Storm Victims' Remains Exhumed in Guatemala A little more than a year after Hurricane Stan devastated the Mayan village of Panabaj, a forensics group is working to exhume and identify the remains of victims buried in a mudslide caused by the storm.
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Storm Victims' Remains Exhumed in Guatemala

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Storm Victims' Remains Exhumed in Guatemala

Storm Victims' Remains Exhumed in Guatemala

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ALEX CHADWICK, host: This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host: And I'm Madeleine Brand.

This week we're bringing you a series of stories from our tech contributor Xeni Jardin. It's called Guatemala, Unearthing the Future. Xeni traveled to Guatemala to report on how modern technology is being used there to solve historic problems. Today she follows a group of forensic scientists as they try to identify the victims of a natural disaster.

XENI JARDIN: A little more than a year after Hurricane Stan devastated the Mayan village of Panabaj, what's left is a desolate dirt field. Tractors are scooping up earth. Before the mudslide there were more than fifty homes here. Now, the houses and hundreds of the people who lived in them are ten feet underground. Along the field edges you see what look like scrap metal heaps. Step closer and you see they're make-shift memorials. Flowers, candles, a marker with the hand painted names of the dead.

Juan Ramirez (Panabaj Resident): (Through interpreter): The people are saying that the plane coming, it's a plane. Not a mudslide.

JARDIN: Eight year-old Juan Ramirez nicknamed Rambo talks about the noise he and other villages heard in the moments before the disaster. Today, he's playing near one of the grave-markers. Like all the others, it's marked with one date. October 5th, 2005. Juan says he knew the family buried beneath us.

RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) The mother took her children by the hand and said let's go, let's go. The mudslide and the tree trunks came rushing down. And the lady died. One child came out and gave the girl a doll and the girl like this, grabbed it to her heart like this. Stuffed in her shirt. And they all died.

JARDIN: The thirty foot high Tsunami of rock, trees, and wet earth rushed down the mountain carving a path nearly two hundred feet wide, destroying everything in its way. The Guatemalan government cordoned off this zone as a high risk area and had no plans to recover the dead. Freddy Petorelli(ph) is head of the forensic anthropology foundation of Guatemala or FAFG.

Mr. FREDDY PETORELLI (Head of Forensic Anthropology Foundation, Guatemala): They said this is too difficult, you know we're just going to name the area as a cemetery and leave it be.

JARDIN: But survivors resisted and the FAFG is with them now with tractors and shovels working to unearth the dead. For more than a decade the FAFG has exhumed mass graves from political massacres that took place during Guatemala's decades-long civil war. This time, it's a natural disaster. The army offered to help the FAFG with the exhumation. The villagers refused. Freddy Petorelli.

Mr. PETORELLI: One thing this community is very proud of is the fact that they kicked Guatemalan military out of here. And they won't allow them back in.

JARDIN: In 1990 the Guatemalan army killed thirteen unarmed civilians in Panabaj and the mudslide survivors won't accept the military's help now. So the FAFG has just two creaky tractors to cover four hundred thousand square feet of mudslide area. At the field's edge, the FAFG's tech staff has converted part of a long abandoned, half buried, government hospital into a computer lab. This lab will help the forensics team keep track of bodies in the field. Again, Freddy Petorelli.

Mr. PETORELLI: When a body is found in the exhumation, they'll radio in for a number for that body.

JARDIN: Once that code is assigned, it will become a way to digitally track everything about that victim. The dry dirt field is covered in grid lines marked with white mineral lime. They correspond to a digital grid in the lab's computer system. Using mapping software the lab worker will log coordinates of where the corpse was found on that digital grid. Then, field workers will carry the coded body into the morgue.

Mr. PETORELLI: Each body here will be photographed and then will be analyzed. What we will try to determine here is the biological profile.

JARDIN: Just outside the morgue, the FAFG will interview surviving family members. Tall sheets of black plastic have been erected to shield them from the site of unearthed bodies being carried into the morgue. But before the morgue comes into use, there will have to be a lot of digging. Back in the field one of the first excavations is under way. FAFG anthropologist Leono Piese(ph) works with a team of young men from the village who are digging here with shovels and sticks.

Mr. LEONO PIESE (FAFG anthropologist): (through interpreter) This is the site where a man named Mr. Cruz had his home and a little store. The father was in this area when he last saw his son who was with his mother.

JARDIN: Mr. Cruz managed to rescue his other children and returned to find his wife buried up to her shoulders in mud. They survived but he was not able to save his young son. That's why Piese and his team are digging her to find the body or at least some clues about where it might be. As young men stab at the ground with shovels, village girls looking on, pull shawls over their faces against the dust.

(Soundbite of man speaking foreign language)

JARDIN: After hours of digging, they've uncovered their first clue. A black rubber boot that belonged to the missing boy. But on this day that child and hundreds of other victims remain beneath the earth. For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.

BRAND: And Xeni joins me now in the studio. Hi.

JARDIN: Hi Madeleine.

BRAND: And I understand that you're here because there are some developments to this story since you put this report together.

JARDIN: That's right. I spoke to the FAFG today and they say that as of yesterday they've uncovered eighty-two bodies and identified about sixty of them.

BRAND: How many more do they think there are?

JARDIN: There could be as many as five hundred they believe.

BRAND: So how quickly do they have to unearth these bodies, identify them and put them back in the ground?

JARDIN: Really again because they're using such limited resources; they have these refrigerated trucks to hold the human remains, but the trucks keep breaking down and they have to send to other countries for the parts. It's just - so they're rushing. They have about two and a half weeks from the time that a corpse enters that refrigerated truck, to the time when they need to re-bury it. They're-they're really rushing but trying to do it in as dignified a way as possible.

BRAND: And how long do you think this whole process will take?

JARDIN: You know it just really depends. They told me that they found another four bodies today. But again the emphasis here is on a dignified process that brings peace to the survivors of Panabaj.

BRAND: And we should mention there are pictures and, and an audio tour of the excavation on line. Listeners can go to the Xeni Tech page on our website, that's NPR.org/Xeni, and Xeni is spelled X-E-N-I. So that's NPR.org/X-E-N-I and you can also download a Podcast of this and other stories by Xeni Jardin. And Xeni you have another story tomorrow?

JARDIN: We do. We'll be looking at how forensic and computer experts are unlocking the nation's secrets by digging into a neglected police archive.

BRAND: Okay, we'll listen for that and thank you very much for your series.

JARDIN: Thank you.

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