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COLUMN ONE

Dignity Recovered at Last

In Guatemala's remote highlands, forensic teams are helping villagers rebury family members massacred in the nation's civil war.

June 26, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

XIQUIN SANAHI, Guatemala -- Inocente Tubac rose to tell the story of the dead for the first time.

In front of him, grim and rapt, stood their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters. The silence was broken only by the fierce shushing of women trying to still the children who pingponged through the ranks of the adults.

A slight man whose thin mustache gives him the air of a 1930s movie star, Tubac pulled out a white sheet of paper and began to recount the days of slaughter. Pine incense filled the chill mountain air and dark clouds tumbled overhead.

Some had been killed when the army tossed grenades into the village church. Others were taken from their homes and shot in front of their families. Others simply disappeared, their bodies later found tossed in shallow graves.

Now they were back at last, all of them, 75 men, women and children. Their bones rested in a long row of pine coffins that filled the same white church where so many had died some 20 years before.

"In this moment, we remember the pain that we've had," said Tubac, 43, speaking this month in front of the church, still pockmarked with bullet holes. "It's a great day since now we can give them the dignified burial that they deserve."

It is a scene repeated throughout Guatemala's remote highlands these days as villages like Xiquin Sanahi rebury the victims of hundreds of massacres that took place during the country's 35-year civil war between the Guatemalan army and leftist rebels.

A United Nations-backed truth commission created as part of the peace accords that ended the conflict in 1996 encouraged forensic teams to investigate the killings, even though the agreement granted amnesty for all but the gravest of crimes, such as genocide or torture.

Since then, forensic teams funded largely by the U.S. have exhumed more than 250 sites. The teams operate with the approval of the Guatemalan government, though they are independent organizations.

Now the teams have begun to rebury the bodies to help provide closure to the mostly indigenous communities that bore the brunt of the scorched-earth campaign undertaken by the Guatemalan army and paramilitary forces in the early 1980s as they pursued the leftist rebels.

As hamlet after hamlet has reburied its dead, more and more villagers have come forward to tell their stories. Long silenced by fear, they now see a benefit to talking: the possibility of having the bodies of their own loved ones returned.

"People say, 'I didn't come forward before because there was nothing in it for me,' " said Sergio Pivaral, a human rights advisor with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has given more than $5 million for exhumations over the past several years. "Now we can offer them something."

As a result, human rights investigators have recalculated the scale of violence in Guatemala's civil war, which, with a death toll of more than 200,000, claimed more lives than the Cold War-era conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile and Argentina combined.

Instead of the 669 massacres tallied by the truth commission, forensic investigators believe there could have been more than twice that many -- 1,700 incidents in which four or more people were killed.

"It's difficult to understand and impossible to explain. How did it happen?" said Fredy Peccerelli, director of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, the largest forensic group. "All I know is that it needs to be investigated."

The reburial ceremonies are also the latest evidence that Guatemala is still struggling to overcome the legacy of its long and brutal conflict.

The peace accords have stalled. None of 14 laws the United Nations considered crucial have been passed. One of the most important is reparations for victims of human rights abuses.

The wounds are angry and obvious. Senior military officers accused of committing grave human rights violations remain free. Rights workers are increasingly the victims of savage attacks. Amid so much past and present pain, the exhumations and reburials provide concrete proof of the horrors the villagers suffered. A proper burial has become a way of giving peace to the living as well as the dead.

Life has always been tough in Xiquin Sanahi, a hamlet of mud-brick huts with corrugated tin roofs that clings to the spine of a mountain. Its few hundred inhabitants are mostly poor Kaqchikel Mayas who make their living growing corn and beans in the milpas, or fields, that pattern the steep slopes like a quilt.

The village lies at the end of a dirt road that weaves through an uninhabited valley before rising up a mountain covered in pine forest. It is the kind of place the Guatemalan government has long forgotten. For as long as anyone can remember, many of its people have lived and died within sight of the village church.

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