Can These Bones Live?

The spirit of the Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. —Ezekiel 37:1-2

IT IS A March morning in Guatemala City: sunny, cool, windy. I walk down a dry, dusty lane, out along a finger of land jutting perilously between ravine and ravine. To one side, vultures circle in lazy spirals on the updraft, watching everything down below—waiting. We are near the garbage dump and the slums that surround it. Here, on the road through La Verbena cemetery, hospital waste trucks rumble by; when they reach the end they tip their pile down into the valley.

I am early, so I walk slowly, kicking stones through the rows of niche tombs, stacked five high, artificial flowers drooping down. I pass some of the nicer mausoleums, and then I am among the graves in the scrub grass, markers tilted over or gone. Some are simple piles of dirt; others are human-sized hollows, where the bodies have been removed and dumped into the bone pits.

I stand outside a cement block wall, papered with the faces of the disappeared. A few young staff members arrive and wait as well, under pine trees that are blowing wildly now, this way and that. They eye me, but we say nothing.

The “disappeared” stare at me from the abyss of silence. Many are women, their hair and clothes out of style now. The men sport moustaches from the 1980s. I imagine each one grabbed by murderers, thrown into a van, driven somewhere dark, filthy, disgusting, sticky with blood, urine, and feces. The women are raped, the men too, and all of them mutilated, burned, or electrocuted, and finally killed. Some are then brought here and buried.

It’s 9 o’clock. Someone with keys arrives, and we all file in. Jorge Mario Barrios shows me around. He’s the forensic anthropologist for the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) in charge of the project. He’s tall for a Guatemalan, nicely dressed in crisp black jeans, combat boots, and a button-bursting black shirt. He explains: Many people were dumped here at La Verbena cemetery as unknowns. They are supposed to be buried in the ground for seven years, and then gathered up and thrown into the ossuaries, the bone wells. But between the years 1978 and 1984—the peak years of the civil war in Guatemala—there was a massive upswing in the number of bodies being brought and buried, many without being registered. Some, it seems, were dropped straight into the well. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that La Verbena was a dumping ground for the murderers.

The FAFG, under its executive director  Fredy Peccerelli, was created in the 1990s to investigate these crimes and uncover both bodies and hidden history. It is orchestrating these exhumations at La Verbena. This is one site out of hundreds they’ve investigated.

There’s no building, just gray walls squaring in the huge work site, wooden pillars, and tin roofing, which sometimes keeps off the rain. The work tables are covered in thick black plastic; black sacks on the ground are for loose bones pulled out of the pit. Then there’s the pit itself. Huge metal crossbeams, dangling with ropes and harnesses, stand over Well #3. The first well gave up 2,114 bodies. The second, massive well, 25 meters deep, held 12,168 bodies. Well #3 is a perfectly round sink hole, eight meters deep. Investigators expect to find about 20,000 bodies total in the three ossuaries. The U.N. commision that investigated the 36-year war and genocide in Guatemala estimates that 200,000 people lost their lives. FAFG figures come to 44,000 people detained and disappeared. Jorge Mario tells me that they hope to identify 100 remains from the pits as disappeared people—a slim percentage.

I have been walking with Guatemala for 28 years, since 1984, when these wells were in full operation, gaping open, swallowing the dead. I am a priest and a theologian, working on understanding theologically what the genocide means. Death. Crucifixion. Here we are, in Golgotha, the very place of the skulls. If we stay here long enough, and resist the too quick, cheap, or artificial resolution, we may see that the place of death is in fact the place of life. That God works in the universe by pulling life out of the grisly tomb. Those who work here, then, are God’s hands of reconstruction.

Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. —Ezekiel 37:9

BUT BEFORE NEW life comes the way of the cross, the crucifixion.

Candi, an anthropology student and full-time FAFG employee, finds me a smock and takes me to her table. Slowly we untangle a pile of bones. They look like a mess to me, but Candi knows how to read them. These bones speak to her. She is unravelling the language of the dead and preparing to speak these things to the world of the living. No longer secret, no longer forgotten.

Slowly I begin to see. I’m back in high school biology. This is a radius. This is an ulna. This is a tibia. Piles of ribs, skull pieces, and the jaw. Teeth, some fallen out. The hip bone, which we’ll use to determine the gender. The hard ridge above the eye socket—only men have that. We’ll check the vertebrae, up and down, that can tell us the age. Here is the all-important femur. They take a DNA sample from each left femur they find, and try to match it to one of the 4,000 identified family-types now waiting in the FAFG-created Victims and Families’ National Gene Bank of Forced Disappearance. FAFG has created six categories of remains, from “A,” evidence of death by firearm, to “F,” a body partially putrefied, but not skeletonized, no sign of autopsy—someone thrown fresh into the pit.

I work all morning with Candi, cleaning bones with a little stick and brushes. She tells me about the dreams that followed her night after night when she first started working here. Her friends and family wonder why she is wasting her time and career—shouldn’t we all just forget what happened and move on? Did it even really happen? We dust, pick, rub, clean, measure, and record. We saw off a piece of femur, put it in a paper bag, mark it, then go back to the black table, on to the next pile of bones. Five in a day, says Candi; that’s good.

These people are engaged in an incredibly difficult job. They have bravura mixed with tenderness, an unspoken respect for the dead, and unbelievable courage. Foul language and jokes abound, but never about the bones, the bodies. No one I met talked much about faith, but each one seems to work from the ethical conviction that human life cannot be simply discarded, destroyed, or erased. They balance loving compassion for the human remains before them with a determination to keep working. They forge on through the bone piles, creating order and meaning out of nothingness and oblivion. Their actions—methodical, scientific, stubborn—threaten the house of terror that was built out of these bones. These dead were never meant to speak again. But they do.

My dreams this night are thick and worrisome. The interior landscape of my imagination is being reshaped; I embrace the crackling bones, and I love them in wordless, tearless grief.

The next day when I arrive my body is numb with fear. Today I go down into the pit. Raul, a forensic archeologist, has been on many exhumations. He is a bit older than the others, very matter-of-fact. He gives me a white protective suit, helmet, face mask, boots, gloves, harness, everything I need. God, mercifully, has given me a 72-hour cold for these days, and I can’t smell a thing. I’m harnessed in, clipped to the rope. “Okay,” says Raul, “Swing out over the pit.” I dutifully swing out, and then slowly, as I saw the others do, belay myself down, down, into Xibalba, the underworld, where the dead wait, restless.

It is damp, cold under the circling fans, eternally dark, yet brightly lit. Cockroaches scuttle every time something is lifted and moved. It is a space between worlds. I see only indecipherable rubble. But the archeologists know what they are looking for; they’ve done this thousands of times. We get to work. They brush all dirt, loose bones—anything that can’t be linked to anything else—into a tub that is raised again and again. Then they find what counts as treasure—semi-intact remains. They mark them with yellow measuring sticks and a yellow number—we’re up past 2,600 in Well #3. There’s the flash of a photo. Then, gently, they gather the remains—bones, and clothes, sometimes a sheet or a blanket, all caked in dirt and human compost.

At last the call echoes down, “Coffee! Lunch!” We clip in, are hauled out, and I’m done for the day. I feel slightly sick, yet exhilarated. I feel close to those I have loved, but never known, those for whom I have been working all of my adult life. The eyes on the posters along the walls follow me.

O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you. —Ezekiel 37:4-5

IT WAS HOPED that the first well, which dates closest to the years of highest horror, would produce matches. Four thousand Guatemalan families have had their DNA recorded. So far, none of the bones tested have matched. I peer down into giant Well #2; I can’t see the bottom, even with a flashlight. It’s too deep.

According to U.S. historian Greg Grandin, “disappearing” political opponents was refined in Guatemala in the late 1960s under the training and direction of the CIA. Later this technique was exported around the continent, and horror stories abound in Argentina, Chile, and El Salvador. But Guatemala continues to hold the grisly record.

Each of the 44,000 Guatemalans who simply vanished during the war was a human being, with a family, dreams, and plans. Most are now just bones waiting to be found. Most never will be. But the work of Fredy, Jorge Mario, Raul, Candi, and the rest carries on anyway. Whether or not they identify anyone, they are restoring dignity—life—to these bones and to all the disappeared. They are claiming them out of the dark earth of forgetfulness, and—in the face of ongoing threats of violence and the national official insistence on oblivion—saying that these, our dead, all of them, have a place in Guatemala’s story. What happened was the highest kind of crime, by a state apparatus committed at all costs to the preservation of the perverse power of a few violent and wealthy people. Many of the disappeared defended the outcast and the poor—and their deaths reflect the way of the Holy One of Peace, he who died on the hill at the place of the skull.

When my third and final day in the cemetery ends, I leave quickly and walk back up the dusty road. My friend Maco finds me, wistful, distracted, at the Pollo Campero on Roosevelt Boulevard and together we drive the three-hour road home to Quiché. My cemetery experience has unleashed his heart, and he cries, telling me about when his best friend was murdered by a military man. They were 15 years old, and David’s head was blown near off, and then he was buried in Chinique. Most everyone from the region where I live has stories like this. My tears for the dead fall quietly in the dark. A full moon rises as we turn north, through the corn fields.

Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people ... I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.

—Ezekiel 37:12, 14

Emilie Teresa Smith is a Canadian Anglican priest and theologian living in Guatemala. She is co-president of the Oscar Romero International Network in Solidarity with the Peoples of Latin America.

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