Guatemala: News from the Field

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Former LAWG staffer Jennifer Trowbridge is now in Guatemala working with the Guatemalan forensic group FAFG to investigate remains from Guatemala’s devastating war. We have found her blog postings very insightful and think that you will, too. Here are some excerpts.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Perspectives on Death

Before arriving in Guatemala, I made the transition from the world of human rights advocacy to that of forensic science. Although I majored in anthropology during my time at Haverford College , the subfield of forensic anthropology is not often taught at the undergraduate level. Over the past year I have gained more experience in the field through coursework and an internship with Dr. Douglas Ubelaker at the Smithsonian Institution, and a month of training at Mercyhurst College. Prior to that, I spent two and half years working in human rights advocacy at the Latin America Working Group. The move from that field to forensics was marked largely by the difference I saw in perspectives on death. People in the human rights field tend to be highly sensitive to death. Successful human rights advocacy involves drawing attention to wrongful death and gross mistreatment of individuals, and is often accomplished by conveying an appalled reaction to such acts. In most senses, this response is appropriate; what is more serious than death?

Yet in the forensic field, death is a given. Every case that a forensic specialist takes on involves a person that has died. Dark senses of humor abound in this profession, and initially during my transition I was surprised by the lack of emotional response conveyed by forensic anthropologists when in the face of traumatic death. But I am coming to understand the medical and scientific lens that one must look through in order to successfully complete forensic work, which is important on both a personal and professional level. A sense of humor helps too, even if a dark one!Despite their differences, both human rights advocates and forensic professionals have the common goal of obtaining justice and dignity for the deceased, who can no longer speak for themselves. It is difficult for me, however, to have to choose between these two fields. Having now completed three weeks with the FAFG in Guatemala, I couldn’t be happier to be part of an organization whose work is both scientific in nature and dedicated to human rights and justice. The case that I am currently working on, for example, involves the skeletal analysis of 74 people who were killed on a Guatemalan military base during the time of the war.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

She Was the First One

I still find myself unaffected by the work, though every now and then I come across something that jolts me back into the reality of why we are here in the first place. The ropes that we find in graves which were used to strangle or hang people are one example; somehow this is a stronger trigger for me than the bones themselves. Nevertheless, what has affected me more than anything else so far was the last person of the 74 that I analyzed in my first case. Up to that point, we had analyzed 73 individuals, all of whom were male. But number 74 was female. Since the order of analysis went in the order of archaeological excavation, which is to say from top to bottom, that meant that she was the first person thrown into the well on the military base. She was about 14 or 15 years old, and the thought of what possibly happened to her before she was killed bothered me greatly. Her body showed significant signs of trauma, but they were probably from the fall into the well; after all, she fell farther than anyone else. I was frustrated by the fact that we couldn’t find any other trauma on her that might help us determine the cause of her death. I found that in my head I was talking to her, wishing that she could talk back….

Coincidentally, a few weekends ago I went to the small town in the province of Baja Verapaz where she was from and where this military base was. A colleague of mine is from the town, and a group of us from work traveled up there for his wedding. It was a bustling, quaint and typical town of the Guatemalan highlands. The town center is a beautiful park surrounded by the municipality buildings, a market area and a tall, classically Latin American Catholic church. Most of the population is Mayan and continues to use colorful traditional dress.

Above all else, I was struck by how easily people from this town were “disappeared” during the armed conflict. It seemed to me that it would indeed be easy to physically capture someone, especially at night when the streets are quiet, but in such a small town how did these disappearances go unnoticed? How did they continue over the course of many years? I think it is actually more likely that they were noticed, but that most people were too scared to say anything knowing that the “walls have ears” in Guatemala. The FAFG of course found the 74 people in the well from the military base, but we have a list of more than 200 people from the town that went missing during the conflict. I am starting to feel very at home at the FAFG, both because I love the work that I am doing and because I fit in well with the people who work here….