100 Excavated Bodies Buried in Guatemala Mudslide*
By JUAN CARLOS LLORCA
The Associated Press
Tuesday, January 30, 2007; 4:15 AM
PANABAJ, Guatemala -- Many were buried while they slept, covered when a
mountainside gave way under heavy rain. The president told their
families the bodies would never be recovered.
But within the last two months, nearly 100 victims of a 2005 landslide
from hurricane rains have been unearthed, and Jose Suasnavar, deputy
director of the independent Forensic Anthropology Foundation, believes
at least 50 more will be uncovered by the end of March.
On Saturday, Maria Tiney Xicay, 40, watched as anthropologists carefully
uncovered her sister, her sister's husband, and their four children.
"I came and even built altars, but I didn't know where my family members
were," she said. "Now, I'm at peace. I can bury them."
Rains triggered by Hurricane Stan inundated Guatemala in October 2005,
killing at least 800 people in the poor Central American nation.
The worst hit area was around the small, lakeside town of Panabaj, which
was buried by a landslide leaving at least 250 dead.
At the time, Guatemalan authorities made a weeklong effort to find any
survivors and bodies that could be reached with picks and shovels. But
the enormous, still unstable mudslide was dangerous and difficult to
search without heavy machinery that could have mangled buried bodies.
Decomposing corpses threatened to spread disease.
President Oscar Berger and the government called off searching the
disaster area _ which was nearly the size of six football fields. The
area would become a burial ground, he said.
But family members protested, and asked for the foundation's help.
Anthropologists who have carried out countless excavations looking for
victims of Guatemala's 36-year civil war began working in Panabaj in
Many victims were found perfectly conserved, their bodies still wrapped
in the sheets they were sleeping in at the time of the early morning
"Some we still found in their beds," Suasnavar said.
As new victims are found, relatives hold mass burial ceremonies, delayed
funerals that force the living to remember their pain.
During one such ceremony on Saturday, dozens of mourners wept in front
of several coffins, as curious tourists snapped photos of the funeral.
Hundreds of survivors lost their homes, and many are still living in
makeshift shacks. The Guatemalan government had begun to build 90
concrete homes, but abandoned the project after state officials
determined the houses were in an area that was at risk of another landslide.
Some survivors have ignored the warnings that the area is unstable,
moving into the half-built concrete homes because they are tired of
living in crowded, temporary shelters.
"I'm ashamed to change my pants in front of my daughters," said
Francisco Ixbalan, the leader of the group of squatters living in the
abandoned project. "That's why I came to the cement home."