Family Photos and Mass Graves Reveal the Horrors of Guatemala’s Civil War

During the exhumation of a mass grave at a former military base in the Ixil region of Guatemala, the remains of a man were found with an ID photo and a family portrait in his pocket. His wife, gathered at the site with other relatives of missing loved ones, identified herself in the portrait, taken 30 years earlier.

This man was but one of the estimated 200,000 people who were killed or went missing during the civil war in Guatemala—a 36-year conflict between the state-backed military and leftist guerrillas that came to an end in 1996. According to a 1999 report by the U.N.-backed Commission for Historical Clarification, the army identified all indigenous Maya indians in several parts of the country as guerrilla supporters, leading to a scorched-earth policy aimed at destroying the social and cultural fabric of the communities. Massacres, forced disappearances, rape, and eradication of villages ensued.

The period between March 1982 and August 1983 marked a particularly violent time, when then dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt ordered a crackdown against guerrillas in the Ixil Triangle, a rural, mountainous area that’s home to the Maya Ixil people. Between 70 and 90 percent of the Ixil villages in this region were destroyed. In 2013, Montt was tried in a Guatemalan court for genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the campaign and was sentenced to 80 years in prison. The landmark ruling was overturned shortly thereafter. He is set for a retrial in January 2016.

When Daniele Volpe first visited Guatemala from his native Italy in 2006, the postcard beauty of the landscape and the powerful connection of the people to their ancestral roots drew him in. When he returned there to live a year later, he began to also appreciate its complexity. He spent time as volunteer for the Recuperation of Historical Memory project, which allowed him to listen to the stories of the Guatemalan people.

Volpe came to understand that the current problems plaguing parts of the country—high levels of violence against women, narco-trafficking, alcoholism, suicide—are all rooted in the pain of the past. Evidence of the thousands who disappeared is apparent in photographs displayed on the streets of Guatemala City, even though, Volpe says, the current generation is not taught about the civil war in school.

The toll of the war on the social fabric of the country is more felt than publicly acknowledged. “If you ask anybody on the street, they have a story related to the years of repression,” he says. “It’s inescapable.” In fact, he too has a personal connection: His wife’s uncle was one of the many who disappeared during that time.

As Volpe’s understanding of the issues deepened, he began to explore how photography could be a tool for bringing attention to a chapter in Guatemala’s history that’s still seldom widely spoken about within the country. In 2012, he began photographing in the Ixil region, accompanying forensic anthropologists on exhumations, attending reburial ceremonies, and photographing daily life. He also covered Montt’s trial. The result is his self-published book, Chukel, an Ixil word that means “seeking”—which for Volpe means seeking justice and truth. Without solving the problems of the past, he says, it’s not possible to build a safe and peaceful country. “In Guatemala we are looking for a lot of things,” he says. “It’s like a building that is constantly being built, brick by brick.”

Living in Guatemala allowed him the luxury of time—it takes about six hours to travel from his home in Guatemala City to the exhumation sites—and to stay for the duration of what was long, slow work. “Sometimes I stayed for a week and they found nothing,” he says of these trips. “It was important for me as a human [to acknowledge] that around the exhumation there was a lot going on in people’s heads, a lot of strong emotions.”

When remains were found, Volpe was struck by how the skeletons and remnants of clothing covered in earth failed to do justice to the living person who once was. “I felt it was good to give a face to these people. And for the people who see [these pictures], I hope they feel these people had a life, loved ones, a connection with reality.”

With the last money he had for his project, Volpe returned to the Ixil communities on his own, spending five or six months knocking on doors, asking people if they had pictures of their disappeared loved ones that he could photograph, and asking them to share the story of the disappearance. Family photographs are rare, and for many, the only image they can hope to have now is of their loved one’s remains. In the end, though, he amassed a collection of about 50 images, some of which are featured in the last chapter of his book.

While taking a picture of a picture is easy work, Volpe says his goal was to use the power of repetition to show the magnitude of what had happened. The other motivation was more about the fundamental power of photography in establishing a connection to the past. “The memories of the people end when they can’t remember their loved one’s faces,” he says. “If you save a photograph you can remember something forever.”

Daniele Volpe has received international recognition for his work, including the POY Latin America award in 2015 and selection as the recipient of the 2015 National Geographic Eddie Adams Grant. He has not yet found support for exhibiting his work within Guatemala. His book, Chukel, can be purchased here. You can see more of his work on his website.

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