Photographers' Blog

Reburying the dead

Guatemala City, Guatemala

By Jorge Dan Lopez

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

The clock had only just struck seven in the morning and the sound of heavy hammers pounding cement had already begun to interrupt the silence in Guatemala City’s General Cemetery. As the sun’s first rays dipped the graveyard in light, they cast shadows on the wall from exhumers.

A grave cleaner uses a maul to break the cover of a crypt as a fellow grave cleaner works standing on a ladder during exhumation works at the Cemetery General in Guatemala City January 29, 2014.  If a lease on a grave has expired or not been paid, grave cleaners will break open the crypts to remove and rebury the bodies.  REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

The men were opening and cleaning graves after people had stopped paying the lease or the lease had expired. The bodies, or what was left of them, were pulled out one by one by the grave cleaners and placed in clear, plastic bags.

The team began breaking the crypts’ lids and bricks. After a few minutes, I glimpsed the corner of a rotten casket and, eventually, I got a distinctive view of skin, bones, and an almost-preserved face, grimacing indescribably. But the grimace did not scare or repulse me; it reminded me of the ephemerality of life.

A grave cleaner holds the mummified body of a woman during exhumation works at the Verbena cemetery in Guatemala City April 17, 2013.  Any remains that have not been claimed are packed into plastic bags, labelled and stored in mass graves.  REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

By nine in the morning, the day of exhumations was over. In total, the remains of 40 bodies were removed from their graves, placed in bags and labelled with their sex and year of death, or a code to identify the crypt in which they used to reside.

Grave cleaner Harold carries a mummified corpse at the Cemetery General in Guatemala City February 5, 2013. Bodies that have been stored in the upper crypt are exposed to dry and sunny conditions which means they do not decompose and instead become mummified. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Bags that weren’t collected by relatives were forklifted in piles and lowered into 30-metre-deep mass graves, which were then shut and secured with a lock. The grave cleaners said that before closing the pit, warlocks would sometimes retrieve bones to perform magic.

On the road at Euro 2012

By Kai Pfaffenbach

As a news photographer working for Reuters in Germany it is quite normal to spend some time in your car. It is not unusual to drive between 3000-5000km per month. So I expected nothing different when coming to Poland for the Euro 2012 covering the soccer matches in Warsaw and Gdansk. During our tournament planning we agreed on traveling in a big van with our team of three photographers and one technician. That seemed a lot easier than spending more time getting all the equipment to an airport than actually flying.

Four times we had to hit the road towards Gdansk and back to Warsaw. About 360km one way shouldn’t last longer than 3 to 4 hours. “It’s about the ride from Frankfurt to Munich to cover some soccer at Allianz Arena. Entering the highway in Frankfurt and three hours later you take the exit in front of the stadium”, I thought to myself. As a matter of fact our trips were different and we experienced quite a few new things on our journey – everything in an absolutely positive way. Even though there’s not much of a highway to begin with, we had a lot to see. In retrospect we divided the trip in three parts.

Part 1: the strawberry and cherry alley – not one or two people were offering self-harvested fruits here, but dozens. They displayed the freshly picked fruits on the hood of their cars, sitting next to it under a sunshade waiting for customers. Of course we took the opportunity, made a good deal and used the strawberries for a refreshing milkshake after coming back. Some refreshment was needed as the drive on the country road is somewhat challenging as well. Some Polish drivers are very “creative” when using the space of only two lanes. It is nothing special if you face three cars driving towards you next to each other. Thank god that didn’t lead directly into the next part of our journey….

Part 2: the graveyard alley – maybe that sounds a bit strange but it was very striking how many graveyards we could see left and right from the streets. The special thing was the size of those graveyards. Using the country road for almost 120km we drove through villages having just two rows of houses left and right from the street but a graveyard double the size of the village. Talking about that during our first trips we decided to look around at two or three of them on our last trip back home from Gdansk.

Witness to the violent years of Juarez

Through the shattered glass one can still see the bloodstains that tell the tragic stories of each vehicle and its occupants – the men, women and children whose bodies became the center of violent crime scenes.

Bullet-riddled vehicles sit in a police junkyard in Ciudad Juarez September 6, 2010. Confiscated in crime-related incidents, more than 2,000 vehicles, some with blood and the marks from shootouts, are stored in the yard while investigations into the crimes are conducted, according to the local prosecutor's office. REUTERS/Gael Gonzalez 

Located at the 25 km marker of the Panamerican Highway outside Ciudad Juarez, the state government’s field has become a junkyard, a vehicle graveyard. Laid out in rows, the vehicles are painted with their date of arrival as well as the number 39, police code for “death,” on their windshields.

 A bullet-riddled pickup sits with other vehicles in a police junkyard in Ciudad Juarez September 6, 2010. Confiscated in crime-related incidents, more than 2,000 vehicles, some with blood and the marks from shootouts, are stored in the yard while investigations into the crimes are conducted, according to the local prosecutor's office. REUTERS/Gael Gonzalez

Bullet-riddled vehicles sit in a police junkyard in Ciudad Juarez September 6, 2010. Confiscated in crime-related incidents, more than 2,000 vehicles, some with blood and the marks from shootouts, are stored in the yard while investigations into the crimes are conducted, according to the local prosecutor's office. REUTERS/Gael Gonzalez

The state prosecutor’s office says there are more than 2,000 vehicles in the yard, ranging from new luxury models to old junk. They are kept here for as long as the investigation into each crime lasts with most of them never claimed by the victims’ families, probably because of the memories that each one invokes. Among them are many police cars.

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