Guatemala Missing: A Decent Burial, A Final Goodbye

Story and Photography by International Committee of the Red Cross

The armed conflict in Guatemala (1960-1996) left deep marks on survivors and on the relatives of those who died or went missing. Its effects are still being felt today. Many people were forced to flee to other parts of the country or to seek refuge beyond its borders. Several decades later, some of those who left because of the conflict embarked on a long journey home to honor the memory of their loved ones at a ceremony held in Quiquil on January 21, 2016.

Located in the north of the department of Huehuetenango, Quiquil was heavily affected by more than three decades of armed conflict. Around 80 people died when the village was attacked on June 28, 1982. Some survivors who fled never heard from their relatives again.

In 2009, after finding five mass graves, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala exhumed the remains of 50 people who were murdered on that day and handed them over to the relatives of the victims and the residents of Quiquil. We built the gravesite for the remains of these victims, in order to give them a dignified burial.

For 33 years, the families had mourned the absence of their loved ones, while enduring the pain of not knowing what had happened to them. On 20 January 2016, they were finally able to give them a decent burial.

The vehicles that transported the remains arrived in a caravan during the night and were received by people who lighted the way with candles. There is no electricity in Quiquil.

The arrival of the remains is always a difficult moment for the families. The pain for the loss of a beloved one becomes intense, acute, unbearable.

As hours pass, pain is mixed with the relief of being able to have, after so many years, a place to cry over the loss of their loved ones.

Early in the morning, the remains were carried by family members and other neighbors from the village, all united in a silent procession.

The setting for the burial, located two kilometers away from the village, was chosen by the members of the community themselves. It is the place where, five years before, one of the graves was found, with remains of people killed by soldiers in 1982.

Due to lack of adequate funding from the Programa Nacional de Resarcimiento de Guatemala (Guatemala’s National Program for Compensation), the ICRC built the niches for the remains of these victims, with the purpose helping to give them a dignified burial.

“We are here as an affected part, as they were our relatives who died,” declared Nicolás Domingo, who survived the attack that occurred in 1982 in Quiquil.

“When my brothers arrive I will be able to cry for them. I am the only one left in my family to do so,” commented Angelina Pedro Nicolás Esteban, shortly before the arrival of the remains.

Although the wounds left by the armed conflict are deep, this ceremony has allowed family members to say a final goodbye to their relatives and to try to put an end to the mourning of their deaths.

In Guatemala there are still 42,000 people missing whose families have received no answers. This suffering remains over time and scars a society for generations.

For more information on the work of the ICRC to help families of the missing, please click here.