of those killed; in 1982, as a response to natural growth in the community of San Marcos, the community requested to the authorities for a small allocation of land from the landowner to house the overpopulated town. The request was met by an armed response and the assassination of two community leaders, one of which was Mariano’s father. The response caused such terror in the community that the entire population fled into the forest of Sierra de las Minas in the hope of survival. As was typical of Rios Montt’s scorched earth policy, the town was raised to the ground and the community of around 900 civilians pursued by armed forces. By the time the community returned to their land after six years of nomadic survival there were (by varying accounts) only 200 left alive. The deaths were a result of their forced living conditions where people died from many causes including starvation, disease, malnutrition, dangerous animals as well as through army raids. Death however, is only one part of the suffering. 
 
28 years has past since those men, women and children were killed but many bodies remain in the mountains of Sierra de las Minas. Exhumations with the community of San Marcos continue every six months on average with the help of Government funding from the PNR, forensic-anthropology from US sponsored FAFG and psycho-social support from ECAP. Indeed the last expedition yielded around 28 bodies. Yet our own voyage, equal in length uncovered just two corpses, a testament to the difficulties and unpredictability of the process. The key to this lies in the circumstances in which they were buried.
 
After two very hard days walk it was not difficult to see how those fleeing in such conditions could have suffered life threatening injuries. The forest is hostile in every sense, in its plants, animals, (including deadly snakes, tarantulas, malaria carrying mosquito as well as larger animals such as cougers and bears) oppressive heat and scarcity of water. On top of that would have been terrible morale and a constant terror of the military. Indeed only the knowledge of the difficulties for those we were looking for contextualized my own struggle with the environment. It is not difficult to understand the challenges of fining the remains given the conditions in which they were buried; often carried out whilst fleeing from the military, in terrible trauma, many were buried by children, many of those who made the burials have since deceased, or memory fails them in an intimidating forest that could look different after 20 plus years of growth in the vegetation, as well as psychological and memory problems linked with people who have experienced severe trauma. But there are often difficulties even getting to this point; its often very difficult for community members to take time away from their crops to go on such long trips. Furthermore, lack of knowledge of the location and man power also decreases the chances of success. By its nature the areas are also very remote and the days of hard trekking presents a challenge to the older more vulnerable, but also indeed vital members of the community who still have memory of where the people lived and died. While there are anthropological experts to help, they rely heavily on witness statements; finding the graves often consists of rudimentary practices, such as spearing the ground with a stick to feel softer (tampered) soil.
 
Apart from the many obstacles there are also profound complexities to the process. Erosion and biological change ensured little left of the remains in the case of our expedition as both remains were identified primarily by clothing. If the identification remains unknown the community members must wait an average of six months before the DNA testing can identify the person, before they can receive a traditional Mayan burial. Sometimes identity is impossible to obtain. Meanwhile, a lack of physical results (skeletons) can result in financial restrictions for organizations such as FAFG, essential for the work, this in turn puts pressure on a ‘result’ orientated environment at the cost of the reconciliation and emotional healing of those involved in the dig which often arouses painful memories. Another considerable issue is the language and communication barriers, both quite separate issues. Communities are remote and so NGO’s-such as those mentioned above-helping in the exhumation can be left ill-organized for the event. The community of San Marcos speaks Quq’chi and whilst there are translators available some cultural-linguistic topics are very problematic to translate, measuring time and distance for example was an issue that that repeatedly arose. Phrases translated to ‘around the corner’ could result in heavy four hour hikes.  There is also a disturbing gulf emerging between the educational system and reality of the past. In towns like San Marcos for example the school curriculum ignores the violence of the past. As several community members informed me, children find the stories of their elders incredible and are often ignored or disrespected because of the appalling content, a troubling omen for the future, and with Guatemala reportedly having the worst educational standards in Latin America it’s unlikely to improve in the immediate future.
 
Whilst faced with an abundance of challenges, the spirit and atmosphere of our camps with the survivors was nothing short of inspirational. The phrase ‘smiling in the face of adversity’ has never been more apt to describe the deep reserves of strength in these people and I believe their Mayan cultural heritage plays a significant role in this resolute but humble inner strength. It is often said that the Mayans have a different relationship with the dead than other religious-cultural groups and for this reason to be detached from the dead (as in unaware of whereabouts or without proper burial) has been particularly painful for them. Whilst this maybe true I also saw a different relationship with the living too, and a humble respect for one another as people with fewer strict social taboos or coercive hierarchy. The mood was often light-hearted, jovial at times even during the excavations, other times brought great pain of course but the sentiments had less to do with physical environment or sense of occasion than ones inner feelings. This for me allowed for a genuinely pluralistic culture of sorts, quite alien to me but also deeply humbling. I could only conceive of a great anger and rage that these people must feel towards their former oppressors, murderers of their loved ones and towards the state in general, therefore it surprised me when the question came up ‘what do you desire to come out of this?’, I heard no mention of retribution, or even justice, from the survivors simply the desire to bury their families in dignity, in their way and to return to peace.  This spirit to me was embodied by a young man, Jose, who fled into the forest as a child with his family. His youthful demeanor made me think he was helping relatives find their loved ones rather than his own, this backed up by his very bright outgoing and very warm personality. It took until the last camp of our stay to hear that in fact at the tender age of 12 years old, Jose had buried his mother and five of his own brothers, all killed by the army.  People such as  Jose deserve to be called survivors, not victims. 
 
This reality for me underlines the great tragedy of a peaceful people massacred by a war inspired by violent racism, greed and the desire for complete dominance. San Marcos is just one tiny village, and there were hundreds such villages that suffered a similar fate throughout Guatemala, indeed if there were unlimited funds, exhumations would be continuing every day in Guatemala for a very long time. For the pain that has been suffered it seems vital that the new generations realise the full extent of the experiences of the past, something else expressed by the survivors. I also took great inspiration from the experience, seeing the ability to react in life how you decide rather than being dictated by your surroundings, I saw a great ability to desire peace and tranquility over desire for retribution and hate, as characterised in so many post-conflict countries. Let us hope that such feelings can be harnessed for a true and lasting peace in Guatemala.
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