While we were in Guatemala for the recent filming of the feature documentary FINDING OSCAR, we visited the former military base of San Juan Comalapa, Chimaltenango. In 2003, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) had conducted an exhumation at the former military base, exhuming 220 skeletal remains from 53 graves. Using DNA, 47 victims of enforced disappearance were identified, confirming the community’s belief that this site was a clandestine detention center and cemetery that served as an instrument of the State’s strategy to terrorize and disappear those who were deemed a threat. Unfortunately, this site is not unique in Guatemala, as the country is recovering from a 36-year long internal armed conflict that took the lives of 200,000 people, during which over 40,000 people were disappeared and over a million people were internally displaced. The violence ruptured families and communities, and the impacts of these wounds are still present as survivors and family members continue to search for truth, justice, and reparations in a climate of impunity.
We had come to this former military base, now a recognized state memorial, to capture the VR testimony of Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez, an exemplary human rights advocate in Guatemala. Rosalina has been a driving force behind the initiative to search for the victims and pursue transitional justice processes in present day Guatemala. In 1988, Rosalina founded CONAVIGUA, the National Coordination of Widows of Guatemala, as her father and husband were, and still are, disappeared. With the trust of the families, the FAFG applies victim investigation, forensic-archaeology, -anthropology, and -genetics to accompany the families and organizations, like CONAVIGUA, to investigate the crimes of the conflict. As long as the families of the victims continue to search for their loved ones, the FAFG will accompany and answer their requests with accredited, forensic methodologies to exhume the graves and return the identity to the victims, harnessing the power of the family’s DNA.
Building on the trust fostered between the families, the organizations, and the FAFG during many years of forensic investigations, it is fitting that the FAFG is now partnered with USC Shoah Foundation to record and preserve the life history testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the conflict. Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez and 400 other survivors have trusted FAFG and USC Shoah Foundation with their accounts of perseverance and survival through and following the conflict. Within USC Shoah Foundation’s collection of 55,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors, these voices of the Guatemalan Genocide will challenge intolerance, clarify history through testimony, and educate future generations to overcome hatred and racism.
By joining Rosalina in this serene forest, we immerse ourselves in her experience in a way that enables us to witness the pain in her face, while sensing just a touch of the terror the victims surely felt in those woods. This experience affords us a glimpse of the unfathomable, and hopefully helps us to empathize all the more.
Candles and flowers left in memory of the victims.
Photo credit: Ryan Suffern
Hundreds of crosses bear the names of the victims who were buried in the clandestine mass graves at the former military compound.
Photo credit: Ryan Suffern