Thursday, December 20, 2007

She Was the First One

Nearly all of the two months that I’ve been here so far were consumed by the case that I mentioned in my last entry. We finished it up last week, and by the end I was feeling very confident in my work. I am enjoying the challenge of determining the ages of individuals, and am learning a ton from the many traumas that we come across.

I still find myself unaffected by the work, though every now and then I come across something that jolts me back into the reality of why we are here in the first place. The ropes that we find in graves which were used to strangle or hang people are one example; somehow this is a stronger trigger for me than the bones themselves. Nevertheless, what has affected me more than anything else so far was the last person of the 74 that I analyzed in my first case.

Up to that point, we had analyzed 73 individuals, all of whom were male. But number 74 was female. Since the order of analysis went in the order of archaeological excavation, which is to say from top to bottom, that meant that she was the first person thrown into the well on the military base. She was about 14 or 15 years old, and the thought of what possibly happened to her before she was killed bothered me greatly. Her body showed significant signs of trauma, but they were probably from the fall into the well; after all, she fell farther than anyone else. I was frustrated by the fact that we couldn’t find any other trauma on her that might help us determine the cause of her death. I found that in my head I was talking to her, wishing that she could talk back. I was also angry at the fact that her family had no interest in participating in an interview to help identify her, according to the cultural anthropologists of the FAFG who said they thought they knew who she was.

Coincidentally, a few weekends ago I went to the small town in the province of Baja Verapaz where she was from and where this military base was. A colleague of mine is from the town, and a group of us from work traveled up there for his wedding. It was a bustling, quaint and typical town of the Guatemalan highlands. The town center is a beautiful park surrounded by the municipality buildings, a market area and a tall, classically Latin American Catholic church. Most of the population is Mayan and continues to use colorful traditional dress.

Above all else, I was struck by how easily people from this town were “disappeared” during the armed conflict. It seemed to me that it would indeed be easy to physically capture someone, especially at night when the streets are quiet, but in such a small town how did these disappearances go unnoticed? How did they continue over the course of many years? I think it is actually more likely that they were noticed, but that most people were too scared to say anything knowing that the “walls have ears” in Guatemala. The FAFG of course found the 74 people in the well from the military base, but we have a list of more than 200 people from the town that went missing during the conflict.

I am starting to feel very at home at the FAFG, both because I love the work that I am doing and because I fit in well with the people who work here. But I am now off to DC to spend the holidays with my family, so I will resume in January with a photo slideshow!


auntlinda said...

Hi, Jen-
It's almost Christmas and I'm thinking of you. Ned is here, Amelia and Estella are snowed in to Wisconsin.
Love, Aunt Linda

Aaron said...

Fascinating story-telling-keep up the great work!

I used to work in a war-affected area of Peru (Ayacucho) and your work sounds very familiar to many of my own experiences. You are doing important work for the victims of political violence and for the future of Guatemala. Even if many of the crimes you are investigating remain unpunished for now, the evidence you are gathering may one day be used to support criminal sanctions against those most responsible.

How long do you plan to work with the FAFG? Is the team still receiving threats from individuals opposed to the work? Have you ever met Dr. Carlos Martin Beristain? He has worked quite a lot in Guatemala developing psychosocial support services for war-affected communities.

Take care!

Bosqué said...

I hope you discover who the persons are, during your work, so that their families can finally have some closure.