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Guatemalan Exhumations Bring Hope by Uncovering Past

As the political climate in Guatemala slowly swings towards acceptance of the legacy of a long and violent civil war, exhumations have provided some closure to families of thousands of disappeared persons.

On a hillside along a busy road just south of Guatemala's capital, Aura Elena stands in the fading sunlight after another day peaking over the shoulders of a team of forensic anthropologists and workmen. This urban setting has been pointed out by anonymous tipsters, who have come forward after 25 years, as the suspected final resting place of at least four people who disappeared during the civil war that raged in Guatemala during the 1980s.

Personal quest

As the chairperson of the victims' rights association Families of the Disappeared of Guatemala, Elena has presided over a number of such investigations. But this one is special to her. Among the bodies the team expects to find here is that of Elena's brother, who disappeared on his way to a university in 1984, and was never heard from again.

Elena says exhumations like this one play a crucial role in bringing closure to the families of the disappeared. Though the dig, along a paved highway that was constructed in recent years - complicating the work of the anthropologists - had yet to yield any results after four days, Elena and the dozen or so family members of presumed victims thought to be buried here have refused to give up hope.

Sign of progress

Families of those suspected to have been killed in the mid 1980s by agents of the right-wing military regime of Oscar Mejia Victores, say just being able to search for their loved ones is a signal of progress in this country. Mario Polanco heads the victims' rights organization Mutual Support Group.

Polanco says he is amazed at the change in political climate that has allowed exhumations to go forward at an increasingly rapid speed in recent years. He qualifies exhumations as a humanitarian act that allows families to close what he calls the circle of pain and mourning in which they have been caught for a quarter of a century, and says it was unthinkable as recently as a few years ago that investigations into war crimes would have been allowed in this country.

Polanco and other civil rights advocates say that for years the judicial and political systems in Guatemala blocked attempts to reconstruct the country's troubled past. But recent legal documents have uncovered a slew of new evidence incriminating military officials and politicians, and helping to clarify the fates of many of the country's thousands of missing persons.

Change of attitude

A pair of recent court decisions went so far as to convict military collaborators for their role in disappearances. Dozens of other cases are pending around the country. The sea change in the approach towards dealing with the past has also opened the door for the exhumations, says Jose Suasnavar of the Foundation for Forensic Anthropology of Guatemala.

Suasnavar says more than 1,000 exhumations have taken place in the past years, and the remains of more than 5,000 victims have been located. Though a large percentage of those victims are yet to be identified, DNA testing is making it increasingly possible to determine the identity of remains found in unmarked graves.

Using the new technology, victims' rights organizations in Guatemala hope to now examine entire cemeteries in areas where massacres were concentrated, Suasnavar says.

Suasnavar says countless anonymous victims were buried in mass graves nationwide. He says the process of sorting through those areas, which include sites around the country, but concentrated in the mountainous northern areas, will be a long and difficult one, though it is work that needs to be done in the name of the victims' families.

Searching for clues

At the scene of the dig south of the capital, Elena and the other family members present were resolute in their determination to find clues as to the fate of their family members.

Elena says she hopes the relatives of the disappeared will continue to support the fight to find the remains of their loved ones. She says the exhumations will continue, since they are the best way to bring closure to families who have been in doubt for decades about the fate of their family members.

The Guatemalan Civil War lasted almost four decades. A peace treaty between the government and the final groups of rebels was signed in December 1996. During the course of the conflict, more than 200,000 people were killed. About one quarter of the presumed dead are still considered missing persons, never to be heard from again.