We’re not inventing the dead’: Genocide case casts spotlight on Guatemala’s past

Ixil Mayan women gather around a mass grave where forensic anthropologists are exhuming the remains of people who died during the country's civil war, near Ixtupil, Guatemala. Rodrigo Abd / AP
Former Guatemalan de facto president Jose Efrain Rios Montt, 86, listens as he is sentenced on charges of genocide committed during his regime, in Guatemala City on May 10, 2013. Little over a week later Guatemala's Constitutional Court struck down his conviction. Johan Ordonez / AFP - Getty Images

Life for indigenous Ixil Mayans in the mountains west of Guatemala City is simple, but overshadowed by a dark past.

Seventeen years after the end of a civil war that saw hundreds of their villages razed and thousands of their loved ones killed, the Ixil people still live in mud-and-wood houses in the most rugged and isolated parts of northwestern Guatemala. Most of them have no drinking water, paved roads or basic services such as health and education.

Largely ignored by authorities for centuries, the Ixil came under the spotlight after a Guatemalan court found former dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide on May 10 for the scorched-earth policies used against the Ixil during his 17 months in power in the 1980s.

The conviction was annulled 10 days later following a trial that did nothing to change their lives of the Ixil people.

Ixil Mayan women gather around a mass grave near Ixtupil as forensic anthropologists exhume skeletons. Forensic experts continue to exhume bodies from clandestine graves. Lesser known are the mass graves that the Ixil dug to bury loved ones who died of starvation and hypothermia, while they hid in the mountains from the soldiers who razed their villages and killed thousands in the 1980s. Rodrigo Abd / AP
Jacinta Cruz sheds a tear as her mother's remains are exhumed from a clandestine grave near Ixtupil. Cruz said her mother Vicenta died in the early 1980s from starvation and hypothermia while hiding in the nearby mountains as soldiers razed their village, "There was no salt to eat, only a few roots and herbs," remembers Cruz. Rodrigo Abd / AP
Andres Lopez Sanchez helps forensic anthropologists in the exhumation of a clandestine grave near Ixtupil, Guatemala. Lopez believes his brother Juan, who died in the 1980s during the country's bloody civil war, is buried in this grave. Rodrigo Abd / AP

Feliciana Cobo was 8 when soldiers attacked her village. She and her family separated and ran into the mountains, where they hid for several days with nothing to eat.

Cobo said her mother was killed when the army bombed the village and surrounding area, and her grandmother died later after growing sick from the cold and bad living conditions. Her family eventually lost their land and their poverty deepened.

Cobo said she doubts justice will be done, but is glad some fellow Ixil Mayans could travel to Guatemala City to tell their stories at the trial.

"We're not inventing the dead," she said. Read the full story.

Anthropologist Edgar Hernandez shows his left hand where the names of surrounding villages have been written by children, before the start of an exhumation of a clandestine grave near Ixtupil. Rodrigo Abd / AP
A forensic anthropologist exhumes the remains of 9-year-old Ixil Mayan Diego Juanito Chavez from a mass grave near Ixtupil. Rodrigo Abd / AP
Ixil Mayan women perform a traditional dance called "Sarabanda" in Nebaj. Rodrigo Abd / AP
A makeshift school bell, once part of a bomb dropped by the Guatemalan army during the country's civil war, hangs near an Ixil Mayan rural school in Xeulcalvitz. Rodrigo Abd / AP
Ixil Mayans make their way home after watching the exhumation of a clandestine grave near Ixtupil. Rodrigo Abd / AP

EDITOR'S NOTE: Images taken May 23-24, 2013 and made available to NBC News this week.