Guatemala 2016 | Can You See?

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 1.49.01 PMSeveral kilometers away from the noise and activity of central Guatemala City is a quiet, shady boulevard. Behind the brightly colored walls that line the boulevard are small courtyards that contain modest homes and office buildings. In one of these nondescript offices a man in a rumpled white coat bends over a long table covered with a blue cloth. Accompanied by the low hum of fluorescent lights he carefully arranges the delicate artifacts that lay on the blue cloth. As his work of re-creation proceeds, a form gradually takes shape. Straightening, the man looks down on his handiwork. Lying on the table before him is a human skeleton. The skeleton of a child.

It’s a beautiful Monday afternoon in Guatemala, the land of perpetual spring, when our bus stops along this same boulevard. I and my friends from MSFL cohort 19 disembark and approach an unmarked door. An armed guard asks our guide and instructor Paul Nemecek for some identification and soon we are admitted to a small courtyard where four cars are parked under an avocado tree. Another door opens and we walk into the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala.

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 2.11.16 PMThe Forensic Anthropological Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) is a non-governmental agency created in 1992 to investigate and document past and present human rights violations in Guatemala. Most of their work centers on locating and identifying the remains of the victims of murders, executions, and other injustices that occurred during the 36-year Guatemalan civil war. Between 1960 and 1996 over 200,000 people were killed and another 50,000 were “disappeared.” The child lying on the table is one of those victims.

We are welcomed to FAFG and are given an overview of the mission and methods of the investigative team. Both field work, including interviews and exhumations, and lab work, including DNA testing and skeletal reconstruction, are combined to piece together the stories of atrocities and war crimes that occurred decades ago. In the twenty-four years that FAFG has been in existence the team has documented the remains of 7,000 victims. This country of unparalleled beauty is scarred by secret mass graves and the remains of the 440 villages that were completely wiped out during the civil war. With a quarter of a million people dead or missing there remains a great deal for the dedicated investigators and scientists at FAFG to uncover. However in recent years international funding has dropped off and the work has slowed as FAFG has been forced to cut staff. Perpetrators of war crimes remain at large, families grieve their missing loved ones, and justice is is thwarted.

It isn’t long until we are ushered into the reconstruction area and I find myself standing where the man in the white jacket stood a short time ago. One of the directors of the foundation continues to explain their work, but it hard for me to hear what she is saying. On the table before me lie four human skeletons. There are two adults, a child, and an infant. These bones are humans who once laughed and worked and played and loved and breathed deeply of the breath of God. That breath was violently cut short by fear, greed, and the love of power. A horrible injustice, committed decades ago, has been unearthed and lies before me. What am I supposed to do? What can I do for the child whose skull is just inches away? How can I embody the power of love?

An inaudible voice speaks into my heart. “Tim, can you see? I want you to see them. They need to be seen.” God’s beautiful and strenuous work of bringing justice starts with seeing. And grieving. With tear-filled eyes I silently nod. “Yes, I see them.”

“Tell her you’re sorry,” the voice suggests.

In a just world the child that lies before me would would have gone to school in safety and learned to read and write. She would have grown to be a young woman deeply in love and radiant on her wedding day. Today she would be a middle-aged mother with children of her own. So many joys never experienced. So many hopes unrealized. So much love that could have flowed into this hurting world. So much lost.

Slowly I kneel beside the little girl lying on the table and with ragged breath whisper into her ear, “Lo siento.”


Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 2.32.28 PMTim pastors a small country church in rural Vermont where family, community and creation all come together to help shape a way of following Christ and provide ample space for reflecting and writing about this journey. Read more of Tim’s writings on his blog: