photo essay Conflict

Digging Graves

The Ixil Maya’s enduring nightmare of ethnic cleansing

By Daniele Volpe | 1 January 2017

THE IXIL MAYA have resided for millennia in Guatemala’s forest-covered Cuchumatanes mountains. One of more than twenty ethnic groups from the Maya indigenous community, they have resisted many forms of violence since the dawn of colonialism in the Americas. Guatemala’s civil war, which raged from 1960 through 1996, saw a systematic campaign of genocide against them; 7,000 Ixil were killed, and 29,000 displaced. Soldiers in the national army were given a simple command: Indio visto, Indio muerte (Indian seen, Indian dead).

Daniele Volpe, an Italian photographer, had been living in Guatemala for over a decade when, in 2011, he began to travel to different Mayan communities across the country, documenting their experiences of state violence. The following year, he decided to narrow his focus to the Ixil, because it was easier to find “visual evidence” of military repression against them. This focus culminated in Ixil Genocide, a series that showcases the enduring impact of the genocide on the community—many of whose people have still not been able to exhume and re-bury the remains of their murdered loved ones. Volpe described the project as his own type of exhumation: a “contribution to fortify the historical memory in the country.”

International attention was drawn to the Ixil Genocide in 2013, when the former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who ruled from 1982 through 1983—a period during which especially grave ethnic cleansing occurred—was tried on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was found guilty of genocide in May of that year, but, days later, the verdict was overturned by a constitutional court. Volpe lamented that the media, both local and international, only really addressed the Ixil genocide through covering the trial. In the “information market” that governs international media, he said, “just the trial was news”—not the brutal history or the on-the-ground reality of Ixil people’s lives. The local press, he said, had generally avoided writing about violence against the Ixil, because they tended to “hide” controversial issues. While Volpe did some photography at the trial, he captured the bulk of his images in Ixil villages, in an attempt to show how the genocide was not simply “a topic of the past,” but that people continue to suffer from “the atrocities of more than 30 years ago.”

Volpe is still working on the project. “I think there is still a lot to do,” he said, “and I feel a responsibility to follow this documentation.”

Daniele Volpe is a documentary photographer based in Guatemala.

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