In many ways this day lacked the hurried chaos of the previous ones. There was a lot of driving, but fewer mentally taxing activities. The decreased number doesn’t mean it was a day any less interesting and thought-provoking.
Early in the morning we headed down to the flood basin of the Chixoy to take a boat from the village of Rio Negro right to the dam where our driver was going to meet us. Cubertino and Sebastian, our two contacts and guides within the community, we there to escort us out. The approximately 45 minute ride really gave us an idea how big the flood basin truly is. In front of Rio Negro is looks like a reasonable size body of water, but the closer we got to the dam the more is affected the natural environment around it. The initial flooding affected dozens of communities, and that’s not even counting that it flooded some old Mayan ruins.
After saying goodbye to the people of Rio Negro and meeting back up with our driver, we drove down the back of the dam, on our way to the military base at Coban. Driving the dam really gives a sense of the grandeur, it’s full of switch backs and the ‘river’ goes down to barely a trickle on the other side of the concrete. Each side of this World Bank project has affected lives completely differently.
At the other end of that road, the Coban Military Base was waiting for us. There, an FAFG team is currently working on the exhumation of multiple mass graves. By the time we arrived, they were nearing twenty mass graves that had been exhumed, and nearly 200 bodies. The bodies, like everywhere else we’d encountered, we not limited to those who could be identified as guerillas (i.e. men of a fighting age). There were bodies that fit that criteria, but there were also women (including pregnant women), children and the elderly.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the military base, so unfortunately, I am limited to words to describe it all. I can’t remember the number of the grave we stood at, but it was something that will stick with me forever. In someways it is easy to detach oneself from the reality in front of us. It’s easy to stand there, looking down at these skeletons and ask “what makes this different from those that are 2000 years old, not just 20?”. You could have shown people that image and it could be potentially placed at any time in history. It is kind of discouraging that as much as humanity as ‘progressed’, we are still disgustingly good at killing each other. But what makes this moment so much more poignant for me is visiting Guatemala and these places that have suffered. If it’s on television, it’s far away. We’d just come from a community that suffered terrible massacres, those faces I’d just seen in Rio Negro can almost be interchangeable. I can nearly put a face to those bones.
I don’t think it is appropriate to give a fully detailed account of what those graves looked like. All I can say is that the terror they would have experienced is unimaginable.
We spent nearly two hours talking to the anthropologists and archaeologists working for the FAFG at Coban. They told us of the intricacies of the excavation. And of the process of recovering the memory of these people. Then we left for El Estor on Lake Izabal.
The reality of my time in Guatemala, or any country, is that it is so fleeting. Barely a blink in history. Whether it is at Coban, Cambodia or anywhere else, my time there (even if it was my life) is short. But I guess it’s what you make of that time that counts.