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IIHA on Exhuming the Truth


Arancha Garcia del Soto, Ph.D., has studied the effect of human rights violations and war in several places around the globe.
Photo by Chris Taggart

Arancha Garcia del Soto, Ph.D., and Carlos Beristain, Ph.D., discussed how the people of Guatemala are confronting a legacy of human rights abuses, mass deaths and disappearances in “Working with Exhumations and Families of the Missing in Latin America,” on Feb. 21 in the McNally Amphitheatre. The talk was presented by Fordham University’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA) and Columbia University’s School of International Public Affair’s Humanitarian Affairs Program as part of a Brown Bag Lecture Series, “Humanitarianism Beyond Service Delivery.”

Garcia del Soto, Helen Hamlyn Senior Fellow at IIHA, discussed the exhumation of a mass grave in the mountain village of Rabinal, central Guatemala. She said in these situations it is important to prepare families of the missing for both the possibility of finding their loved ones, and of not finding them. Garcia del Soto said that in this context, it was important that the villagers sensed the deaths as a collective loss, and not an individual one, so the recovery of one particular person’s remains was de- emphasized.

During Guatemala’s late 20th-century civil strife, more than 150,000 people were killed and another 50,000 were “disappeared,” and most of the victims were of indigenous ancestry.

The Fordham professor said thatthe effort involving psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists demonstrated the need “to move in an interdisciplinary way” in this sort of research. She described the Rabinal project as “a unique opportunity” to examine the individual and collective effect of exhumations on this mainly Mayan community. “It was a very good opportunity for locals to share their memories and retell their story,” said Garcia del Soto.

“This process is also about trying to recover or exhume the truth of what happened,” said Beristain, who has worked in Central America for more than 15 years. Both lecturers talked about the importance of including Mayan ritual in the exhumation and reburial process. “If these rituals cannot take place, the loss is aggravated,” said Beristain. The Mayans believe, for example, that church bells had to be rung to return the dead from “walking around lost” to their rightful resting place.

IIHA was established in 2001 to forge partnerships with relief organizations, publish books, create training programs and host symposia relating to humanitarian affairs. Garcia del Soto will present a talk on war crimes in the Balkans as part of the Brown Bag Lecture Series on April 12.


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