In Guatemala, mourning is a privilege, as are the official recognitions of bereavement: a certificate of death, a grave with a marker, a funeral service. Particularly during the early 1980s, Guatemalan peasant and indigenous communities mourned collectively, and on the run. There was no time to bury the bodies of loved ones, victims of a 36-year-long armed conflict the government used to validate its atrocious acts of genocide. Things happened in a flash: the army attacked villages, murdered everyone they could catch, and burned what was left. Mothers ran past the mutilated bodies of their dead children. People who lay in hiding suffocated their dogs, lest their barking attract a soldier’s attention. Both the living and the dead were stripped of dignity.
Now, due in large part to the peace accords of 1996 and recommendations of the U.N. sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification of 1999, the mostly Mayan people affected are returning to the land they fled, resettling, and exhuming the bodies they were once forced to leave behind. Jonathan Moller has documented that process over the past 10 years, accompanying returning refugees as a human rights worker and recording the exhumations as staff photographer of a forensic anthropology team. The resulting book, Our Culture is Our Resistance: Repression, Refuge, and Healing in Guatemala (powerHouse Books), is a look at the aftermath of a war that primarily targeted innocent civilians.
Human rights have always been the primary focus of Moller’s work; photography secondary. “Strangely enough, I can often be very uncomfortable photographing people,” Moller explains. “I’m hyper sensitive to issues of exploitation with the use of my photographs. [Being a human rights worker] the people understand that I’m there in a support capacity for them–living with the family, eating with people, helping people work in the fields sometimes–and they’ve requested that I be there. But, particularly in the [Communities of Population and Resistance, who fled to the mountains or lowland jungle areas and developed clandestine, self-sufficient villages], people were avidly wanting to get their story out.”
Moller collected firsthand accounts from survivors of the massacres and juxtaposed them with his photographs. Like many in the book, Don Faustino, a member of the Ixcan CPR community, reflects on his experience with anger and a sense of irredeemable loss: “The army owes us—not just for the lives that were lost but for our material possessions, everything that was burned and destroyed. What I mean to say is that the army owes us everything, everything that constitutes a human life.”
The exhumation photographs tell another side of the story, unearthing the secrets of a government that publicly denied genocide while burying its 200,000 victims (as estimated by the Commission for Historical Clarification). This is a particularly important reclamation process for Mayan people, whose core belief in the active connection between the living and the dead requires a sacred burial place.
Taken to accompany Moller’s work with a forensic anthropology team, these photographs are scientific but painfully human. Stare long enough and you can recreate the crimes. One skeleton can be identified as a woman only by her pañuelo (traditional Mayan women’s headdress)–decayed, it still perfectly encircles her skull like a shadowy halo. Her only clothing is the remains of a skirt, torn and tangled around her knees. The bones of her face and skull are completely crumpled, her teeth broken and jaw stretched to an unnaturally wide angle in an eternal, silent scream.
Even dignified burials will never heal these wounds of unjust loss. “There’s still a lot of fear in Guatemala,” says Moller, “and clearly there’s a lot of pain, and a huge distance to be traveled toward both personal and collective healing in that country.”