Necropolitics: Mass Graves and Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights

Necropolitics: Mass Graves and Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights

Necropolitics: Mass Graves and Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights

Necropolitics: Mass Graves and Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights


The unmarked mass graves left by war and acts of terror are lasting traces of violence in communities traumatized by fear, conflict, and unfinished mourning. Like silent testimonies to the wounds of history, these graves continue to inflict harm on communities and families who wish to bury or memorialize their lost kin. Changing political circumstances can reveal the location of mass graves or facilitate their exhumation, but the challenge of identifying and recovering the dead is only the beginning of a complex process that brings the rights and wishes of a bereaved society onto a transnational stage.

Necropolitics: Mass Graves and Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights examines the political and social implications of this sensitive undertaking in specific local and national contexts. International forensic methods, local-level claims, national political developments, and transnational human rights discourse converge in detailed case studies from the United States, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Spain, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Korea. Contributors analyze the role of exhumations in transitional justice from the steps of interviewing eyewitnesses and survivors to the painstaking forensic recovery and comparison of DNA profiles. This innovative volume demonstrates that contemporary exhumations are as much a source of personal, historical, and criminal evidence as instruments of redress for victims through legal accountability and memory politics.

Contributors : Zoë Crossland, Francisco Ferrándiz, Luis Fondebrider, Iosif Kovras, Heonik Kwayn, Isaias Rojas-Perez, Antonius C. G. M. Robben, Elena Lesley Rozen, Katerina Stefatos, Francesc Torres, Sara Wagner, Richard Ashby Wilson.


Richard Ashby Wilson

In May 1988, I drank coffee in the sweltering heat with Father José Parra Novo, a Spanish priest nicknamed “Papito,” in the imposing Catholic church compound in Cahabón, a regional town center in the department of Alta Verapaz in highland Guatemala. I fumbled to explain my fieldwork research, which sought to understand how villagers reconstructed their lives and communities after three decades of armed conflict. “Ah,” Papito said immediately, “Then you must go to Pinares.” Why, what happened there?” I asked. He replied, “You’ll find out soon enough.” Arriving in Pinares, I encountered a small, sleepy rural Maya-Q’eqchi’ village surrounded by cacao plantations. At first, I found nothing out of the ordinary. Farmers tended their small plots of corn, beans, and cacao, women washed clothes in the river, youth played football on a meticulously groomed field, and the whole community attended the small village chapel perched on a hillside.

Only after three days did my hosts begin to open up, and recount how, in August 1982, the Guatemalan army arrived from the military base in Cobán. With local men from the “Civil Patrol” leading them house to house, the soldiers rounded up twenty-one male villagers who were accused of being communist agitators for agrarian reform. The soldiers marched the men to the edge of the village, shot them, and threw their corpses into a pit in the ground. This was no “clandestine grave.” Everyone in the village knew exactly where it was located—even the children motioned in the direction of the pit when asked where the men were mukmu, Q’eqchi’ for “buried,” or “hidden.” The bodies lay where they had been tossed, untouched and unrecovered. Their relatives were too terrorized to exhume them, and life went on in the village, as abnormal.

Eight years later, in 1996, I traveled again to Cahabón with staff from . . .

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