Reclaiming the Dead
Over the past 10 years, thousands of skeletons have emerged from mass graves all over Guatemala to tell a gruesome tale of repression, murder and injustice against civilians caught in the middle of a civil war that pitted leftist guerrillas against this country’s army for 36 years.
After a decade of work, forensic anthropologists have recovered about 5,000 skeletons, about 5% of an estimated 100,000 people killed and missing during massacres committed in the early 80’s. In total, between 1960 and 1996, more than 200,000 people died and 40,000 others were disappeared by the security forces. Most of the victims were children, women and the elderly from remote villages in the highlands, where most of the Mayan population of Guatemala live.
The task is daunting and is likely to take many more years to be completed. Fear among the witnesses—who in many cases live in the same communities as those who ordered or participated in the massacres—a legal system fraught with corruption and red tape and the fact that all the exhumations are made by NGO’s with little or no support by the government prevent the recovery process from progressing at a faster pace.
Amidst all the suffering and pain that receiving the remains of a loved one means, relief can be found in the simple fact of closing the cycle of mourning, giving a proper burial and honoring those who were wronged and labeled as criminals by a government bent on winning a war at any cost even if it meant wiping out entire villages.
Much has been done to document the process itself. Countless images have been produced of exhumations and inhumations, but there is still a void to be filled in terms of how these communities were affected by violence and what effect have the exhumations had on the daily life of the villagers. I believe that the story of these people needs to be told. How they endured the years after the massacres, how they gathered the strength to ask for justice and how they face an uncertain future is context that begs to be included and give a broader meaning to the images and stories of anthropologists recovering bodies.
Over the past five years as an AP photographer I have produced images that tell part of this story. I visited the communities to document part of the process. Still I feel that pieces of the story are missing that would give a more complete picture of the process of reparation, justice and restoration of dignity to the victims.
Because wars and their effects last long after the weapons are put to rest and signatures are stamped on peace accords.
Unlike the stories of other wars in Central America in the 1980s, the tale of Guatemala’s victims of conflict—victims of the bloodiest war in Latin America—still remains to be told. It is long overdue.
Rodrigo Abd is a photographer working for the Associated Press in Guatemala. He was the Associated Press staff photographer based in Kabul, Afghanistan, during 2006. Before, he worked also for AP based in Guatemala from 2003 to 2005, where he returned in 2007. In addition to his work in Guatemala, other important assignments with AP have included the political turmoil in Bolivia during the ousting of the president (2003) and the Haitian political crisis (2004).
He has received several awards, including the 3rd place in the World Press Photo Award 2006 for his work Gangs in Guatemala , the Sigma Delta Chi, (Art/Graphic, Photography Features); 1st place for Outstanding Photo Essay in the National Award 2004, and the 2004 Clarion Award for his work Culture of Violence (Press Photograph Photo, Series/Essay Feature). Besides, he has received the 2007 POY Award for his essay of exhumations in the cemetery in Guatemala City, and the 2005 POY Award for his work of the gangs in the country.. He also participated in the Joop Swart Masterclass, organized by the World Press Photo Foundation in 2006. Nominated in 2006 as finalist for the Foundation Nuevo Periodismo Award, organized by the foundation created by Nobel Literature Price Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
He has previously worked -1999 to 2003- as a staff photographer at La Razon and La Nacion newspapers in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Reclaiming the Dead Lesson Plan
The five images selected from Rodrigo Abd’s visual essay express how individuals, communities, and the larger nation of Guatemala continue to confront the legacy and aftermath of genocide in their country. As you view these images, keep in mind that they collectively tell a larger story—and remind us that much of that story is left untold.
A forensic anthropologist works to exhume the body of a peasant killed by the Guatemalan Army in 1982 during the civil war. Chucalibal, Quiche, 130 km west of Guatemala City. The Guatemalan Foundation for Forensic Anthropology oversaw the exhumation, which was visited by family members of victims of violence from around the world, including relatives of victims of the September 11 attacks in the US. May 17, 2005.
• In this image, we are witnessing the exhumation of a grave—one of the first steps in the reburial process. What details of color and composition in this photograph stand out to you?
• Photographer Rodrigo Abd notes that “there is still a void to be filled in terms of how these communities were affected by violence and what effect the exhumations [have] had on the daily life of the villagers.” How do you think such a process would affect daily life throughout the nation? How might the resulting challenges be addressed?
• Why do you think the photographer explains that the exhumations were “visited by family members of victims of violence from around the world, including relatives of victims of the September 11 attacks in the United States”? Why might those visits have mattered? What impact might those visits have had? On whom?
• By looking at the photographs, have we become witnesses to the exhumation? If so, what responsibilities, if any, come with that witnessing?
A skeleton is seen next to Mayan traditional clothing in a mass grave where 12 persons were buried after they were massacred by the Guatemalan Army in 1982 in “El Adelanto” village. August 31, 2007.
• Once they uncover the burial sites, forensic anthropologists discover graves such as this littered with the fragments of an individual life. What questions come to mind as you view this image? What details stand out to you?
• The skull is surrounded by color from scraps of clothing. What do you make of the juxtaposition of these bright colors with the remains of a skull? How does it impact the way you understand the image?
Relatives of 179 villagers killed by the Guatemalan Army during the period of 1981-1984 pray during a mass in a former military base in Comalapa. November 2, 2004.
• What do you notice about the way the picture is framed? Why do you think the photographer did not include the faces of the relatives?
• Study the picture closely. What clues does it contain about the identities of the relatives?
• Notice the bright colors in the photograph. Among the flowers are black-and-white images of victims of the violence. Together, what story do these elements tell?
• What role do rituals such as prayer, the creation of collective altars for lost loved ones, and the holding of community gatherings play in the aftermath of violence and genocide?
Lorenzo Cuxil and Felicita Oligaria look at a picture of a victim killed by the Guatemalan Army in a former military base in Comalapa, 80 km west of Guatemala City. Guatemalans honor their deceased loved ones on November 1 and 2. November 2, 2004.
• The large image of a skull shown in this photograph was taken by forensic anthropologists. For what possible reasons do you think it was placed in this field? Who are the individuals studying the image, and what brought them to this site?
• What thoughts, feelings, and questions does this photograph generate?
• What larger stories can be discerned from the photograph about this community’s response in the aftermath of genocide?
A man carries the coffin of a villager killed during a massacre by the Guatemalan Army in 1981, in Cocop, Nebaj, about 300 km northwest of Guatemala City. After the exhumation of 76 villagers killed on April 16, 1981, in Cocop, a team of forensic anthropologists made a scientific study of the bones and clothes of the massacred villagers to identify their remains. After more than 2 years of study, the anthropologists gave the remains to their relatives for burial. June 10, 2008.
• Photographer Rodrigo Abd says that “relief can be found in the simple acts of closing the cycle of mourning, giving a proper burial, and honoring those who were wronged.” What is your response to his statement?
• As you view this photograph, take note of the hat and its relationship to the rest of the image. It is not placed on the head of a living person; rather, it is held alongside the coffin. What might this communicate about the untold story of genocide in Guatemala and its aftermath?