I felt particularly moved by and attached to a case that I spent a lot of time on in April and May. Perhaps this was because an independent photographer following the case had told me the story of the victims before I began analysis (we in the lab don´t usually know the stories in advance in order to avoid bias), or because the case was a mass grave of four children. Three of them were siblings and the fourth, a cousin.
According to the story, the parents survived the attack that killed three of their children and their nephew, and survived the war after years of living in a cave in the mountains. Their village (shown in the photo above) is in the highlands of Guatemala near Nebaj, Quiché, an area which is almost exclusively indigenous Maya (mostly Ixil and K´iché Maya). Because of massacres that the people of the town had heard about in nearby villages, when the Guatemalan army showed up, everyone fled. This particular family heard the army was coming from down the mountain, so they told their children to run up the mountain to a ranch they all knew of, where they would reunite.
On the way up the mountain, the parents heard the crying of their children, and then the firing of guns. They arrived to find their three children and nephew shot to death. The parents carried the lifeless bodies over an hour through the mountains to the place where they were buried. A few other siblings survived that day and were present at the exhumation (picture above) with the parents. But one of the youngest, a baby at the time, died of hunger as the family hid in the cave.
When I received this case in the lab, the four bodies arrived in a box that normally holds one adult skeleton. Analysis allowed me to determine that there were two girls, about ages eight and ten, and two boys, about ages four and seven. I found bullet fragments with three of the four bodies, but because the bones were highly eroded, I only found evidence of trauma on the eight-year-old girl. She had been shot in the head (picture below with trajectory of the bullet), and based on the location of the bullet fragments, probably in the stomach as well. (To the right is a photo of the teeth of the four year old; all erupted teeth are baby teeth and you can see that his six-year molars are developing but not yet erupted).
Some people ask why, especially in cases like this one, the family would bother requesting an exhumation – after all, they themselves buried the children, right? Having not spoken directly with this family I cannot answer for them, but in many cases the reasons are simple:
The acts of violence that took place were kept secret for years as the war raged on and rural Maya continued to be persecuted under the Guatemalan military´s genocidal policy of extermination (tierra arrasada policy) against the population. Survivors lived under repression and in fear of authority. When loved ones were killed, they dug secret graves in haste before fleeing. The point of digging up these bodies is to rebury the deceased with proper, ceremonial burials and to denounce violent acts publicly, an experience which is powerful and affirming for survivors who have lived for years with these painful secrets. The exhumation process, in which the reburial in the last stage is essential, helps bring closure to family members of victims and contributes to empowering survivors.
While working on this case, I often wondered why I wasn´t more saddened by it. Especially because I couldn´t help but realize that the kids were from my generation; we would have been about the same age now. But more than anything I was frustrated by the fact that erosion prevented me from seeing the gun shot wounds on the bodies of three of the children. I knew they had been shot – and had bullet fragments in my hands to prove it – but I couldn´t connect them to fatal injuries on the body. I wanted to be able to prove conclusively that these children were shot and killed, which I was only able to do for the eight-year-old girl.
Yet, knowing that the parents of the kids were in Nebaj waiting for the return of their four little ones, I felt satisfied with and even proud of my work on this case. The implications of it went far beyond my frustrations of not being able to determine the cause of death, to helping to heal a pain that no one should ever have to know.
(Above: Clothing of the eight-year-old girl).
Special thanks to Roberto Mercatante and Ben Schilling for use of their photos.