Working with local communities in the forensic investigation of genocide

The Guatemalan Anthropological Team (EAFG) coordinates its efforts to exhume the victims of genocide and investigate their deaths with the local Indigenous populations. This helps the families and communities of the victims to confront the tragedies and their own grief while learning what happened to their loved ones.

The forensic work done by the EAFG in investigating mass graves is not unique. Forensic research is being conducted by other organizations using DNA testing to identify victims and find evidence of genocide. What is distinctive about the Guatemalan team is the way it works so closely with the local community and how it prioritizes the issues of the victims.

Since 1991 the EAF has investigated mass gravesites and skeletal remains using both conventional methods and the latest breakthroughs in scientific technology, such as DNA testing to identity the bodies of the victims. Initially, the organization was extensively funded and supported by American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights. Today, the local initiative has evolved into a self-sufficient body, which not only works in Guatemala, but also has members working in Bosnia and other countries with crimes of genocide.
From the very beginning of its work in a community, the EAFG addresses both the technical and emotional aspects of the investigation. On the technical level, the team interviews survivors and family members to find out as much information as they can about the physical characteristics of victims. (This is vital since most Indigenous people do not have either photographs or vital information, such as dental x-rays to assist in identification).

The organization also conducts workshops with local communities, using slides and lectures to teach them about the situation that led up to the massacres, the type of work that will be done at the gravesites and the progress that has been made so far. This is a crucial step for three main reasons. The first is that the team wishes the community to understand that they are very aware of their tragic history and it wishes to assist them in bringing closure to their suffering, rather than be a foreign agency working in isolation. Second, it considers vital that the local community is informed about how the exhumations will take place since their cooperation and assistance is essential. (In many cases, members of the community know where the gravesites are and where their families have been buried). Third, detailed information is given out to dispel any fears and myths the community might have regarding the team’s investigation procedures. Through these information sessions, the anthropological team has been able to ensure greater cooperation from the local community and assistance in identifying the remains found.

EAFG also subcontracts with mental health organizations to conduct workshops with survivors, prior to and during the exhumations. These workshops enable the local people to express what they have experienced. Special emphasis is given to the children in this case, who are encouraged to express in drawings their experiences and their understanding of what the forensic teams will be doing. This particular aspect is extremely important because it focuses on the survivors and their healing process, making them the center of the investigation process. Involving health workers means that the people are better prepared not only for the exhumation itself, but also for dealing with the memories the bodies of the loved ones will evoke. These mental health workshops continue until the exhumed bodies are buried.

Family members often participate in the actual exhumation process itself. Their participation gives them a chance to feel part of, rather than being isolated from, the effort to locate their loved ones. While the work is being done, survivors near the graves also put together the genealogical charts of their families with the help of the anthropologists, interpreters and ethnographers who help the team identify the bodies being discovered.

The EAFG faces a range of obstacles. First, the legal system continues to be uncooperative in the quest for finding the remains of the missing individuals. Second, in many cases, there is tension among local groups within the Indigenous community or among ethnic groups. This means that often families who have lost members do not always receive encouragement and support from their own communities or from the local groups who have different opinions about the exhumation. There have been cases in which local churches discouraged individuals from investigating the deaths of their loved ones and resisted the exhumations. Third, the time it takes to complete an investigation can be protracted, since DNA testing is conducted in the United States and not in Guatemala itself.

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