The Ghosts of the Guatemala Civil War

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If we stay here long enough and resist the too quick, cheap or artificial resolution, we may see that the place of death is in fact the place of life.

The spirit of the Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  –Ezekiel 37:1-2

It is a March morning in Guatemala City. I walk down a dry, dusty lane, out along a finger of land jutting perilously between ravine and ravine.

Here, on the road through La Verbena cemetery, hospital waste trucks rumble by; when they reach the end they tip their pile down into the valley.

I am early, so I walk slowly, kicking stones through the rows of niche tombs, stacked five high, artificial flowers drooping down. I pass some of the nicer mausoleums, and then I am among the graves in the scrub grass, markers tilted over or gone. Some are simple piles of dirt; others are human-sized hollows, where the bodies have been removed and dumped into the bone pits.

I stand outside a cement block wall, papered with the faces of the “disappeared.” They stare at me from the abyss of silence. Many are women, their hair and clothes out of style now. The men sport moustaches from the 1980s. I imagine each one grabbed by murderers, thrown into a van, driven somewhere dark, filthy, disgusting, sticky with blood, urine, and feces. The women are raped, the men too, and all of them mutilated, burned, or electrocuted, and finally killed. Some are then brought here and buried.

Jorge Mario Barrios shows me around. He’s the forensic anthropologist for the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) in charge of the project. He explains: Many people were dumped here at La Verbena cemetery as unknowns. They are supposed to be buried in the ground for seven years, and then gathered up and thrown into the ossuaries, the bone wells. But between the years 1978 and 1984–the peak years of the Guatemala Civil War–there was a massive upswing in the number of bodies being brought and buried, many without being registered.

Some, it seems, were dropped straight into the well. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that La Verbena was a dumping ground for the murderers.

The FAFG, under its executive director Fredy Peccerelli, was created in the 1990s to investigate these crimes and uncover both bodies and hidden history. It is orchestrating these exhumations at La Verbena. This is one site out of hundreds they’ve investigated.

There’s no building, just gray walls squaring in the huge work site, wooden pillars, and tin roofing, which sometimes keeps off the rain. Then there’s the pit itself. Huge metal crossbeams, dangling with ropes and harnesses, stand over Well No.3. The first well gave up 2,114 bodies. The second, massive well, 25 meters deep, held 12,168 bodies. Well No. 3 is a perfectly round sink hole, eight meters deep. Investigators expect to find about 20,000 bodies total in the three ossuaries. The U.N. commission that investigated the 36-year war and genocide in Guatemala estimates that 200,000 people lost their lives. FAFG figures come to 44,000 people detained and disappeared. Jorge Mario tells me that they hope to identify 100 remains from the pits as disappeared people–a slim percentage.

I have been walking with Guatemala for 28 years, since 1984, when these wells were in full operation, gaping open, swallowing the dead. I am a priest and a theologian, working on understanding theologically what the genocide means. Here we are, in Golgotha, the very place of the skulls. If we stay here long enough, and resist the too quick, cheap, or artificial resolution, we may see that the place of death is in fact the place of life.

But before new life comes the way of the cross, the crucifixion.

Candi, an anthropology student and full-time FAFG employee, finds me a smock and takes me to her table. Slowly we untangle a pile of bones. These bones speak to her. She is unravelling the language of the dead and preparing to speak these things to the world of the living.

Slowly I begin to see. This is a radius. This is an ulna. This is a tibia. The hip bone, which we’ll use to determine the gender. The hard ridge above the eye socket–only men have that. We’ll check the vertebrae, up and down, that can tell us the age. Here is the all-important femur. They take a DNA sample from each left femur they find, and try to match it to one of the 4,000 identified family-types now waiting in the FAFG-created Victims and Families’ National Gene Bank of Forced Disappearance. FAFG has created six categories of remains, from “A,” evidence of death by firearm, to “F,” a body partially putrefied, but not skeletonized, no sign of autopsy–someone thrown fresh into the pit.

I work all morning with Candi, cleaning bones with a little stick and brushes. Her friends and family wonder why she is wasting her time and career–shouldn’t we all just forget what happened and move on? Did it even really happen? We saw off a piece of femur, put it in a paper bag, mark it, then go back to the black table, on to the next pile of bones. Five in a day, says Candi; that’s good.

These people are engaged in an incredibly difficult job. They have bravura mixed with tenderness, an unspoken respect for the dead, and unbelievable courage. No one I met talked much about faith, but each one seems to work from the ethical conviction that human life cannot be simply discarded, destroyed, or erased. Their actions–methodical, scientific, stubborn–threaten the house of terror that was built out of these bones. The dead were never meant to speak again. But they do.

The next day when I arrive my body is numb with fear. Today I go down into the pit. Raul, a forensic archeologist, gives me a white protective suit, helmet, face mask, boots, gloves, harness, everything I need. God, mercifully, has given me a 72-hour cold for these days, and I can’t smell a thing. I swing out, and then slowly, as I saw the others do, belay myself down, down, into Xibalba, the underworld, where the dead wait, restless.

It is damp, cold under the circling fans, eternally dark, yet brightly lit. Cockroaches scuttle every time something is lifted and moved. It is a space between worlds. I see only indecipherable rubble. But the archeologists know what they are looking for. They brush all dirt, loose bones into a tub that is raised again and again. Then they find what counts as treasure–semi-intact remains. They mark them with yellow measuring sticks and a yellow number–we’re up past 2,600 in Well No. 3. There’s the flash of a photo. Then, gently, they gather the remains–bones, and clothes, sometimes a sheet or a blanket, all caked in dirt and human compost.

At last the call echoes down, “Coffee! Lunch!” We clip in, are hauled out, and I’m done for the day. I feel slightly sick, yet exhilarated. I feel close to those I have loved, but never known. The eyes on the posters along the walls follow me.

It was hoped that the first well, which dates closest to the years of highest horror, would produce matches. Four thousand Guatemalan families have had their DNA recorded. So far, none of the bones tested have matched.

According to U.S. historian Greg Grandin, “disappearing” political opponents was refined in Guatemala in the late 1960s under the training and direction of the CIA. Later this technique was exported around the continent, and horror stories abound in Argentina, Chile, and El Salvador. But Guatemala continues to hold the grisly record.

Each of the 44,000 Guatemalans who simply vanished during the Guatemala Civil War was a human being, with a family, dreams, and plans. Most are now just bones waiting to be found. Most never will be. But the work of Fredy, Jorge Mario, Raul, Candi, and the rest carries on anyway. Whether or not they identify anyone, they are restoring dignity–life–to these bones. 

When my third and final day in the cemetery ends, my friend Maco finds me wistful and distracted as we drive the three-hour road home to Quiché. My cemetery experience has unleashed his heart, and he cries, telling me about when his best friend was murdered by a military man. Most everyone from the region where I live has stories like this. My tears for the dead fall quietly in the dark.

Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people … I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. –Ezekiel 37:12, 14

Emilie Teresa Smith is a Canadian Anglican priest and theologian living in Guatemala. Excerpted from Sojourners (June 2012), a monthly Christian magazine that seeks to proclaim and practice the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice.

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