I just got back from a trip to Alta Verapaz, a beautiful region of Guatemala with everything from coffee-growing highlands to hot flatlands covered in banana, rubber tree and African palm plantations owned by Guatemala´s elite. As I mentioned in my last post, my co-worker and I were on a mission to carry out follow-up investigations of cases that were made public by survivors and family members of massacre victims in the U.N.-sponsored truth commission.
The first massacres that we were interested in were from villages located in the eastern part of Alta Verapaz. This was my first trip as the official driver of the group, and it was complete with steep, winding, one-lane dirt roads (I will avoid numerating the near head-on accidents that I was almost in for my mother´s sake!). We even had to pass through a few rivers, which I have to admit was thrilling! (see photo to right). What we discovered upon reaching these rural villages was that of the cases we took on, none is left to be exhumed. This was for a variety of reasons, some of which were a reality check for me on the effects of war on civilian populations.
In the first village at which we arrived, we were able to meet with the leaders of the village, all of whom were men, as is the tradition in Mayan towns. We met with them in village school, a simple wood structure with a dirt floor, no walls and a palm thatch roof, where they told us that that exhumations of the massacre there had taken place nearly a decade beforehand, likely by another of the Guatemalan forensic anthropology organizations (there are three of us in total). We asked them about the victims who were named on our list, but were only able to collect limited information. Of all of the massacre survivors from the town, only one elderly man still lives there. Everyone else, fearing for their lives, fled to other nearby towns and never came back.
This is exactly what we found a few days later in the villages near Coban, in the western part of Alta Verapaz. All of the survivors and family members of victims of the killings were impossible to locate, because everyone fled to other places. Furthermore, the oppression by the military was so strong and long-lasting in the area that many people were displaced multiple times. So it´s not as easy as finding out that the survivors from on town now live in the next one over; they could be in any nearby town, or in the larger Cobán, or even in Guatemala City. Or as was the case with one family in the Panzós area, they may have even gone into exile in Canada, the United States, or Southern Mexico. An estimated 30,000 Guatemalans migrated to the United States between 1980 and 1990, for example, largely because of the war.
So after meeting with people in numerous villages throughout Alta Verapaz, my co-worker and I came away with next to nothing in terms of future exhumations. However, we did spend a long while speaking with a charming and sweet tailor in a small town, Don Policarpo. He is a leader of his community, who is interested in spreading the word about the availability of exhumations. He told us that he wishes that he could exhume his three uncles who were kidnapped and killed by the army, but he has no idea where to look; they were disappeared and never heard from again.
All in all, the trip reminded me of how much I enjoy traveling throughout the rural areas of Guatemala and getting to know the people there, albeit due to harsh and sad circumstances.