Exhuming the Past In a Painful Quest

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 28, 2006

NEBAJ, Guatemala -- A decade after the conclusion of the long civil war that ravaged this Central American nation, Guatemalans are literally trying to dig up their past.

Spurred by a surge of requests from victims' families this year, dozens of forensic anthropologists have been fanning out across the countryside to search for remains of the 200,000 people -- most of them Mayan Indian civilians -- who were killed or abducted during the 36-year conflict.

Many were massacred by military forces and dumped into mass graves. Others were buried hurriedly in unmarked, secret locations by relatives anxious to avoid rampaging troops.

About 40,000 victims simply disappeared after being seized by government operatives.

Nearly every day brings another grisly discovery: skulls of toddlers executed with gunshots to the head; corpses of young men whose necks are still looped with the garrotes used to strangle them. Nearly every week brings another funeral packed with weeping relatives: once-youthful widows now wrinkled and gray, children long since grown to adulthood.

Meanwhile, in a cavernous, damp warehouse in Guatemala's capital, investigators wearing protective masks and surgical gloves are combing through piles upon piles of mildewed documents from a recently discovered secret police archive, hunting for clues to the fate of the disappeared.

The current effort is hardly the first probe of wartime atrocities since peace accords ended the conflict in 1996. But its scope and pace are unprecedented in a country where those responsible have enjoyed near impunity. Only two military officials have been imprisoned for war crimes, according to human rights activists, despite findings by a U.N. commission that government and allied paramilitary forces committed nearly all of the atrocities.

Much of the bloodletting occurred in the late 1970s, when the military-backed dictatorship that had been battling leftist guerrillas expanded its targets to include anyone critical of the government -- including students, priests and union members. But the slaughter reached its peak in the early 1980s, when the military launched a scorched-earth campaign through the countryside to eliminate any potential support for the guerrillas from the long-oppressed Mayan Indians. Hundreds of villages were burned, livestock destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed.

The remains of fewer than 5,000 victims have been returned to their families.

The anguish of those still searching was palpable among the two dozen Mayan Indians who attended a recent exhumation near this town in the central Guatemalan department of Quiche.

Most were subsistence farmers and manual laborers who could speak only their native Mayan language and could ill afford to take time off from work. Yet day after day they hiked to the grave site atop a mist-shrouded mountain -- the women bearing small children strapped to their backs with colorful blankets, the men shouldering shovels to help the forensic team dig for bodies.

'I Don't Think It's Her'

Jacinto Bernal, a 56-year-old with weathered skin, blinked back tears as he watched an anthropologist brush away dirt from the skeleton of a woman who appeared to be in her thirties and may or may not have been his wife, Maria Perez. She was gunned down by a military helicopter in 1985, he said, leaving him to raise their four young children on his own.

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