Faced with the hand of death

March 12, 2013

Guatemala City, Guatemala

By Jorge Dan Lopez

Lately, I’ve begun to think about death in a different way. Maybe it has something to do with taking photographs at the central cemetery every day for the last four months. It has become part of my daily routine, like getting up in the morning and brushing my teeth. Sometimes when I go, I don’t even take a picture, I just listen to the workers or enjoy the cemetery’s own sounds.

The other day it became quite cold during the night, temperatures dropped more than ten degrees Celsius and continued to descend. It was the coldest night of the year so far and while I was sitting at the cemetery, I thought I should take some photos about the cold weather. It was a frivolous thought, especially when I heard a little later that a person had died of hypothermia. I received the tip from a firefighter about the first dead person to have died due to the cold weather.

The body was found in the conflicted neighborhood Zona 18. It has been practically militarized by the Fuerza de Tarea Maya, a joint force made up of soldiers and police officers.

When I arrived in the Zona 18, everything was confusing and nobody really knew what was going on. Streets have no names in that area and people were giving out the wrong directions. After almost an hour of searching, I decided to leave. Suddenly I saw two people standing in a field.

They were firefighters. I approached them and without asking, they immediately told me about the body of a man they had found underneath a staircase. The man had made a home of this small, dark space under the stairs and that’s where he died of exposure during the night.

Through a hole in the wall I could see his hand; it was the hand of a young man, maybe in his mid-twenties. The fire fighters said that they knew him, his sisters sold fruit on the street, but they didn’t know his name, only that the family was of indigenous origin and that they had come from the interior of the country.

I listened to the firefighters and at the same time I was looking for a good picture, a good angle, so I half crawled into the hole where the man was lying. There was garbage near the body and the smell was foul. The light was bad but I could see how comfortable he seemed to be. He was lying on a mattress and his face, just a few centimeters away from mine, looked peaceful, relaxed. He looked like he was sleeping. Everything was very quiet.

I took some pictures and at the same time I started to remember what I was doing when I was more or less the man’s age. So many times I complained quietly about my siblings or other people around me. I always thought that they had so many more opportunities than me, that they were doing so many more interesting things in their lives compared to me. But I realized now that despite my complaints and the bad moments I had gone through, I had never been in a really bad situation, like this man who had died of the cold while living in a hole.

And I felt like a damn fool, like an idiot and at the same time, incredibly fortunate.

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