I'd learned a lot since my arrival one week before. Estimates of the missing ranged from one to two hundred thousand. The bulk of the slaughter was carried out by the Guatemalan army and by paramilitary organizations affiliated with the army. Most of those killed were rural peasants. Many were women and children.
Typically, victims were shot or slashed with machetes. Villages were not always as fortunate as Chupan Ya. There they'd had time to hide their dead. More often, bodies were buried in unmarked mass graves, dumped in rivers, left under the ruins of huts or houses. Families were given no explanations, no lists of those missing, no records. A UN Commission for Historical Clarification referred to these massacres as a genocide of the Mayan people.
Families and neighbors referred to their missing members as the "desaparecidos." The disappeared. The FAFG was trying to find them, or, more accurately, their remains. And I had come to help.
Here in Chupan Ya, soldiers and civil patrollers had entered on an August morning in 1982. Fearing they'd be accused of collaborating with the local guerrilla movement and punished, the men fled. The women were told to gather with their children at designated farms. Trusting, or perhaps fearing, the military, they obeyed. When the soldiers located the women where they'd been sent, they raped them for hours, then killed them along with their kids. Every house in the valley was burned to the ground.
Survivors spoke of five mass graves. Twenty-three women and children were said to lie at the bottom of the well behind Señora Ch'i'p.
The old woman continued her story. Over her shoulder I could see the structure we'd erected three days earlier to protect the well site from rain and sun. Backpacks and camera cases hung from metal uprights, and tarps covered the opening of the pit beneath. Boxes, buckets, shovels, picks, brushes, and storage containers lay as we'd left them early that morning.
Rope had been strung from pole to pole around the excavation to create a boundary between spectators and workers. Inside the restraint sat three idle members of the FAFG team. Outside it stood the villagers who came each day to observe in silence.
And the police guards who'd been told to shut us down.
We'd been close to uncovering evidence when we received the order to halt. The soil had begun yielding ash and cinders. Its color had changed from mahogany to graveyard black. We'd found a child's hair clip in the sifting screen. Fragments of cloth. A tiny sneaker.
Dear God. Did the old woman's family really lie only inches below the point at which we'd stopped?
Five daughters and nine grandchildren. Shot, macheted, and burned in their home together with neighboring women and children. How does one endure such loss? What could life offer her but endless pain?
Shifting my gaze back to the surrounding countryside, I noted half a dozen farmsteads carved out of the foilage. Adobe walls, tile roofs, smoke curling from cooking fires. Each had a dirt yard, outdoor privy, and an emaciated brown dog or two. The wealthier had chickens, a scrawny hog, a bicycle.
Two of Señora Ch'i'p's daughters had lived in the cluster of huts halfway up the eastern escarpment. Another had lived on top, where we'd parked the FAFG vehicles. These women were married; she didn't remember their ages. Their babies were three days, ten months, two, four, and five years old.
Her youngest daughters were still at home. They'd been eleven and thirteen.
Families, connected by a network of footpaths, and by a network of genes. Their world was this valley.
I imagined Señora Ch'i'p returning that day, perhaps descending the same dirt trail our team struggled down each morning and up each evening. She had sold her beans. She was probably happy.
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