After such a long day yesterday in the capital, everyone was very happy to have the morning off today. Everyone slept in and most went shopping for handicrafts in Antigua, while others stayed in with breakfast and a book. At around noon, we all headed onto the bus to go see an exhumation that FAFG (the forensic anthropologists that we visited yesterday) was doing today. Exhumations are very important for the reconciliation and healing process, as it allows victims to give a final and dignified goodbye, while revealing a truth that is often still being silenced.
When we got to the site, some students were surprised, as the only thing that suggested that this was a crime scene was the two cops some yards off. Instead, the exhumation was being conducted openly by anthropologists and community members, with many neighbors periodically stopping by.
Very soon upon arrival we were introduced to Don Andres, an elderly man looking for the two daughters and one grandchild that he lost in 1982. Informed by neighbors that his family might be here, he contacted FAFG to start the exhumation process. He received us very warmly and invited us to pick up a pick axe and a hoe to look for his family.
Many students joined in the exhumation process, digging holes over a meter deep, always looking for soil disturbances, such changes in soil color and consistency; these qualities that can, even 26 years later, indicate a grave. After much digging, there was some excitement—an area of looser, lighted soil had been found.
At that point the hired workers from the community began to do the vast majority of the digging. With Haverford Students jumping in to clear our the hole of the soft dirt before the workers began picking at it again. At the time that this was going on everyone began to gather around the hole that had been started by Haverford Students and had now become the space where everyone gathered expectantly to find the bodies of Don Andres’ family members.
The workers continued to touch the soil every once and a while and it continued to stay soft in the hole that we had uncovered. After many minutes of us gathering around that hole, they found it. Aqui esta! What they had found was the clothing of one of the victims with her corpse underneath. It was difficult for all of us to be gathered around and to know that we had found the bodies of Don Andres’ family which had been brutally killed by the Military over twenty-five years ago.
When Don Andres approached the grave and saw the clothing he could not hold back his tears. Tears for his two daughters, and a granddaughter killed at the age of four months. Innocent victims of an armed conflict that created almost 500,000 Don Andres’s and left innocent people dead, innocent people who had no ties to the insurgency, but happened to be of the indigenous race and were therefore annihilated.
Don Andres had been carrying the pain that he expressed today for twenty five years, and for the first time in twenty five years he was able to see the tangible evidence of his children. With that context in mind we have a glimpse as to why his reaction to seeing a tiny piece of fabric resulted in sobs of sadness. Don Andres received support that day from everyone gathered around that grave, but as soon as the evidence was found because of the time the grave had to be sealed and work would begin again on the following morning. As the grave was sealed off by the members of the forensic lab we finally got a sense of what it meant for all of us to be there.
Anita approached Don Andres and with a hug that we have often seen her give to the young children of the communities around Satiago Atitlan he continued to sob in her arms, and then this small elderly man looked up at Anita and asked her if we were coming back tomorrow. She looked at him and asked if he would like us to come, and without hesitation he answered yes. It seems remarkable that Don Andres and his family would be so willing to have us join in, in such a painful and personal experience, but the way we conducted ourselves as people that day and the help that we provided him in his time of grief provided the environment for us to be invited back.
As we were leaving the grave site a few of us approached the anthropologists and their remarks were very interesting. They talked about the labs, the first being the traditional forensic lab that we had been in yesterday, and the second being the lab that we had been in today. They said that the latter tugs at all of your emotions, and puts into a setting that one can understand all of the people that the armed conflict in Guatemala continues to affect. It is this kind of event that finally provides family members with closure, but there continue to be thousands and thousands that either haven’t found their family members, or have no idea what was done to them, and they have to continue to live on.
Michael and Fabrizio
March 12, 2008