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Exhuming the Past In a Painful Quest

"I don't think it's her," Bernal muttered miserably. "She was struck in the back of the head, but it looks like this skull has a hole in the front."

There was little else to go on.

Like others who used the spot as a secret burial ground during the 1980s, Bernal had been forced to sneak there after dark and could no longer remember exactly where he had buried his wife's body.

A few feet away, in a different group of peasants, Petrona Bernal, 45, squatted by a grave containing the tiny bones of a young child whom she hoped would prove to be her baby boy. He was born in 1982, shortly after Bernal's village was destroyed.

"We lived on the run," she recalled. "All we had to eat was herbs and flowers."

Malnourished and weak, she had given birth to her son in the forest, only to watch the infant die of hunger days later. Ever since, Bernal said, she has ached to recover the boy's body and give him a proper Christian burial.

Until now, she had not dared to return to the secret grave site. Many members of civil defense patrols who carried out atrocities at the military's behest still live among the communities they once terrorized. Many military leaders who directed the war remain powerful -- including Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, the former dictator who today heads one of the largest parties in the legislature.

Ríos Montt has repeatedly denied ordering the hundreds of massacres documented during his 1982-83 tenure and has even questioned whether they took place. Forensic workers, lawyers and activists seeking to uncover war crimes have also faced repeated threats. Several have been killed.

But thanks in part to an infusion of foreign funds, private forensic teams and grass-roots organizations dedicated to helping indigenous peoples have expanded their efforts to file claims with the state to authorize exhumations.

The campaign also received a boost in 2004 when the newly elected president, Óscar Berger, publicly apologized to the victims of wartime atrocities on behalf of the government. He has established a commission to compensate them as well as help fund some of the forensic work this year.

Back in the late 1990s, noted Fredy Peccerelli, head of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, his organization was a tiny outfit able to conduct only about 10 exhumations a year. This year his staff of 80 has already reached 120 sites. They expect to recover about 450 bodies by the end of this year, and about 1,000 per year in the near future.

Even so, at that rate it will take decades to recover even a fraction of the total number of victims.


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