Two weeks ago Colin and I piled into a van with 11 of his colleagues and joined a 5-vehicle caravan out to the eastern edge of the country to visit the site of a massacre that happened in 1981, during El Salvador’s civil war. Four hours out of San Salvador through green volcanic landscapes, we arrived in the department of Morazon and were shown two sides of the same story: the massacre of El Mozote.
On December 10, 1981, Salvadoran soldiers entered the small town of El Mozote, hustled everyone there into the square in front of the church, and for hours made them lay face-down in the dirt while they screamed questions about the guerrillas operating in the area. Eventually, the townspeople were released to the terrified night. The next morning, the soldiers ordered everyone back out of their homes, divided the men from the women from the children, and beheaded, stabbed, raped, burned and hanged everyone.
Once the soldiers left, the guerrillas came into El Mozote to find the carnage and invited in a couple of journalists to tell the story. Individuals from nearby towns recalled seeing the smoke and hearing the screams. A team of archaeologists ten years after the fact settled the final number of victims at nearly 800. Three people survived: a woman who dropped into the brush in a moment of chaos and a woman and a boy who separately ran for their lives into the thick jungle.
As we entered the department, an army escort joined our caravan for safety in light of the recent surge in gang violence. They ushered us to a base, where we were welcomed with cold sodas and a slideshow that touched on the history of Morazon. There is no dispute that soldiers killed civilians in El Mozote in December 1981, but the army challenges the victim toll and the reliability of the witnesses, the evidence of the crime. So then it was maybe a little weird for everyone when the army escort took us to El Mozote’s town square, where we met a guide who is a former guerrilla to hear his version of story. Neither this guide nor any of the soldiers in our escort were more than little children at the time of the massacre, but emotions around the moment in question run deep.
The guide in the town square described how people from the surrounding area had streamed into to El Mozote for protection after hearing that the soldiers would be coming through, explaining how a town of roughly 300 could suffer a massacre of more than double that. El Mozote was known for being separate in this desperate civil war. They sided with neither the army nor the guerrillas, though they tolerated and would sell their goods to both. The town was different because of its strong Evangelical leaning, which made it decidedly not communist. But there was a war going on, and the fog of war is thick, and soldiers from all nations from all time periods do terrible things, and the battalion that stopped in El Mozote, that was led by a bright, charismatic figure, that was trained to some extent in America, was no exception to that horrible truth. A former U.S. military guy in our group made the point that any training that happened in America liking had a tempering effect, that this could have somehow been worse than it was, multiplied across other areas, perhaps.
El Mozote is still a small town, and when we visited on a Saturday as dusk fell, a church service was being held in the small church built upon the ashes of the one that burned on December 11, 1981. Young boys were kicking a soccer ball and gamely allowed a small children from our group to play with them for a while. I bought a packet of toffee peanuts from a girl, and a friend bought 10 raffle tickets to support the church from another girl. A small shop off the square had woven, beaded, leather souvenirs, and there was a stand with old photos too sun-damaged to be clear, which I suspect is for the best. We would spend the night in a rustic lodge, and the next morning walk to the old headquarters of Radio Vencemos, the broadcasting arm of the guerrillas during the war and cause of the demise of the general responsible for the massacre two years later when they booby-trapped a transmitter with explosives and left it for him to discover. The building is now a simple museum that has the ill-fated helicopter the general had been in when he carried off his transmitter prize, as well as the rudimentary medical supplies the guerrillas had used and posters and photos from during the war. Chickens hunt in the bomb craters nearby.
The weekend was an education on the war, on Colin’s colleagues during our 7 hours in the van, and on El Salvador outside of the city, and certainly was not nearly so grim as this post may make it seem.
Confession time: I wasn’t able to understand hardly any of what was presented to us during the weekend because my Spanish just can’t yet. This information comes from what people told me the guides said and from this epic and sad expose that was written by Mark Danner for the New Yorker in 1993.