Exhumation at Comalapa 

Guatemala suffered through a 36 year civil war in which at least 250,000 people were killed, and 50,000 "disappeared", almost all civilians, mostly Mayan Indians, and almost all killed by the Guatemalan Military.

Comalapa is a small village an hour and a half from Guatemala City. During the war an army base was situated there, on a small rise overlooking the winding road that climbs the pine covered hills to the town. Begun in August of 2003, the former base at Comalapa is the site of one of the largest exhumations of mass graves yet undertaken in Guatemala.

Rural bases like this were the headquarters for the Army's genocidal rural counter-insurgency campaign that terrorized Guatemala during the war. From these bases hundreds of villages were burned to the ground, thousands of people massacred. Hundreds more were dragged from their homes in the night, or sometimes in the day, and disappeared into bases like this one, never to be heard from again. There they were tortured, killed, and dumped in shallow graves like the ones on the hillside behind the camp.

Now, twenty years after the height of the killings, the graves are finally being exhumed. Pushed by organizations of families of the disappeared like CONAVIGUA (Coordinating Committee of Guatemalan Widows), which organized the exhumation at Comalapa, the government has granted permission for the graves to be opened. The work is carried out by the FAFG, the Guatemalan Foundation of Forensic Anthropologists, internationally recognized as some of the best trained and most meticulous in their field.It is a community, the site. Everyone has their roles — some dig with pickaxes, some comb through soil that used to be flesh and blood, some sort and catalogue boxes of bones, some string up tarps for when the rain comes. Most crouch, on the muddy edge of the hole, and point and whisper and wonder — Is that him? Is that her?

And in the middle of it all, are the disappeared. Now found. Nothing left but their bones and boots and muddy clothes. Twisted and broken, their bodies almost intimate, wrapped together as they fell. Exposed now, after 20 years of being hidden, and now the stories of their deaths exposed too. Feet cut off. Heads lie three feet from shoulders. Two women with their hands still bound, a bullet in one. Five bodies in one grave, all tied around their necks by one cord.

They will be helped out. Delicately, their bones will be lifted, sorted, cleaned and catalogued. Someone will finally listen to the story they will tell. In a way, help has finally come. In a way, they are rescued. Pulled from the beautiful, dark cold ground, taken out and identified and reunited with their expectant and loving families one last time, who have had to keep quiet, had to mourn in silence for so many years.

Now they can cry, and remember, and try not to fear, and not allow it to ever happen again. In the words of Magdaleno Simone, "We want to see our loved ones again, and say, here, we have them."

— Victor Blue