Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-GUATEMALA: Naming the “Disappeared”

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Jan 11 2010 (IPS) - Through the “My Name Is Not XX” campaign, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation is working to identify the remains of thousands of victims who were forcibly disappeared during the country’s 1960-1996 armed conflict, by inviting their relatives to provide DNA samples.

Ads reading “My Name Is Not XX: A Sample of DNA from My Relatives Can Identify Me. Call Phone Number 1598” have been posted in buses in the capital to draw attention to the campaign that was launched in November.

In Guatemala, where an estimated 45,000 people fell victim to forced disappearance, overwhelmingly at the hands of the armed forces and allied paramilitary militias, graves containing the remains of unidentified people are simply marked “XX”.

According to the 1999 report by the United Nations-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), the 36-year civil war between government forces and leftwing guerrillas claimed around 200,000 lives, mainly rural indigenous villagers killed or forcibly abducted by the state security forces and the local civilian self-defence patrols (known as PACs) set up by the army.

The victims included at least 45,000 people who were forcibly disappeared and buried in secret mass graves, local cemeteries or clandestine graves on the grounds of military bases.

The killings peaked during the early to mid-1980s scorched earth campaign, when hundreds of native villages were wiped out.

“My brother Rubén Amílcar Farfán, 38, was illegally seized on May 15, 1984. Since then, we have been working to find out what happened to him, but knocking on different doors and pleading for information has not been enough to get the authorities to tell us where he is,” Aura Elena Farfán, head of the Association of Family Members of the Detained-Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA), told IPS.

“Our family members, who were ‘disappeared’ or slaughtered in massacres and buried in clandestine cemeteries, do not deserve, as human beings, to remain ‘XX’,” she added.

The activist, along with her mother and another brother, had DNA samples taken by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation to help in the search for Rubén.

Jorge Molina, the coordinator of the campaign, told IPS that the main goal of the project is to bring dignity to the victims and a sense of closure to their families by locating the remains and making it possible for their relatives to hold a proper burial in line with their beliefs.

Stressing the importance of having DNA samples from relatives, he explained the complexity of the task of identifying bodies merely from their dental records, clothing, jewellery or specific features like broken bones.

“The clothes of many victims were changed, and other victims were taken to different places where it was impossible to identify them in terms of location, which is why we are resorting to comparing DNA samples,” he said.

So far, around 2,000 people have come to the Foundation’s laboratory to provide samples.

At least 12 victims have been identified so far using this method, and there are high expectations with regard to what can be accomplished.

Molina said graves in the potter’s field at the La Verbena cemetery in the capital would be exhumed this month. There are more than 3,000 bodies buried there as “XX”, “889 of whom we believe to have been victims of forced disappearance between 1979 and 1983.”

Missing children – a different story

Although a significant proportion of the unidentified bodies in secret mass graves are those of children, many youngsters were orphaned as well.

Early this year, the Guatemalan government reported that it had found evidence substantiating what human rights groups have long held: that children whose parents were murdered during the civil war were often taken to orphanages and put up for adoption. Many were adopted by couples from the United States, as well as from Europe.

Different groups have been working to locate these missing children. Evelyn Blanco, head of the International Centre for Human Rights Research (CIIDH), told IPS that most of the children who had been searched for and located were found to be alive.

“We have located 450 people who went missing as children during the armed conflict, and most of them have been reunited with their (biological) families,” she said.

According to the CEH, the victims of forced disappearance included 5,000 children.

Blanco said the campaign that the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation is carrying out with support from the European Union is extremely important in the ongoing effort to identify the victims of the armed conflict.

She added that the CIIDH is currently involved in the process of obtaining DNA samples from six Guatemalans who were adopted during the civil war and are living in Italy and Switzerland.

“We have located over 60 cases in Europe,” she said.

National commission

Human rights groups are pushing for passage of a law that would create a National Commission to Search for the Disappeared, which would have its own budget and a 15-year mandate to carry out its work, as well as a databank to facilitate the effort to track down and identify missing individuals.

The aim is to centralise the efforts and the assistance given to the families of the victims of forced disappearance.

But the draft law has been stalled in Congress since 2006.

“I believe that giving a decent burial to all massacre victims is extremely necessary in the search for the truth, because most of them were stripped of their identity,” the head of the National Coordinating Committee of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), Rosalina Tuyuc, told IPS.

“Sadly, the National Reparations Programme has not provided funds for identifying all of the victims of massacres,” said Tuyuc, who belongs to the Cakchiquel indigenous community.

The Programme, created in April 2003 with a budget of 35 million dollars a year, is a set of policies, projects and specific actions to compensate and provide recognition and dignity to victims of the armed conflict and their families.

But Tuyuc said it is not enough merely to identify the victims, and that justice must be done as well.

“To keep history from repeating itself, a precedent must be set in all of the cases, not only the ones involving forced disappearance, but also the cases of massacre and genocide, so that not only the material authors but the intellectual ones as well can be brought to trial,” she said.

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