XOLCUAY, Guatemala (Reuters) -- Peasants in the highland village of
Xolcuay clutched white lilies as the bodies of relatives massacred in 1982
during Guatemala's civil war were reburied this week as part of a
U.S.-funded exhumation of graves dating to the 36-year conflict.
Local forensic anthropologists began digging in July 1999 at the grave
Xolcuay in the northwest Mayan Ixil region, unearthing dozens of bodies. On
Tuesday the bodies were reburied, completing the first exhumation under the
program heavily financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development
The effort is intended to help the Central American nation strengthen its
democracy in the aftermath of a war that left 200,000 people dead, mostly
civilians. Guatemala's war ended in 1996 with a peace accord between the
government and Marxist rebels.
USAID provided $472,000 to the anthropologists to help dig up some of
the hundreds of wartime clandestine cemeteries believed to exist in
"It's about more than exhumations. It's about bringing the communities
together to help them deal with the past," George Carner, director of
USAID Guatemala, told Reuters in Guatemala City.
The Dutch government donated $472,000 to the cause. The government of
impoverished Guatemala pledged $7,000, a small fraction of the total sum
but it marked the first time the Guatemalan government contributed money
for the exhumation of wartime mass graves.
First dig yields 35 bodies
The first exhumation and reburial completed by the Guatemalan Foundation
for Forensic Anthropology took place in Xolcuay, a sleepy village that was
one of the hardest-hit by the war.
Anthropologists on Tuesday lined up 35 small red coffins in the center
village, then opened seven that contained unidentified remains. As children
played soccer nearby, villagers were invited to examine the dirt-encrusted
clothing and bones in hopes of putting names to the bodies.
By the end of the morning, five of those seven bodies had been identified,
including the body of an infant.
"They (the army soldiers) killed them because they thought we were
guerrillas but we were just peasants," said survivor Diego Michicojus, 60,
who said he was out gathering firewood the day of the massacre. He said his
wife, sister, son and sister-in-law all were killed in the bloodshed.
According to survivors, on the morning of February 28, 1982, an army
patrol searching for guerrillas entered the village and executed 99 men,
women and children after torturing them.
Members of the community bore the coffins on their backs along winding
trails to a grassy, hilltop cemetery about a 40-minute walk outside the
"The most important thing about this exhumation is that it brought us together
as a community again," said Jacinto Hernandez Utuy, a village leader, noting
the community at first was deeply divided about dredging up its painful past.
At graveside, families gathered around the coffins, holding white lilies
last portrait -- Polaroid photographs snapped by anthropologists.
"When my children grow up I will show them this picture of their
grandparents," said survivor Lorenzo Ramos, 33, saying he would display
his snapshot under glass.
Change in roles for U.S.
Since 1997 the United States has channeled more than $235 million into
peace-related programmes in Guatemala, including demobilizing combatants,
building bridges, installing electricity in rural areas and providing educational
scholarships to war orphans.
The aid reflects a major shift in U.S. policy toward Guatemala and other
Central American countries, which had become a bloody Cold War
battleground that often pitted Washington-backed right-wing military
governments against leftist rebels, some of whom were trained in
The funding enabled the Guatemalan Foundation for Forensic Anthropology
to expand its digging team to 43 people from 14 people. The funding also
will pay for computers, X-ray machines and mental health workers to help
survivors identify the dead, said Fredy Peccerelli, the foundation's president.
The money will boost the number of exhumations from 12 to 50 sites a year,
Copyright 2000 Reuters.