El Mozote

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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On driving

“I can’t talk about this right now.”

I’m not upset that Colin wants to figure out when I can take our tire in to be repaired, but I’m driving; my mental faculties are already being stretched. The roads in the city are riddled with potholes and manholes, the covers of which I have witnessed tipped open or missing completely. A pack of street dogs kept pace with traffic on my way home a few nights ago. A number of men sell bags of dinner rolls out of bicycle baskets or pick-up trucks. Buses, oh the buses, old American school buses with new paint jobs crawling up hills, belching exhaust, stopping at really poorly placed bus stops. The speed impediment of choice is speed bumps, and the nicer neighborhoods scatter them like bird feed, and I understand why when cars come careening downhill, around curves, half in their lane, half in mine. Though I’ve seen a number of “Jesus Cristo Salvo” driving school vehicles on the road, I’ve heard that one doesn’t need to bother with learning how to drive before getting a driver’s license here.

So like I said, we’ve got a tire that needs repairing–a nail wiggled itself loose and now we’ve got a temporary patch. It might not be priority #1, but it’s close.

July 4 weekend photos

The much-anticipated July 4 embassy party was a great success (as far as I could tell), and it broke tradition by not raining. Dozens of representatives were there from all of the American companies that have a presence here in El Sal, including all of the fast-food restaurants and both Miller and Budweiser. It was, truly, America’s best and brightest on display. Everyone was gussied up–I wore the dress I danced in at the wedding and Colin showed his red, white and blue spirit. There was a darn impressive fireworks show directly overhead, and a really fun band that unfortunately no one was dancing to.

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The next day was actually Friday, the federal holiday observing July 4, so we rented a car and drove out to the beach. We signed up through the embassy to have access to one of the many little beach clubs, and it’s a sweet little spot. Food, drinks, a couple pools, and loungers on the sand. The drive out there wasn’t even so bad (and can I just say how nice it felt to be behind the wheel again after feeling a little confined the last couple weeks); one needs to be alert here for slow-moving vehicles, including buses that stop on the highway, pedestrians or animals crossing the highways, and disabled vehicles that don’t get pulled out of the road until after the authorities arrive.

We spent the actual July 4 at a casual little BBQ at the embassy pool. It was a great time! There were tasty potluck contributions to eat, a few new people to meet, a sweet little sangria I made for the two of us, and then we got to leave early with our neighbors–perfect!

Jeez, this was like the weekend that would not end, because then on Sunday we went up the mountain with a few new friends for lunch. The restaurant we stopped at had a phenomenal view of the city and perfectly mediocre food. Then we took a hike–I was in sandals–to see the cauldron of the volcano. It was a popular spot, and there were a ton of Scouts running around with their troops. Good stuff. Next time we’ll skip the meal at the restaurant and try out the food the vendors were selling at the entrance to the park, if I’m able to convince Colin to try the street corn.IMG_2132IMG_2134  IMG_2185 IMG_2176 IMG_2161

 

Bit by bit

Poco a poco, we’re getting settled in. It’s been adjustment-times-two for us: adjusting to a new country and a new style of living. We’re installed in our over-sized home on the edge of town (visitors more than welcome!), Colin is finding his way at work, I’ve started Spanish classes. I think I’ve already said this but it’s worth repeating, everyone in the community has been so, so kind and generous.

Before we had our final timeline, Colin had been looking forward to celebrating July 4 in the States. I was too; I was hoping the timing might line up for one final crazy beach weekend with some college pals. Of course that’s not how things shook out, and now we’re here, volunteering to help decorate and to act as two of the many “hosts” during the big fancy work party, and also looking forward to the cook-out happening on actual July 4. I’m eagerly bookmarking recipes as possible side-dish options to contribute to the potluck, limitless options since our pantry is barely stocked anyway. I don’t quite understand how we can spend $50 at the regular supermarket and $200 at the PriceSmart and still feel like our cupboards are bare. I tried real hard–there were lists with menu ideas written on them!

We’ve been spending our recent evenings making plans to get out of town. Early August brings a nice fat week of vacation, so we’re scrambling to book an adventure before it’s too late. We realized we missed the boat on the Galapagos, and Argentina is awfully expensive at this late date. So we bought tickets to Peru! It’s not clear if we’ll be able to hike the Inca Trail, which one needs a guide for, but there are other ways to hike around Machu Picchu and so much other stuff to do as well.

We have also finally taken ownership of the car we bought down here. That doesn’t yet solve the no license plate or insurance issue, but like I said, poco a poco.

New place, new post

First update from our new home: We landed in El Salvador yesterday and were greeted at the gate by our first embassy friend, who arranged for someone else to grab our bags from the carousel while we waited in a private lounge. He gave us a quick tour and we stopped at a mall for breakfast, because malls are where it’s at, still, here.

For now we’re installed at a very nice hotel with a lovely little pool and strong wi-fi. We were able to stream a movie last night, no problem, and it’s a nice change of pace to do something relaxed like that (and the three-hour nap I took in the afternoon) after our rather frantic final weeks in DC. I feel compelled to explore the city, but movement is rather limited as we don’t yet have our car and walking and taking the bus is discouraged. That should change by next week, though; we’ll be moved into our house by then and will have our little SUV.

One of my greatest complaints at this point is that El Salvador isn’t showing any of the Women’s World Cup matches, so I think that means life is pretty good.

Heavy clouds over the city; view from our hotel window.

Heavy clouds over the city; view from our hotel window.

I definitely owe you an update

Life in Arlington continues. School, work, Spanish, rest, rinse, repeat. We renewed our membership at our climbing gym and I am sore from the tips of my fingers to the tips of my toes. Colin is on Congressional Record as being officially nominated to the Foreign Service: his name in size 9 font on a list of many, we didn’t get to go to the Senate or anything. I hosted some gals this weekend for a bread workshop. I’m hoping they find as much enjoyment and therapy in the hobby as I do.

The move to El Sal creeps ever closer. They’ve invited us to fill out a housing survey, though we won’t know the results until just before we leave. New friends who received an English-speaking post have already shipped their sea freight and are down to their final few weeks in the States.

We are healthy enough and looking forward to the holidays. Our apartment was plagued with butterfingers over the weekend: a salad tong fell and broke, a knife dropped onto a bowl of hot soup, breaking the bowl, and a glass of eggnog and a glass of wine spilled at once all over a board game. At some point you just have to laugh.

There are probably only about 30 flags to remember

OK friends, we’re a week out from getting our flag. That flag will reveal our home for the next two or possibly three years*. My father-in-law will be here; my brother will be here; dozens (maybe A dozen) of people on the West Coast will be anxiously awaiting the results.

There’s a not-so-good joke about people going up to accept their flag but not actually knowing what country it represents, and there’s a rumor that someone made a cheat sheet for all of the possible flags on our list. If I only have a week to go before I’m responsible for matching flag to country for our two guests while Colin goes up for a handshake, I should probably start studying.

*Two years in the country plus possibly one year here for language training.

Stufffffff

Getting by the whole summer wearing mostly a single pair of Reef sandals makes me wonder about the necessity of the 15 pairs of shoes I unpacked today, having picked up a carload of our stuff from some friends’ basement.

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But I’m nonetheless really happy to have these Chucks back.

Back to school

About two years ago, Colin met me at Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, the beginning of our eight months in Morocco. Even though a number of Life Events have been tucked into the period since, it is hard to believe two years have gone by.

Today, Colin is in his second day of “diplomat school,” and I’m off on my second trip of the day to a grocery store, stocking the shelves of our temporary, hotel-like apartment. “Teacher school” starts in a couple weeks, and in the meantime there’s health insurance to pick, joint bank accounts to establish, and posts to research. Today or tomorrow or Thursday, Colin will bring home the list of all the posts we could possibly be sent to, and then we get a week to research and rank them. Clean air and a school I could teach at: those are our basic requirements. That should leave us plenty of options, right?

Road trip day 12: Home stretch

Miles: 391

The final day was basically a delirious, smelly, trafficky mess until our triumphant arrival in Bethesda, MD.
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Grand summation
Miles: 4,144ish
States: 15
Fantastic, generous hosts: 3
Subway lunches: 4
Tickets, car troubles, other serious mishaps: 0
Highlight: midway through Peekaboo Trail in Bryce Canyon NP
Lowlight: leaving New Orleans and being thwarted at three potential campsites before finally going to sleep in the car along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast at 11pm

I’m glad to have made the coast-to-coast drive, and it was so fun to watch the country change from region to region. We saw many interesting corners we never would have seen otherwise. We sought out a lot of delicious food but also ate a lot of junk. The car and the relationship survived intact, so I think that counts for a win. All that said, though, I’m in no hurry to do it again.

For more great photos, check out Colin’s blog!