We are exhausted. In fact, we are beyond exhausted. Today marks eight straight days of pushing our bodies to the brink of our physical strength. We have had at least ten to twelve hour days every day since we have been here, on top of hours of blogging, mapping, and debriefing each night, and our bodies can tell. Despite all of the physical exhaustion and emotional challenges we are facing, we never complain and we never forget why we are here. We are here because the individuals being exhumed faced far worse conditions than us, conditions we can never even begin to imagine. We are here because these individuals risked their lives and died seeking a better and safer life for themselves and their families. We are here because these individuals were buried without any attempts at identification, leaving their families to wonder what happened to them. We are here because we are fighting for justice for the individuals who have had their basic human rights blatantly ignored. We are here because of the families missing loved ones, hoping to bring them closure and free them from the pain of not knowing. This keeps our team going. We never forget why we are here.
This morning, we visited “The Wall” in Brownsville, TX. We stopped at a beautiful park downtown that was right along the wall where we were able to sit and reflect on our experiences thus far. One of the most powerful things that happened today was noticing the presence of a Peace Pole in the park.
This peace pole is part of a larger Peace Pole Project, which consists of hand-crafted monuments displaying the message “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in multiple languages. Peace Poles are found in 180 countries worldwide and serve as constant reminders for us to strive for world peace. The presence of the Peace Pole in Brownsville served to further remind to our team why we are here. We are helping bring peace to family members who have missing loved ones. We are fighting for world peace and to end unnecessary suffering.
After we visited the wall, we went back to the cemetery to exhume the two individuals we found yesterday – pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. After fully uncovering these burials, we found that there were actually three burials. We weren’t worried about exhuming a third burial because we still had a half-day to complete all of the work we needed to. After these three individuals were uncovered, Jessica and I probed an open area outside of our quadrant to feel for anomalies. Jessica and I each felt an anomaly and investigated them by digging test pits. Jessica located another burial in her test pit, but I was still only feeling loose soil. We decided to have Joe and Louis come with the backhoe and carefully remove dirt layers in order to locate these two burials and any other potential burials that lay outside of our quadrant. In the end, we found three additional burials and had each of them excavated by sundown at 6pm. We started the day thinking we only had to excavate two individuals and ended up excavating six… for a half-day’s work we are pretty proud of those numbers!
Tomorrow, our plan is to head to the cemetery one last time to monitor as Joe and Louis refill in our quadrant. Tomorrow will be a bittersweet day – we worked so hard in our quadrant and moved so much dirt by hand, all remnants of which will be removed in a matter of hours by Joe, Louis, and the backhoe. However, we are proud of the amount of work we were able to accomplish in just eight short days. We are confident that we investigated every possible location within and outside our quadrant that these individuals could be buried, ensuring that no one is left behind. Because that’s why we are here – to exhume every unidentified migrant so they can begin their journey home.
The days are long, the evenings are short, and the nights are even shorter. This field season is different in many ways but has the same common goal as the past three field seasons I have participated in. The goal of recovering migrants in hopes of getting them identified and returning them home to their families. With our fifth field season in progress, we are still learning how each county and funeral home operates and nothing is the same from one place to the next. Some keep better records than others, but the reality is that these funeral homes and counties are doing the best that they can with an overwhelming situation. It won’t change until there is policy change and increased funding for this mass disaster situation.
Today was a hard day of moving a lot of dirt and digging trenches. Although we may feel tired, we are all still motivated in continuing this humanitarian effort. With each burial that we locate, it is an individual whose family is that much closer to finding out what happened to them. It is easy to get lost in the manual labor but once you find a burial, it is like finding that golden ticket.
In the area that we were working in today, we were told originally there were three possible burials. We located six in that area and the ones we found were not even in the direct area that we were originally pointed to. It is no one’s fault because the funeral home is relying on memory to point them out, so it really is a guessing game and thankfully, we have become pretty good at analyzing it.
After recovering three burials, Joe and Louis were able to come back and help us extend our quadrant outside the original lines. We did this because the group next to us located a burial outside of their quadrant; so, in order for us to do our due diligence, we needed to check our area too. I cannot thank Joe and Louis enough for helping us with this endeavor. Although the dirt is nowhere near as hard as it was in Rio Grande City, it is still extremely difficult to get through by hand. So far, most of the quadrant has been dug by hand so it was nice to have a small break while the back hoe did its job. It is also kind of sad because the amount of work that the backhoe did in 1 hour is more than we could do in a day by hand.
I love being apart of this humanitarian effort and being able to work along side community members and Texas State University. We have had several visitors from when we were in Brooks county and it is nice to see the familiar faces. We only have two more days left in Harlingen and it is a bittersweet feeling. Tomorrow we plan to visit ‘the wall’ which will be a sobering experience and remind us why we are continuing this effort.
We have officially completed 2/3’s of this years field season in south Texas and while our bodies are entirely exhausted, our team is dedicated to completing what we came here to do: recover the remains of unidentified border crossers. Today our team started out by continuing a test trench across the middle of our quadrant. Although this area had not been noted by the funeral director as absolutely containing migrants, the lack of grave markers between graves of known individuals seemed promising. After digging down as far as 125 cm in our trench without uncovering anything but more dirt, the funeral director, Arnold returned to the cemetery telling us that the area we were trenching was a much older region of the cemetery and would definitely not contain migrants.
Refocusing our efforts elsewhere, we began trenching the northwestern extremity of our quadrant in areas pointed out to us by Arnold as definitely containing migrants. LOTS of dirt was moved today and unlike days prior in which multiple burials were located, just a single burial was located today. While this seems measly at first glance, making it easy to become discouraged (especially considering that today was the hottest day of the session thus far), eliminating regions of the cemetery is as important as finding bodies.
Moving so much dirt without removal of remains to break up the monotony provided lots of time to reflect. Deputy Sheriff Don White, our hired security, decided to step in and help us move some dirt today. We were very grateful for his help and company. As he helped us work, he told us of a story that helped us remember our goals:
-The cemetery in which we are working is one of three family owned plots which have been divided over the years as one single family cemetery was broken up due to familial conflict. The owner of one neighboring cemetery visited this week and spoke with Deputy Don. This particular family member exhibited hesitance towards our work on the neighboring plot, but Deputy Don relayed the goal of our work and highlighted the efforts we are taking to maintain dignity and respect for all inhabitants of the cemetery recounting one particular case in which we went out of our way to uncover and reinter a particularly shallow grave at a greater depth. With Deputy Dons reassurance, this family member, no longer hesitant towards our efforts, left us with their blessing.