Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Haverford Visit

In March, Haverford College professor Anita Isaacs brought a group of students to Guatemala for 10 days and asked me to assist with the trip. I first came to Guatemala four years ago as a student of Anita’s on the same trip, and that summer came back to the country to do field work for her. So traveling with the group and contributing to the new Haverford generation’s experience of Guatemala was meaningful to me. I went with the group to Santiago Atitlan and the department of Chimaltenango, where the group was able to speak with people who were directly affected by the violence of the armed conflict and with professionals who are working for justice and truth in the current post-conflict setting. The trip was intellectually stimulating and refreshing.

I hosted the Haverford group in a visit to the FAFG forensic lab, where they were able to see the bones of those who fell victim to the armed conflict. We then went to an exhumation in a small town in Chimaltenango. I was proud of the Haverford group for not only going out to witness the exhumation, but also for grabbing shovels and helping dig up the dirt where we eventually found the skeletons of two Mayan women and a baby that had been reportedly killed by the Guatemalan military in 1982.

It was here that I had the most emotional experience of my time in Guatemala to date. Upon arriving at the exhumation site, Anita made quick friends with Don Andres, an 82 year old man from a very rural part of Guatemala and the father of the two young women in the grave and the grandfather of the baby. He told us that he wasn’t able to eat anything in days leading up to the exhumation. He paced around the grave site as the younger men from the community and the Haverford students dug, insisting that this was the exact spot where he was told that his daughters were laid to rest. Yet despite Don Andres’ anxiety, his warmth, sincerity, and above all his extreme affection for his deceased eldest daughter shone through. He spoke openly with the group about the day his daughters and grandson were killed, the experience of being forced to live under the control of the military – including in a military run civilian camp next to the barracks – for several years, and why he decided to ask the FAFG to exhume his loved ones so many years later.

After a full afternoon of digging, one of my FAFG colleagues calmly mentioned that we must be getting close – dark soil started appearing, which was a result of a high concentration of organic matter, and the sound of the pick axe was all of a sudden quite hollow. Not 30 seconds afterwards, bright green threads of traditional Mayan clothing were uncovered in the grave.

It was late in the day by the time this occurred, and my colleagues explained to the family members present that the actual exhumation would have to take place the following day. Don Andres listened attentively, then lit two candles to leave at the site over night. He then sat down on the edge of the grave and started to cry. We had seen Don Andres tear up off and on throughout the day as he talked with us, but this time he was not just crying but wailing. The mental health accompaniers who had come to assist the family for the exhumation sat with him to calm him down and assure him that it was best to leave the work for the next day. Don Andres eventually calmed down, and we were assured by one of the FAFG cultural anthropologists that this was actually a healthy part of the process for Don Andres.

I looked on with the Haverford group, tears in our eyes and lumps in our own throats witnessing the pain of a loving father, but knowing that we as outsiders could not truly understand it. As one astute Haverford student later commented, no political reparations or peace accords would ever be sufficient to erase this pain. Unfortunately, this is how hundreds of thousands in Guatemala have suffered. And personally I have found that this sentiment is directly expressed by many victims, who when asked what they most want, say that just want to know where their family members are. They want to find their bodies and give them a proper burial. They want to restore dignity for their husbands, brothers, sisters and children who were violently killed. This is where the FAFG comes in, and is why I feel so strongly about what I am doing here in Guatemala. Exhumations bring closure to family members of victims of the country’s war-time past.


Sarah said...

Very powerful post. Keep up the good work and the good writing! -Sarah

Alex K. said...

Jen, you made a huge contribution to the success of the trip not only with the guidance you provided at the lab and the exhumation but also by your engagement and presence at all the other activities!