Guatemala: putting an end to the pain of uncertainty

29-05-2009 Feature

The 1960-1996 internal armed conflict in Guatemala left tens of thousands of people dead and missing. The authorities, victims’ relatives, and various organizations are still searching for the remains of many of these people. Once found, they must be identified. The ICRC offers technical advice and material assistance to the Guatemalan organizations that are pursuing these efforts, and supports the families through the legal proceedings.


  ©César Barajas/icrc    
  Family member leaves the office of the public prosecutor with his relative's remains.    
    The sun has just come up in Nebaj, a municipality in the Guatemalan department of El Quiché. A large number of people are congregating outside the office of the public prosecutor, waiting for its doors to open. They have waited 25 years to find out what happened to their relatives, most of whom were murdered during the country’s internal armed conflict.

The office of the public prosecutor has carried out an expert analysis on the skeletal remains found in a common grave near the municipality, and identified them. Today, it is returning the remains to the families so they can carry out a burial that is dignified and that respects their traditions.

Jacinto Toma is among those anxiously waiting to receive the remains of a relative. In his case, they are those of his mother-in-law, Juana, who was murdered when a group of armed men entered the village of Acul, where she lived with her family.

“We realized that a group of armed men had entered the village and that they were killing people. We fled to the hills to hide. My mother-in-law was an elderly lady; she couldn't keep up with us and she got left behind. She was hit by the bullets and we were too scared to go back for her, " he recalls.

They hid out for a long time in the mountains, afraid that the armed men would come after them. When they believed that things had got better, they returned home to Acul. However, Juana's absence, and the sense of guilt he felt because he didn't know where she had been buried, were a source of torment for him.

  ©César Barajas/icrc    
  A wake can be held now that the body has been returned to the family.    
    He finally decided to seek help from Movimiento de Desarraigados (the uprooted population's movement), an organization offering legal support, and begin the search for his mother-in-law’s remains. After making enquiries and interviewing numerous people, the organization finally discovered where Juana had allegedly been buried.

This was the beginning of a new process. The organization filed a complaint with the office of the public prosecutor, which appointed Guatemala’s forensic anthropology foundation (FAFG) to examine and identify the skeletal remains that had been found.

“First of all, we have to examine the site where the bodies are alleged to be. Then, we have to meet the families to ask for ante mortem details regarding their relative, such as physical characteristics, clothing, or distinguishing features. Once the bodies have been exhumed, post mortem tests are carried out to see whether the bones and other evidence match the information provided by the relatives, " explains Soledad Rodríguez of the FAFG.

Some organizations offer crucial psychosocial support during the lengthy identification process. Lidia Pretzanzin and Glendy Mendoza work for one of them, the community studies and psychosocial action team, known as ECAP. They prepare the families for bad news. “Often, if identification does not provide the answers the families were hoping for, they feel despair or disappointment and give up. We help them understand the process, its consequences and that the outcome can be positive or negative, " says Mendoza.

  ©César Barajas/icrc    
  Relatives bury Juana's remains in the cemetery.    
    The results from the FAFG enabled the office of the public prosecutor to make a decision regarding legal restitution of the remains and set a date for handing them over to the families. Movimiento de Desarraigados informed Mr Toma of the results and of the date on which the remains would be handed over to him.

The FAFG helped relatives buy coffin-style boxes to transport the bodies, and the ICRC provided financial assistance to help them pay their travelling and accommodation costs. It also offered the forensic anthropology organizations technical support, giving them access to its ante mortem and post mortem databases.

Mr Toma prepared a meal for his family and a few friends, and kept vigil over his mother-in-law’s body all night. The following day, he walked with relatives and friends carrying the box on his shoulders. Passers-by gazed at this funeral procession, some o ffering to lend a hand.

The body was buried in a simple ceremony, next to the remains of other relatives, in the municipal cemetery – her final resting place.

“My mother-in-law is in the cemetery and is finally at peace. My debt has now been paid. I feel very happy, " says Mr Toma.