For me, one of the most moving experiences today was visiting FAFG, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala. One of the Haverford graduates that has been accompanying us on the trip, Jen Trowbridge ’04, works in the lab. She introduced us to the other anthropologists and we got to see the different skeletal remains that the lab is currently working on. Basically, the bodies that they exhume are at the request of families who have not yet found the bodies of their loved ones who had been disappeared. The anthropologists dig to exhume the remains of these people in order to give closure to the crimes that were committed and so that the victims’ families to honor the death. Seeing the bones that had been exhumed and having the anthropologists show us where and how the victims had been macheted really had an impact on me. I didn’t want to touch the bones. The death and atrocities felt very close. They were mostly working with the skeletons of children and Anita pointed out very powerfully that this was really evidence of the genocide. The fetus remains that we saw were not child soldiers. The body of the pregnant woman was found in a ditch with several other women. There was one skeleton in particular that they believed was of a twenty-six year old woman. They showed us where her murderers had tried to decapitate her and how the blows must have been very hard because it broke through the toughest part of the skull. Part of the back of her head had fallen off. In the moment, I was shocked by the proximity of the violence. It is difficult for me to imagine what motivates such ruthless violence. After some distance and reflection, I was led to think more about this question, especially in the context of the other experiences that we have had throughout the trip and especially today, for example, the presentation that we were given by the military earlier in the morning. I thought a lot about the complete and utter desperation caused by years of inequality and stolen opportunities that created a culture that normalized violence during the civil war. In this context, it became clearer to me that there are different levels of responsibility for the violence- the people who are physically perpetrating it and those who create the circumstances that naturalize the perpetration of violence. Thinking about this, it was particularly devastating to hear the lines of the military institution that played down accusations of racism and denied the necessity of looking at the institutions’ past responsibility in the conflict. Throughout the whole trip, we have all had many conversations about the continuing disparities. One of the guerrillas we talked to over the weekend told us that he felt like they had lost the war because there were still elites who owned all the land while the majority of people have close to nothing. Seeing this continuing disparity on an institutional level during the military presentation was both saddening and frustrating. I think throughout the trip we have become more and more aware of the obstacles confronting this country in moving past the conflict. The amount of stimulation my mind received today is going to require many weeks of processing. Its been one of the most emotionally challenging days of my life. We began by going to Guatemala City to the Ministry of Defense. The trip was long and early. We were invited in to a large conference room. Their were several army officers and commanders that they claimed were diverse in rank, and experience. Some were generals, others were colonels, others were privates. Some came from before the war and others came in to the army after it. There weren’t any indigenous soldiers present at least from what I could see. So much for diversity. They gave us a few presentations. There was one on the conflict and another on reconciliation. The word genocide never came up once. There idea of reconciliation was forgetting the past and moving forward. Fabrizio asked about the role of racism in the conflict. He asked: how could the process of reconciliation occur with out addressing the racism in Guatemala against the Guatemalan people, the Mayan people? How could reconciliation happen with the power in the hands of so few? They replied that the racism was was exaggerated, that racism came from the Mayan populations towards each other, that racism doesn’t really exist. They sounded like Haverford students talking about race. I remembered the Mayan women, the widows we met yesterday. I asked a question on behalf of them. “Part of reconciliation is rebuilding trust. Yesterday we met a group of Mayan women who all lost their husbands, many lost their children at the hands of the Army. These women were not part of the Mayan elite, they were thankful to us for giving them a few pieces of clothing. They cannot escape their past because it haunts them everyday of their lives. What has the army done and what does it plan to do to rebuild that trust?” Answer: more bs. They danced around the question even more. They talked about how everyone suffered during the war and not just the Mayans. They talked about how the key to reconciliation was development. They talked about development a lot. They talked about Mayans joining the Army and making general. Their answer was basically that Mayans should join the army. I wondered to myself, the entire time they were answering, whether they actually believed what they said. They all stood up straight and spoke loudly and aggressively when they answered. They might have seemed confidant in their answers if I wasn’t so cynical at this point. To me it seemed they were over compensating with the way they spoke, with their power point presentation on the conflict and on reconciliation. I don’t know if I was more angry at their answers or amused at their efforts to avoid actually answering the questions. They just refused to acknowledge their actions. They refused to acknowledge their murders, their kidnappings, their genocide. How can this country move on with so little acknowledgment, with so little dignity left? I will add more later about our visit to the human rights activist we met.
Samee and Ilana
March 11, 2008