Manuela Toj knelt in the mud at the bottom of the pit, the three skeletons before her covered with flower petals and burning candles. I knelt beside her, along with several of her neighbors, all of us gathered around the newly revealed skeletons. A Mayan priest intoned prayers for the dead while a young woman swung a rusting tin can sending off clouds of incense. When Toj began to weep, Rigoberto Pérez, the Catholic priest who had taken me to this rural Guatemalan village of Tabil, placed his arm around her shoulders, comforting her. When the Mayan priest finished the ceremony, Rigoberto led the group in reciting prayers. He asked Manuela to pray, and the Mayan woman prayed in K’iche’, the only language she speaks. She then turned to me and asked me to pray. Pérez translated her request to me.
I had come to Tabil, a hour northeast of Santa Cruz del Quiché in the western highlands of Guatemala, in 1997 to witness the work of a team of church-sponsored forensic anthropologists who were exhuming the bodies of 18 people assassinated by government soldiers 15 years earlier. Among those murdered in Tabil were Manuela Toj’s husband, Anastasio García, and her 19-year old son Juan García Toj. According to Toj and other survivors I interviewed, the soldiers came to the village with a list one day in July 1982. They marched straight to Toj’s home and asked for her husband, a Catholic catechist and one of few people in the village who regularly traveled to meetings outside the area. When Toj told the soldiers her husband was working in a nearby corn field, they searched the couple’s humble house and then set it on fire. They proceeded to the field, where they murdered Toj’s husband and son. Neighbors remember hearing García cry out, ‘What have I done to offend my brothers?’ just before the soldiers shot him. The soldiers then dragged the two bodies to a spot near the river that flows through the village, hurriedly burying them in a shallow grave alongside 11 other community members who’d also been selectively assassinated. As the troops marched out of the community, they found three women and two girls making tamales in their kitchen on a ridgetop to the west of Tabil. They killed the five right there, digging a shallow grave in the kitchen floor to bury them. They then marched on west toward their base in Santa Cruz del Quiché.
Several of the forensic anthropologists worked all day in the bottom of the muddy pit they had dug, slowly brushing the dirt from the skeletons they recovered. Others from the team interviewed the families of those who were killed, asking questions about what clothes the 18 had been wearing, whether they were right-handed or left-handed, had they ever broken any bones, and so on, amassing the information they would need to figure out which skeleton was which. When each skeleton was finally freed from the dirt, they carefully packed the bones and clothing scraps in cardboard boxes and took them in the back of a pickup truck to the sanctuary of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, the parish Rigoberto served in Santa Cruz, where candles were burning and a police officer kept watch. When the last exhumation in Tabil was completed, the remains were transported to Guatemala City for examination in the forensic lab of the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala. Using the data gleaned from the interviews with relatives, the scientists matched the remains to the list of those killed. The bodies were then returned to Tabil for burial in a manner consistent with Maya cosmovision. And the church, as part of its pastoral care in an age of genocide, continued helping those who survived the violence to get on with their lives.
I had spent several hours listening to the forensic interviews with survivors, and had done my own interviews, when I wandered down the hill to the muddy pit where the exhumation was taking place. Many of the villagers, mostly women and children, all in indigenous clothing, were gathered around the edge of the pit, watching in eerie quiet as the team below went about their slow work. At the end of the day, the forensic team packed up their picks and brushes and climbed out of the hole. So I climbed down into it, taking some closeup photos of the three skeletons that were mostly exposed, scraps of their clothing still intact. As I was capturing the images, a little girl climbed down beside me and carefully started sprinkling flower petals over the horrible tableau. A woman then placed small candles amid the bones, and then another started swinging the homemade incensor, filling the cramped space with sweet copal smoke. It was then that Manuela and several other villagers, along with Rigoberto, climbed into the pit and knelt in the mud around the three skeletons. I set my camera bag behind me and knelt silently with them.
When Manuela asked me to pray, I felt honored. But I also felt troubled. Here I was, a missionary, someone called to proclaim the good news of God’s liberating love in the world. Yet I was also a citizen of the United States, with my passport tucked into my camera bag behind me. It was my government which had sponsored the soldiers who in 1982 had brought death to Tabil. It was my government which had overthrown the democratically-elected government of Guatemala and placed in power a succession of sociopathic thugs who brought death to Tabil and hundreds of similar villages. So what do I pray as I kneel in that muddy pit?
Former General Efrain Rios Montt, once a darling of the evangelical right in the United States, is currently on trial in Guatemala City, charged with genocide for his role in the scorched earth campaigns of the U.S.-backed Guatemalan government. It’s a remarkable trial in many ways, not the least of which is that it is taking place as the country seems to slide inexorably back toward the repressive policies that Rios Montt embodied. That the trial is taking place at all is strong testimony to the courage of both the victims of the violence as well as the human rights advocates who have struggled valiantly against the institutionalized impunity that has reigned for so long in Guatemala. Among them is Claudia Paz y Paz, the country’s attorney general, as well as many church activists who have long played a critical role in insisting that only by confronting the truth about what happened in Guatemala could the country be set free. In 1998, I wrote a book about the church’s work during the Guatemalan peace process, and to this day I remain amazed at the gutsy courage of people who insist that we must learn from the past, however painful, in order to not repeat it. I’m also humbled by the courage of the survivors, such as those testifying in the current trial, who refuse to be victims any longer.
Kneeling in the mud at the bottom of the pit, what do I pray?
With this week’s post, Global Lens is changing. During the last several months I’ve regularly posted a Picture of the Week, but those posts have been getting longer and longer, while at the same time the “regular” posts have grown more and more infrequent. And a blog is, by definition, a regular thing. So I’m going to meld the two together. There will be no more “Picture of the Week” sub-blog. Instead, I will be uploading regular posts at least three times a month. But these won’t be the long tomes I’ve been wont to create. Sometimes they’ll be just one photo and a bit of commentary, at other times a collection of images. But I’ll do my best to keep the posts coming with frequency. Thanks for coming here to see the world through my lens. – Paul