Selected pictures from the book and exhibition Widows - voices from Guatemala, 2008-2009

The story behind

"What's your visit about this time?" Don Mario asks.
"Bones," I reply.

Don Mario nods and looks beyond the patio down towards Lake Atitlán, which lies surrounded by volcanoes and sloping hills dotted with small Mayan villages.

Don Mario speaks of the time when everybody was frightened of talking to each other, about people who disappeared, about villages in the highlands that were burnt down, about villagers who were executed or forced into the mountains, and about neighbors forced to inform against their neighbors or kill them.

"Tanto tiempo - it's such a long time ago. But imagine living your entire life without finding the truth or finding justice," Don Mario says.

I have known Don Mario since 1977 when I first visited Guatemala as a young backpacker and stayed in his village. Since then, I have become a professional photographer and have worked and traveled all over Latin America and around the world.

But I always return to Guatemala.

During my travels doors were slowly opened into the "shadow land" and spiritual life of the Maya Indians and their experiences and history became the story of "Widows - voices from Guatemala". It started through my work of photographing and documenting the human rights situation in the Guatemala, following the work of the widows association and other human rights organizations and their fight for justice after the civil war, documenting the work of forensic anthropologists and their excavations of mass graves and their work to identify the victims. Through visiting homes in small villages all over the country and participating in inhumations, funerals and ceremonies for the dead.

The stories and the women I met did not let me rest. It reminded me of growing up in a postwar Germany when nobody wanted to talk about what had happened.

I returned to Guatemala to photograph those who were left behind after the massacres: the widows and their relatives. I went to the villages and photographed the women in their homes in the highlands of Guatemala; in the provinces of Chimaltenango, Baja Verapaz, Sololá, San Marcos, Huehuetenango and Quiché.

All the portrayed women lost one or more family members during the civil war and they have all given testimonies to human rights organizations. Some of the women are witnesses in national and international law processes to bring to justice those responsible for such crimes as extrajudicial execution and enforced disappearance.

"The bones of the dead are restless at night. They disturb your sleep and call for you in your dreams so that you wander restlessly in the night searching for those who disappeared. The bones need to be put to rest so that we may live in peace."
Andrea Amperez Ciprian, San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala (from the book Widows - voices from Guatemala).

Historical background

Ten years ago, The United Nations' Historical Classification Commission (CEH) delivered its landmark report on human rights violations committed during the 36-year internal armed conflict. Some of the Commission's key recommendations have never been implemented, depriving survivors, victims and their families of justice and reparation.

In 1996 the UN helped to negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement, which put an end to 36 years of bloody civil war in Guatemala. However, there was never a true reconciliation, or a political will to acknowledge the crimes and atrocities committed by the military against the civilians.

The United Nations' Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) and the Catholic Church's Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REHMI) have documented that 160,000 people were killed and 40,000 people disappeared, most of them between 1978 and 1984. The responsibility for the majority of the massacres and disappearances lies with the military and the civil defense patrols they backed.

The UN report provides evidence that the military committed genocide in at least four geographic regions in Guatemala. In present-day Guatemala, Conavigua, the Centre for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) and international human rights organizations are campaigning to have the people responsible for the atrocities prosecuted, and to claim compensation for the relatives of the victims.

In 2004, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Guatemalan government to pay a seven-figure compensation to the relatives of the 200 villagers who were killed by the military and civil defense patrols in 1982 in Plan de Sanchez and in the neighboring villages Rio Negro and Chichupac.