Artist's Statement: Rodrigo Abd

A Story Only Partially Told
Reclaiming the dead from mass graves in Guatemala

Over the past 10 years, thousands of skeletons have emerged from mass graves all over Guatemala to tell a gruesome tale of repression, murder, and injustice against civilians caught in the middle of a civil war that pitted leftist guerrillas and this country’s army for 36 years.

After a decade of work, forensic anthropologists have recovered about 5,000 skeletons, about 5% of an estimated 100,000 people who were killed or went missing during massacres committed in the early 1980s. In total, between 1960 and 1996, more than 200,000 people died and 40,000 others disappeared.

Most of the victims were villagers—children, women, and the elderly from remote villages in the highlands, where most of the Maya population of Guatemala lives.

The task is daunting and is likely to take many years to complete. Fear among witness--who, in many cases, live in the same community as those who ordered or participated the in the massacres--and the challenges of bringing former perpetrators to justice, as well as the fact that the exhumations are made by NGOs, combine to prevent the recovery process from progressing at a faster pace.

Amidst all the suffering and pain that receiving the remains of a loved one brings, relief can be found in the simple acts of closing the cycle of mourning, giving a proper burial, and honoring those who were wronged and labeled as criminals by a government bent on winning a war at any cost, even if it meant wiping out entire villages.

Much has been done to document the process itself. Countless images have been produced of exhumations and inhumations, but there is still a void to be filled in terms of understanding how these communities were affected by violence and what effect the exhumations have had on the daily life of the villagers.

I believe that the story of these people needs to be told. How they endured the years after the massacres, how they gathered the strength to ask for justice, and how they face an uncertain future—this context begs to be included, and it gives a broader meaning to the images and stories of anthropologists recovering bodies.

Over the past five years as an AP photographer, I have produced images that tell part of this story. I visited the communities to document part of the process. Still I feel that pieces of the story are missing to form a bigger, more complete image of the process of reparation, justice, and the dignifying of the victims.

Wars and their effects last long after the weapons are put to rest and signatures are stamped on peace accords.

While in other Central American countries, the story of their wars during the 1980s have been widely recounted, the tale of the victims of the conflict in Guatemala, the bloodiest in Latin America, still remains to be told. It is long overdue. - Rodrigo ABD

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