Testimony through the Graves of Guatemala
On June 2, 1982, armed members of the Guatemalan military walked into the village of Pambach. They separated men from the women and children, then took about 80 men from the village down into the valley. They told the women that the men were being conscripted to serve in the military and would be back in two years.
Later that day, the same group of men were taken to a forest near the town of Tactic where they were butchered — bludgeoned, beaten, stabbed — and left as a carpet of corpses on the forest floor.
The next day, the military returned with trucks and moved 84 corpses to Military Zone 21 military base. Unknown to them, one man had survived the massacre despite near fatal wounds. He eventually made his way back to Pambach and broke the news to the women that they would never see their menfolk again. And indeed they never did. They were the latest “disappeared.”
The old military base still exists today. It is now a U.N. Peacekeepers training base, run by the Guatemalan military. It is also home to 533 corpses of Guatemalan “disappeared” who did not in fact disappear. They were murdered in cold blood then buried at the base away from prying eyes, but now the evidence is speaking from the grave.
Fredy Pecerelli is a forensic anthropologist who, with his team of experts, has been scouring the countryside of Guatemala for hard evidence of atrocities committed during the civil war from 1960-1996. At its height in 1982, Pambach was one of many Mayan villages accused of supporting guerillas, and purged - which often meant the wholesale slaughter of its men, women and children.
Sifting through the 533 corpses at the U.N. training base, 49 bodies have been positively identified by Pecerelli’s team, 13 from the village of Pambach.
After extensive forensic tests, six of the corpses were being returned to their families 32 years to the day since they were forcibly removed and murdered. Small wooden coffins were loaded into a flatbed truck. Each contained the lab remains of one victim. The truck set off for Pambach. I was in the next vehicle with Fredy. A backup vehicle followed as we wound our way through steep hills in pouring rain, a six hour funeral cortège high into the hills.
Clouds drifted across the landscape occluding the peaks. Deep mud and drizzle dampen the dirty school where six sparkling varnished coffins adorned with flowers are lined up. The schoolyard is full as 250 family members await the arrival of their loved one's remains.
They had done this once before, when the first six identified corpses were returned. There was an air of procedure and expectancy about the ceremony, but it was not religious or liturgical; it was more like a wedding or bar mitzvah — a mic, a band, expectant relatives. But there was also sorrow clinging to the families like the clouds hugging the hills.
A sudden commotion caught my attention at the end of the courtyard. Standing there were what looked like a military commander in fatigues and a red beret. Closer examination revealed teenagers with fake blood and wooden guns wearing former US Army issue combat wear. It was the beginning of a memorial play, in which children from the local school became perpetrators and victims as they re-enacted the events of 32 years ago. It was chilling to see grandchildren of the disappeared dressed to kill or waiting to be killed.
“They need to learn and this is a good way,” says a woman in her 40s.
Large candle flames wafted in the breeze as brightly clad Mayan women with babies strapped to their backs listened as older family members gave their eulogies to their long lost dead.
None of this would be happening at Pambach without the work of Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), which began over 20 years ago by Pecerelli. It is tough work, digging through corpses and confronting the past they reveals. There are few people in power today in Guatemala who will gain from FAFG's painstaking work and so support is hard to come by. It is easier to forget after all.
No one is immune. Perez Molina, the current president of Guatemala was in a senior intelligence role in the Kaibile — the special forces responsible for murders similar to those at Pambach among the 200,000 mainly Mayans whowere murdered by the military.
“We can only dig where the prosecutor allows us to,” says Pecerelli, pointing out that the exhumations are not for memorial purposes — they are all criminal investigations. FAFG is interested in ending impunity and meticulously document the evidence as a part of the judicial process.
There have been some judicial victories. In 2013, former Guatemalan president, Efrain Rios Montt who oversaw the most brutal phase of the genocide from 1982 to 1983, was convicted for the crime of genocide. While there have been setbacks, the fact remains that Guatemala was the first state in the Americas to allow a former head of state to stand trial for genocide.
“It was in part the excellent forensic expert witnesses of FAFG who had painstakingly pieced together the evidence that led to a successful conviction,” points out New York human rights lawyer, Scott Greathead, who is traveling with us. In addition to evidence produced in Guatemala, U.S. filmmaker Pamela Yates interviewed Montt during the crisis, provided the outtakes. Montt confirmed on camera that he was in control of the military, thereby confirming line of command to the state-sponsored murder that happened at villages such a Pambach.
The speeches in the compound ended. Flowers and candles were passed around. Men from each family stepped forward and lifted the large shiny coffins onto their shoulders, small coffins with human remains are hoisted onto single shoulders; others carried bouquets. One by one, the families formed their own cortège on foot and streamed out of the compound splitting in several directions, with one family snaking up hill and another winding down into the sodden valley.
A crowd gathered at each house for a wake with a difference. In the dimly lit wooden two roomed house 50 people squeezed in, passing chicken soup and tamales as the small coffin with the remains returned from the lab and the shiny new coffin were both opened. The family watched on transfixed, as the lab technician performed her final act with bones she had already handled scores of times. First she laid a silk lining in the coffin. She then placed a pillow where the head would rest, then she took brown envelopes each containing bones, shoes, tattered clothing. Piece by piece she placed the skeleton in its position, a pair of wrinkled decayed shoes neatly placed where feet would have been. She wrapped the white silk lining over the skeleton, then the shiny lid was gently closed.
After 32 years, six more of the disappeared are finally home tonight.
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