Grave Undertaking

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"So many people that have been my friends are people who are in those graves," she adds.

The deadly oppression to which Bernardi makes reference is an integral part of her country's historical reality, according to Beverly Adams, curator of Latin American art at Phoenix Art Museum. Adams was responsible for bringing to town last year's "Cantos Paralelos," an exhibition of politically charged though skillfully veiled Argentine art from the 1960s and '70s. Some work in the exhibition was made by artists caught in the ever-tightening vise of political repression that began in earnest with a military takeover of Argentina in 1976; it was the work of these artists that, early on, profoundly influenced Claudia Bernardi's own, which unabashedly deals with violations of basic human rights.

"Argentina has a history of violence -- especially political violence -- that is daunting," notes Adams. She says that in the late '70s and early '80s, anything outside the holy trinity of the military, the ruling oligarchy and the Catholic Church was suspect and subject to attack -- college students, guerillas, trade unionists, as well as any young, politically extreme or intellectual person.

"People who were non-Catholic, homosexuals, Jews, Protestant evangelicals -- everyone who wasn't straight and narrow and accountable in the military's view of what was correct [was a potential target]," says Adams. "Universities were shut down or monitored very carefully. Obviously, the press was put under tight constraints.

"Since there wasn't a definitive enemies list," she adds, "it was always fluid and could include anybody. These kinds of things are what create terror -- when you don't know what act is punishable, but you know that certain acts will be, you start censoring yourself."

It was because of this personal experience that Bernardi agreed to become part of an Argentine forensic team that would literally unearth the truth about the civilian massacre at El Mozote.

Evidence of that bone-chilling event had been buried since the town of 300 was destroyed in December 1981 -- covered up not only by physical rubble, but also by official repudiation and defiant naysaying on the parts of both the Salvadoran government and the Reagan Administration.

Denial that the massacre ever took place continued for years, even in the face of eyewitness accounts from Rufina Amaya Marquez, a resident of El Mozote and the lone surviving witness to the wholesale decimation of its population, including her husband and children. News reports by well-respected reporters who had traveled to El Mozote shortly after the incident were denounced as unsubstantiated, guerilla-generated propaganda.

It was in early September 1992, following the signing of peace accords ending the Salvadoran civil war between the government and guerilla-led FMLN (Farabundo Martí Liberation Front), that Bernardi first visited El Salvador as a member of the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology. The peace agreement created a "truth commission" to delve into the question of human rights violations committed by both sides during the protracted war. After negotiating bureaucratic stumbling blocks thrown up by the Salvadoran government (including conscious foot-dragging by the chief justice of the Salvadoran Supreme Court), the U.N. Truth Commission appointed the Argentine forensic team to undertake the exhumation of what was left at El Mozote.

Bernardi's sister, archaeologist Patricia Bernardi, had been a member of the team since its formation in Buenos Aires in 1984. And Claudia Bernardi says the Argentine forensic group was particularly well-equipped for its grisly task in El Salvador. The team had been specifically created to conduct exhumations related to murders committed during Argentina's "dirty war" by the right-wing Argentine military junta that came to power in 1976.

"Given the history of Argentina, the team had a lot of practice throughout the 1980s," says Bernardi, who, at her sister's urging, joined the team as its official artist. She was responsible for mapping the first randomly chosen exhumation site located in the ruins of el convento, the sacristy area of El Mozote's small church.

What the Argentine forensic team uncovered, bit by bit, at El Mozote in late 1992, was the gruesome conclusion that Salvadoran army forces had systematically massacred civilians in El Mozote. The findings were based on testimony from witnesses (including Rufina Amaya), the Argentine team's exhumation discoveries and a final forensic investigative report prepared by American experts.

El convento was "where all the children were," Bernardi says. It was an important coincidence that the site was picked as the first to be exhumed.

"If we would have found five adults, one child, three older people, it would have been a much more difficult case to prove -- that murder against civilians had occurred," Bernardi notes, "because [the army] could have said that these people [were] members of the FMLN or harbored them. But with children, they couldn't."

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Kathleen Vanesian