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Lessons from Guatemala’s painstaking efforts to find missing persons | Conflict News

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San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala- Victoria Tubin was 10 years old when her father disappeared in the Guatemalan army.

It was September 1981-the peak of the country’s 36-year armed conflict-Sebastian Tubin Poyon was entering his San Juan Comalapa town from Did not go home. Forty years later, just like thousands of Guatemalans whose relatives disappeared during the war, Victoria and her family have never given up searching.

“I still feel that my father is not there,” she told Al Jazeera at a memorial on June 19 that the site was located at a former military camp at the entrance of the town, where her father was last seen.

“Where is he?” Tubin asked, holding a picture of her father. “I hope to see him again, hear his voice and understand his gray hair.”

Victoria Tubin holding a photo of her father, who disappeared in 1981 [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

Aboriginal hardest hit area

When the decades-long armed conflict in Guatemala ended in December 1996, more than 200,000 people died and 45,000 were missing. The impact of violence on rural indigenous communities is particularly severe.

A UN-supported truth commission found that the indigenous Maya accounted for 83% of the victims, while the Guatemalan army was responsible for 93% of all human rights violations. The committee concluded that the genocide had taken place.

Fredy Peccerelli, executive director of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG, according to its Spanish acronym) told Al Al Jazeera.

Tubin Poyon is the community leader of his indigenous Mayan Kaqchikel community, which is about 76 kilometers (47 miles) from the capital Guatemala City, and he is working to improve access to services, including drinking water. His daughter said that this is what attracted the attention of the military.

After learning of the threat to them, the family fled San Juan Comalapa and lived in a town near Guatemala City. But they lived in extreme poverty in their new residence, and on September 13, 1981, her father returned to San Juan Comalapa to collect money to support the family.

According to witnesses, he was stopped, detained and beaten by the army on the main road into the city. Witnesses also said that then, Tubin Poyon was taken to the military camp at the entrance of the town, tied up and never seen again.

On June 19, 2021, photos of the missing were taken on the stairs of the former military camp in San Juan Comalapa [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

Unmarked grave

After the conflict, the former military camp at the entrance of San Juan Comalapa has been the wound of the indigenous people-symbolizing the enduring suffering and countless questions about the disappearance of relatives.

After the family of the missing person provided the missing story and personal narrative to the Guatemalan Prosecutor’s Office, an unmarked grave was found in the former camp. Between 2003 and 2005, independent investigators found the remains of 220 people in 53 cemeteries in the former military camp.

Of these 220, FAFG was able to identify 48 initially. Since 2018, it has identified 19 more.

Peccerelli said that the foundation opened a laboratory in 2008 but did not conduct its first identification until 2011. In total, its experts found more than 8,000 human remains in former military camps, municipal cemeteries, and secret graves along the Guatemala highway. Nearly 4,000 of the remains have been confirmed.

“Every family member we have worked with wants their family to be alive,” Pecherelli said. “But this doesn’t mean you should stop searching among the dead-although it sounds difficult, it is true.”

Identification is a long and costly process that was hampered by the military’s refusal to provide information and the lack of political will to establish a committee to find the victims of the bloodiest period of the war from 1979 to 1984. Finding relatives’ families and FAFG’s work allows the creation of DNA files that can be compared with the remains.

It can take years to identify the victim, because Peccerelli explained that the process depends on DNA samples from different living family members. FAFG maintains a database of family members of missing persons and actively conducts activities to allow people to provide their DNA in order to match with the remains found.

“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” he said. “And many are just coincidences. The right body was found at the right time, the right family member was found at the right time, and these two matches were found in the database.”

At the memorial, Tubin often thinks of her father’s views on her development trajectory over the past 40 years. Her parents had limited opportunities, but she managed to study, became a professor of sociology, and was completing her PhD.

Her father’s remains have not been found, and Tubin’s DNA did not match any remains identified by the FAFG. But the search continues.

“Finding my father helped me,” Tubin said. “It helped me more than [for my siblings]. They don’t want to find it, it is better to forget.But it is not easy [to forget]. “

An unmarked grave discovered between 2003 and 2005 reminds people that the army’s brutal counter-insurgency had a disproportionate impact on civilians [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

A global problem

In the search for missing relatives, Guatemalan families are not alone.

Iraq, Syria, the Balkans, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Mexico are struggling to find individuals who have disappeared due to wars, human rights violations, and immigration. For the past 30 years, advocates have been pushing states to help search and identify missing persons, which is a critical step on the road to truth and healing.

Kathryne Bomberger, Director General of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), told Al Jazeera: “It is important to accept this and ensure that countries are responsible for finding all missing persons, regardless of their category.”

She said: “It’s really difficult, and it’s difficult, because the country or political actors acting on their behalf are usually responsible for these disappearances.”

Regional cooperation in the Balkans resulted in the discovery of 3,000 secret graves in the region and the identification of more than 70% of the 40,000 people who disappeared during the conflict in the region from 1991 to 1995.

“Finding missing persons requires a post-conflict environment in which the country can take responsibility,” Bumberg said. “So it’s complicated.”

Continuous challenge

Even in post-conflict societies, investigators may continue to face obstacles.

Back in Guatemala, despite the progress made in finding missing persons, the country’s Congress lacked interest in approving legislation that would help find missing persons in war.

In 2007, families and advocates of war victims requested approval of a law that would establish a committee to find 45,000 victims, but it was never approved. Therefore, the search work is mainly carried out by families and organizations, such as FAFG, whose funding mainly comes from grants.

“It is important to continue to search for the missing and confirm their identity,” Jordan Rodas, the country’s human rights monitor, told Al Jazeera. “But the Guatemalan government has not shown the political will to assist thousands of families in finding relatives.”

Despite this, Guatemala is one of the few countries where independent investigators have successfully found and confirmed missing in internal armed conflicts.

FAFG also opened a school to share its experience with investigators from other countries, including Mexico, Colombia, and Sri Lanka. Investigators from all over the world regularly travel to Guatemala to learn the techniques and lessons learned from national search.

Peccerelli said that one of the key steps is to establish a dedicated interdisciplinary team focused exclusively on finding missing persons-and establishing contact with the victims’ families and the wider community.

“The biggest mistake is trying to include the search for missing persons in a normal forensic case,” he said. “You need other types of experts. You need to be able to gain people’s trust. You need to be able to get along with the community.”



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