Friday, 15 November 2013

Guatemalans use portraits, museum to seek missing

As darkness fell over the peeling colonial houses of Guatemala City, eight young men and women crept through the streets carrying buckets of glue and photocopied pictures of people who'd been missing for decades.

They gathered at the foot of a house stained grey by car exhaust. One man smeared cheap white paste across the base of the nearest wall. A young woman stuck up dozens of handbills with the portraits of the disappeared — a wrinkled woman in a Mayan head wrap, a man wearing the broad lapels favored in 1980s Guatemala. Spray paint hissed as another woman wrote "No Amnesty, No Pardon" in big red letters alongside the portraits of the disappeared. In less than five minutes, the eight were gone, moving quickly to avoid the police.

Their loved ones were just a few of the 45,000 people who disappeared during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, virtually all at the hands of soldiers and allied paramilitaries seeking to wipe out a Marxist guerrilla movement. Almost all the victims are believed to have been killed, often after being raped, tortured, or both, then buried in mass graves, ditches and wells. Many were hurled from helicopters into the sea or volcanic craters. In total, at least 200,000 people were killed during the war.

Yet with fewer than 1,000 of the missing found, five successive right-wing Guatemalan governments have resisted local and international pressure to launch a full-scale effort to find and identify the rest.

Now, a handful of Guatemalans have launched homegrown attempts to draw attention to what human rights groups and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights call a deplorable lack of official action in the face of one of the worst unresolved cases of human-rights violations in the 20th century.

A month ago, about 20 relatives of the disappeared started nighttime forays through the streets of Guatemala City, pasting up tens of thousands of photos of the disappeared, most simple portraits copied from passports and other official documents.

Paulo Estrada was a year old when his father, a university student, disappeared in 1984. A military document leaked to human rights groups in 1999 said that he had been killed, but it didn't say where his body was left.

"I didn't even know him," Paulo Estrada said as he traveled the city pasting up photos of his father and other missing people on a recent Saturday afternoon. "But yes, I want to know where he is and what they did to him."

Families of the disappeared and slain have also built the Museum of the Martyrs and the Union, Student and Popular Movement of Guatemala, whose grand name belies its humble setting — a 30-by-18-foot garage and four small rooms in a converted single-family home.

In Guatemala's only monument to the disappeared, the remains of industrial union leader Amancio Villatoro lie on a red cloth in a glass case, surrounded by photos of him with his family. A member of the guerrilla wing of the Guatemalan Workers Party, he was kidnapped on Jan. 30, 1984, by men in plainclothes. His remains were found in a rural military outpost 27 years later.

Samuel Villatoro, the dead man's son and director of the museum, started weeping as he described how his father was held and tortured for 57 days, according to leaked military documents.

"We don't want to close this story by burying him," said Villatoro, who was eight when his father disappeared. "There's still no justice."

Some of the self-styled activists say they believe they can pressure the state to look for the missing. Others acknowledge that their efforts are unlikely to prompt action.

The activists say government action isn't the main goal, and that they mainly want to remember their loved ones, and force others to remember them, in a country that often seems determined to forget.

The Guatemalan government did not respond to several requests to comment on the topic.

The country's aggressive attorney general has prosecuted several high-ranking officials on war-crimes charges. But the highest-ranking, former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt, saw his conviction annulled this year in a high court decision that many saw as a sign of the lingering influence of the wartime military and its backers.

Estrada and his companions say they have posted 5,000 photos since they started about a month ago.

"We want to tell a story that's denied," said Eduardo Hernandez, whose family was one of the few to find the remains of their loved ones. His relatives found the bodies of his mother, grandmother and two uncles outside Guatemala City soon after they disappeared in 1984.

"This type of activity has been like therapy for us. People stop and ask us who these people in the photos are and we tell them our story. It's our way of easing the pain that lingers because of the absence of our loved ones."

In Nov. 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled against Guatemala in the disappearance of 26 people named in the leaked military files. The government has not complied with any of the terms of the court's ruling, including launching a search for the victims as quickly as possible, and building a park or plaza in the memory of the disappeared, where the families could gather to remember their loved ones.

The amateur museum, which opened last year, also contains tributes to Felix and Cesar Augusto Estrada Mejia, brothers, students and members of a guerrilla faction. Felix vanished in 1984, his killing registered in the leaked military document. Cesar Augusto disappeared in 1990 without a trace.

Their brother, Salomon Estrada, who works at the museum, said its purpose is "to remember them, to say that they existed and their relatives still want to know where they are."

A short distance away, the photo-posters gathered for a beer at the end of a night in which they plastered some 1,500 portraits on city walls.

As they planned their next outing, organizer Francisco Sanchez said they would have to keep moving quickly to avoid being hassled by police enforcing anti-graffiti and vandalism laws.

But even some police officers have been touched by the group's efforts, Sanchez said.

"We tell our story to some police and, believe it or not, they are moved and end up agreeing with us," he said.

Friday 15 November 2013

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Dealing with the dead in natural disasters

Pictures of bodies lying in the streets of Tacloban and other areas of the Philippines hit by Typhoon Haiyan are one of the starkest images of the disaster.

Survivors in desperate need of aid are also calling for the relief authorities to clear the bodies of victims, some in body bags, others causing a stench as they decompose in the open air.

But as the relief effort continues, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations have reiterated their advice that the Philippine government should focus their relief efforts on the living, rather than the dead.

"Obviously it's distressing to see bodies on the ground, and the government is doing the best it can, but from a health perspective, bodies are not a health risk," said WHO spokesman Nyka Alexander in Manila.

The WHO - which holds daily meetings with the Philippine government - and relief agencies familiar with natural disasters, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), stress that dealing with the bodies of victims should not be the top priority.

"There is a widespread and erroneous belief, even among some health professionals, that dead bodies are a source of disease and therefore a threat to public health. This is untrue," says the WHO's current fact sheet on care of the dead in disasters, available on its website.

"Contrary to popular belief, dead bodies pose no more risk of disease outbreak in the aftermath of a natural disaster than survivors," the WHO says.

"The micro-organisms responsible for the decomposition of bodies are not capable of causing disease in living people," the guidelines say.

"Dead bodies do not cause epidemics after natural disasters," says the ICRC's field manual on managing bodies after disasters. "Most infectious organisms do not survive beyond 48 hours in a dead body."

"Certain diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis, pose a potential risk for individuals who come into close contact with dead bodies, but not for the general public," the manual says.

The WHO adds that efforts to deal with the dead first - such as spraying the area around dead bodies with disinfectant - "take staff away from caring for survivors and are totally unnecessary." Mass burials without proper identification can later cause suffering for surviving relatives, the organization says.

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Forensics experts to start identifying 'Yolanda' bodies on Saturday

Starting Saturday, several teams of five members each, including a forensic expert and a photographer, will identify bodies in regions hardest-hit by typhoon Yolanda, the Philippines’ health department announced on Friday.

"Photos, identifying marks and belongings, and appropriate samples for possible DNA testing will be collected as practical as can be, considering prevailing harsh conditions," Health Secretary Enrique Ona said.

The system, which can handle up to 40 bodies a day, is similar to currently existing international standards on Disaster Victims Identification (DVI), the health department said.

Although it will disallow public viewing, surviving relatives will be asked to participate in the final identification of bodies at an appointed time, the health chief said, appealing for the public’s “patience and understanding.”

Once identified, the bodies will be buried based on prevailing protocol that will allow future investigations when necessary.

“It is important that we bury our dead with dignity. Rushing on things will not help at all in the long run,” Ona said.

Forensics experts will come from the World Health Organization (WHO), National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), and the University of the Philippines (UP).

For its part, the Philippine Red Cross will support the teams by providing psychosocial support and preparing communities.

The health secretary also reiterated that dead bodies "do not cause epidemics."

"Most infectious germs do not survive beyond 48 hours. Body handlers can wear gloves when they handle bodies and must wash their hands as precautionary measure," he said.

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Greece: 12 migrants found dead after boat capsizes

Twelve migrants were found dead Friday and 15 were rescued after a boat capsized in western Greece, authorities said.

The coast guard continued searching for more possible victims and survivors.

The Merchant Marine Ministry said the victims included four children. The incident occurred early Friday, off the coast of Lefkada, an island in the Ionian Sea and the migrants were presumed to have been headed to nearby Italy, from the western Greek mainland.

Ministry officials said the migrants were aboard a plastic boat that was 23 to 26 feet in length. The survivors were being taken to hospitals for observation, four on the island and the others on the mainland.

Fifteen migrants managed to escape alive and alerted the authorities to the accident near the island of Lefkada, a spokeswoman for the port police told AFP.

"Coast guard boats and divers are continuing the search in the Palairos area, between Lefkada and the mainland," Lefkada mayor Costas Aravanis told The Associated Press.

"The boat sank after dawn in good weather conditions, with low prevailing winds, so it's unclear how this happened. Some of the survivors managed to swim to the shore and call for help. They were not sure exactly how many people were on the boat so we still don't know if there are others still out there."

The migrants’ nationalities and port of departure were not immediately known.

Greece is one of the main ports of entry into the European Union for migrants and refugees fleeing war-torn and impoverished countries in Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

Refugee traffic has soared over the past year, because of the o

ngoing war in Syria, with arrivals by sea increasing owing to stricter controls on the Greek-Turkish northern land border. Europe's immigration policies have come under the spotlight after more than 400 asylum seekers drowned in October in two tragedies near another popular migrant port of entry, the Italian island of Lampedusa.

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Typhoon Haiyan: WHO warns mass burial of storm victims violate human rights

The embattled Philippine government is in a no-win situation in the aftermath of super typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda).

One such quandary is the rising number of deaths requiring mass burial of decomposing and unrecognisable corpses.

On Thursday, the first mass burial was held in Tacloban City where the bodies were buried in a 2-metre deep grave the size of an Olympic pool.

However, on the same day, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned the Philippine Department of Health that mass burials without proper identification could violate human rights. WHO cited its Management of Dead Bodies in Disaster Situations manual which states, "Burial of bodies in common graves or the use of mass cremation is unnecessary and a violation of the human rights of the surviving family members."

Besides breaching human rights, the practice could also violate religious and cultural beliefs, particularly among indigenous communities that still observe ancestral rites in burying their dead.

WHO emphasised that the threat of infection from exposed dead bodies is limited, contrary to popular belief.

However, the government is also under pressure from residents who complain of the foul odour coming from the corpses. GMA News reported that some communities in Palo, Leyte, placed messages and signs asking for authorities to remove the bodies out of fear it would cause outbreak of diseases.

Palo also held a mass burial of about 150 corpses.

For the Tacloban mass burial, to help identify the corpses, the National Bureau of Investigation removed a part of the femur from each body. Technicians then will extract DNA from each bit of bone, said Joseph David, the crime photographer of the agency.

Friday 15 November 2013

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Gunmen torch vital records of rights group in El Salvador

Gunmen in El Salvador early Thursday burst into the offices of a human rights agency that focuses on children missing from the country’s civil war, torching documents and taking away computers, activists said.

The attack was a major blow against a group that had reunited numerous children with families from which they were wrenched in the 1980s. It follows by less than six weeks the abrupt closure of another human rights organization, one connected to the Roman Catholic Church, which had documented massacres and other egregious abuses over several decades.

Both incidents come as the Salvadoran judiciary reviews an amnesty law that prevented the prosecutions of army officers, right-wing political leaders and leftist guerrillas for crimes committed during the 1980-92 civil war, which killed 75,000 people in that tiny country. The U.S.-backed government at the time used brutal tactics to put down a Marxist-inspired insurgency.

If all or part of the amnesty law is overturned, those prosecutions could be opened. It is believed much of the evidence would come from the files in a number of grass-roots human rights organizations that work in El Salvador.

Thursday’s incident involved the Pro-Busqueda (“search”) Assn. for Missing Children (link in Spanish), which since 1994 has attempted to find the 1,000 or more children who disappeared in the war.

“This is a clear sabotage of our work,” Pro-Busqueda Director Ester Alvarenga said in a news conference.

Gunmen tied up a guard, removed computers and other equipment, then doused the files with gasoline and set them on fire, the organization said on its website. Someone with a radio stood outside, giving the assailants instructions, according to a person briefed by investigators.

About 80% of crucial documentation is believed to have been destroyed, said Abraham Abrego, a representative of the Studies Foundation for the Application of Law, a left-leaning legal rights organization that was one of several groups denouncing the attack.

“This sends a message of terror,” Abrego said by telephone from the capital, San Salvador.

Pro-Busqueda was the subject of a 2011 Times article recounting the difficult task of reuniting families and long-lost children nearly two decades after the war ended.

Children during the conflict vanished when they fled army incursions or strayed when their guerrilla parents were killed in firefights. Some ended up in orphanages and were adopted, either by corrupt lawyers or through well-meaning applications.

Pro-Busqueda, using DNA testing and old-fashioned detective work, has pored through adoption records and interviewed survivors of massacres to track down missing children. Leads have taken them mostly to cities in the United States but also Europe.

The organization says it has put about 175 people in contact with families; the bodies of at least 50 children, found in unmarked or clandestine graves, have also served as the sad end to some cases.

Last month, the archbishop of San Salvador abruptly shut down another important human rights office, Tutela Legal, which had served as the preeminent chronicler of massacres, killings and other war crimes throughout the civil war and afterward. Bishop Jose Luis Escobar argued that with the war over, the office no longer had a purpose; human rights organizations the world over protested the decision and demanded that Tutela Legal’s enormous archive of more than 50,000 cases be preserved.

Given both incidents, “all human rights archives in the country are really at risk,” said Geoff Thale, programs director for the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based human rights group. He was in San Salvador.

“The human rights community, victims and the government need to think about systematic strategies to protect these archives,” he said.

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Exodus of multitudes, mass body collections, fields of debris in Philippines; death toll at 3621

The official death toll in the Philippines in the wake Typhoon Haiyan rose to 3,621 Friday, according to national disaster agency spokesman Eduardo del Rosario.

The toll of those injured stood at 3,850. At least 77 people are reported missing in the wake of the storm that ripped up a group of the nation's islands with winds more than three times stronger than those of Hurricane Katrina.

The fright-filled scramble to survive the storm's fury, to keep heads above the wall of ocean waves it drove, has faded away with Typhoon Haiyan's winds.

But now, a week later, sickness, hunger and thirst have settled in with the sticky, humid heat and stench of rancid flesh hanging over the apocalypse the cyclone left behind.

Traumatized survivors under improvised shelters watch over bodies of husbands, wives and children who perished and are rotting in the sun.

More bodies keep emerging from under the rubble, as the cadaver collectors' cohorts in debris-removal crews uncover them while they heave away wreckage from the roads.

Juvelyn Taniega tried to keep busy. She collected old dishes and cleaned them up, crouching on the ground near the spot where her home once stood and the place where she last saw her husband and six children alive.

She's found the bodies of three of her children, but three of them are still missing. In days, she said, no one has come to help.

"My children are decomposing," she said.

There are many like her, looking in disbelief over fields miles long of crushed wood and stone that once stood as houses, wondering if her missing loved ones are buried in them.

But the bodies that Haiyan had flung everywhere are becoming a scarcer sight, as cadaver crews pull up in trucks to collect them for mass burial in nameless graves.

Officially, 801 bodies have been counted in Tacloban by Friday morning, but thousands are feared dead here.

Whole neighborhoods were swept out to sea.

In Tacloban, children have stayed children in spite of the wretchedness around them left behind when one of the strongest storms on record roared over the Philippines a week ago.

They wandered the streets Friday, satisfying their curiosity. Parents were often nowhere in sight -- if they are even still alive.

Children are most vulnerable, UNICEF spokesman Kent Page told CNN's Anderson Cooper. It's hard to keep them safe, and to give them so much that they desperately need.

"Health, nutrition, getting them clean water, good sanitation, protection, and we have to consider education also," Kent says.

"Schools have been wiped out and getting kids into child friendly spaces, where they can feel protected, where they can get a chance to play, where they can get a sense of normalcy back in their life after going through such a devastating experience is very important."

Many families are getting their children out of town. Their mothers are evacuating them, while their fathers are staying behind to sort through the remains of their destroyed lives, Tacloban's mayor Alfred Romualdez said.

He advises other families to follow their example.

As many mouths as possible should be fed elsewhere, where there is more food and water, and children need to be in safety.

Major streets have freed up in Tacloban, once home to 220,000 people, but the hum of delivery trucks ferrying out aid is conspicuously missing. The fields of rubble have become a ghost town.

Many of the city's haggard survivors have concentrated at the airport.

Irony of fate

Some typically called upon to help need help themselves.

Ryan Cardenas has helped with recovery efforts in the Philippine Navy after two cyclones in the past two years that left hundreds dead.

But when Haiyan slammed into the Tacloban naval station where he's based, he and other sailors clung to rafters in their barracks.

Their commanding officer, who was in a separate building almost demolished by the storm, stayed alive by clutching a palm tree's trunk.

Afterward, sailors helped retrieve some bodies, according to Cardenas. One found his mother sitting dead against a wall.

Now, they're sorting through the wreckage of the naval station and awaiting orders.

"This is the worst," Cardenas said, taking a break from fixing a piece of damaged furniture. "We're both victims and rescuers."

Concerns of violence

There have been reports of the threat of violence by groups looking to steal relief aid, but the U.S. military has said that violent crime is less of a problem than the debris blocking roads to those who need aid the most.

A Philippines senator said she's learned of reports of rapes and other crimes against women, some allegedly perpetrated by convicts who escaped prison in the typhoon's aftermath, the state-run Philippines News Agency reported.

Sen. Nancy Binay particularly expressed alarm after women said on TV that the situation had become worse, with assailants going so far as to break into people's homes.

Someone to live for

Jericho, a boy whose mother, aunt and nine cousins were killed in the storm in Tacloban, tells his father he wants to leave the city on one of the planes he's seen flying overhead.

His father tells him they have to stay.

"We have no money," he says. "Just each other."

Another man whose wife and child died said he can't stop thinking of seeing his family drown in the storm.

"The first one that I saw was my youngest," he said. "She fainted, and then she drowned. The water was so fast. And then my wife, when I tried to grab her, I missed her. Then she drowned, and then I never saw her again."

Over the past week, he admits he's often thought of killing himself.

But he hasn't, he said, because he still has one child who needs him.

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