"It's said that the bones of the dead tell no lies. In many cases, they speak on their own behalf, telling stories of pain, violence and abuse...they speak of the crimes against humanity, of the genocide committed by the Army against the indigenous population." - Rigoberta Menchu Tum on clandestine burials from Guatemala genocide, 1992.
Photo by Jonathan Moller, 2000, Nebaj, Quiche, Guatemala, "Praying at the gravesite of a man killed and buried by guerillas in 1983."*
On April 7, 2011, following the "New Pathways to Justice Conference: An International Conference to Stop Violence Against Women in Central America" at Lehman College, was the opening of a traveling photo exhibit at the Leonard Lief Library titled, "Refugees Even After Death: A Quest for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation." The photographs were taken by Jonathan Moller, between May 2000 and July 2001, as a staff photographer for the Forensic Anthropology team of the Office of Peace and Reconciliation of the Quiche Catholic Diocese in Guatemala. The images are connected to the ongoing forensic exhumations of clandestine burials, representing a small fraction of the 40,000 disappeared, that resulted from over 36 years of civil war between local rebels and the Guatemalan government.
Unlike other cases of archaeological exhumations of human remains, the indigenous people of Quiche, Guatemala - survivors of the Guatemalan Army acts of genocide - were in support of forensic archaeological work and sought to recover the remains of their loved ones for three primary reasons: for proper reburial, for collective proof of the horrendous acts adamantly denied by the Guatemalan government/army officials, and to charge those responsible for the injustice. But as mere words cannot adequately justify the impact of the horror surrounding genocide, Moller's traveling photographs resituate the intensity of emotion, the suffering of the victims, and the survivors' senses of loss, unity, desperation for justice, and even their sense of hope behind the fatigue of 15 years of hiding.
Moller's twenty or so photographs on display strongly demonstrate the power of images and their ability to evoke both conflicting and concordant emotions from viewers, which in a way reflects the very nature of the photographs' subject matter. How is it that I was drawn to the rich colors, beautiful landscape, and the captured feelings emanating from the people in the photographs and yet fearful of looking too closely at each portrayal of sadness, loss and despair?
The universal contortion of the face and downward turn of the mouth expressing grief on the survivor's faces found me fighting back tears and failing twice. I couldn't help but replace the faces and bones of the Quiche victims with those of whom I have lost or fear losing in today's heightened belligerent state. What do you do when the army shoots down your family and denies that it even happened? How do you cope with hiding until the Peace Accord was signed some 15 years later while knowing your likely deceased loved one may be lying in a ditch like road kill or eaten by wild animals?
How do you react when you realize that the skeleton unearthed before you is wearing your father's favorite trousers?
As the exhibit panels indicate, the families and forensic archaeologists involved continue to risk their lives as they, Guatemalan human rights organizations, other international human rights organizations, foreign governments and the Catholic Church wish to push forward with these exhumations, even in the face of resistance from some military sectors and the 90% of crimes that go unpunished.
So, what can we think about here? As a student of archaeology, exhumations like the ones in Quiche, Guatemala feel right when they are favorable in the eyes of the victims and survivors of wartime tragedies and when local indigenous groups are closely involved. Their involvement represences a level of reverence of which we may be too ignorant to realize and therefore unable to carry out. These bones live, tell stories, seek justice, bear our grief and are, for some, harbingers of hope.
* All photographs are taken from the "Refugees Even After Death: A Quest for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation" Exhibit at the Leonard Lief Library of Lehman College, 250 Bedford Park West, Bronx, New York.