ON MARCH 13, 1982, the Guatemalan village of Rio Negro died. One hundred and seventy-seven Mayan Achi civilians fell that day to the guns of rampaging soldiers and paramilitary forces. The deaths resulted from a government resettlement program that displaced communities opposing a hydroelectric project funded by the World Bank.
The blood of the slain men, women and children, many of whom were lashed to poles and summarily executed, was washed away by the diverted course of the Rio Negro river.
Today, the water of that river runs into the flood basin of the Chixoy dam which, like a funeral pall, obscures most of what was Rio Negro. More than 440 Mayan Achi in Rio Negro and nearby villages were slain during the resettlement campaign in 1981 and 1982.
Just by glancing at her name, Denese Becker, a 27-year-old cosmetologist from Algona, Iowa, is an unlikely witness to the fate inflicted upon a place and a people literally wiped off the map. Her black hair, distinctive facial features and brownish skin, however, are clues to an origin far from the American heartland, unlike many of her colleagues at the hair salon.
Becker was born Dominga Sic Ruiz. When she was age 9, she lost both parents in the slaughter in Rio Negro. Nicknamed "La Gringa" because of her light complexion, Dominga grew up in a society where women married young and received little schooling. As Rio Negro burned, Becker and her nine-day-old sister, tied papoose-style to Becker's back, sought safety in the mountains near her village.
The children joined other Mayan Achi who took refuge in the hills near Rio Negro. Becker's unnamed infant sibling died from starvation and exposure.
A man named Francisco Cuxum, who was later shot to death by the army, discovered Becker hiding in a cave, and carried her to the convent of the Sisters of Saint Vincent of Paul in nearby Rabinal. She spent a year in rural orphanages before she arrived at a Roman Catholic home for girls in Guatemala City. There, she met the couple from Iowa who adopted her and changed the course of her life.
Rio Negro sits in the Baja Verapaz region of Guatemala, an area that has experienced the worst violence in the nation's history. On June 1, about 18 years after the massacre that took the lives of her mother, father and other family members, Becker returned to the place of her birth. She came back to a land crippled by endemic poverty and the aftermath of a 36-year civil war that left approximately 200,000 Guatemalans dead.
Stefan Schmitt, a forensic anthropologist and consultant for Physicians for Human Rights, is working with Becker to verify her claim that she survived the massacre. Schmitt has taken blood samples from survivors of the Rio Negro massacre hoping to find a DNA match with Becker.
Using mitochondrial and nuclear DNA identification techniques, specialists hope to match Becker with living relatives who escaped the slaughter.
Rights Action, a U.S. nongovernmental organization, believes it has found some of Becker's family members - three paternal uncles, two paternal aunts and one maternal uncle. The forensic tests could confirm her relationship to them.
The results of the DNA testing have not been completed. But a large body of documentary evidence, including a birth certificate and her father's identity card, point to the validity of Becker's relationship with these men and women. They, like Becker, are looking to answer the question of what happened to the girl they once knew as "Dominga."
With her husband, Blane, and cousin Mary by her side, Becker spent two weeks on an emotional pilgrimage back to the site of one of the most disgraceful incidents in Guatemalan history.
Becker's return touched off a celebration.
A parade was held in Rio Negro, and a dinner was held in her honor. The people of Rio Negro also offered Becker the house and land that once belonged to her deceased aunt.
Schmitt, PHR's forensic consultant, is based at Florida State University. He said he hopes that the results of the DNA testing will provide a " sense of closure" for Becker.
PHR's International Forensic Program has conducted exhumations and forensic investigations in many nations around the world, including Rwanda, Bosnia, Turkey, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and El Salvador.
Nathaniel Raymond is the public affairs coordinator for Physicians for Human Rights