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El Salvador’s journey of redemption

Two decades ago, civil war raged in Central America’s smallest country. Visitors today will discover that while the scars remain, the healing power of peace is stronger.

By Tim Johnson

You could see it in her eyes, the way she looked away, shifting her gaze toward the village square, the place where it all happened. She had surely told the story many, many times over the years — first to family, then to friends, then to others outside her immediate circle, and finally to the trickle of tourists who make their way to this place, people who, like me, come here to El Mozote with a mix of anticipation and trepidation — eager to learn, but afraid of the things we will be told. As she recited the story, her mouth speaking the words mechanically, running through the terrible facts and figures and the well-established storyline, those eyes still bore the sadness. How could they not, even after all these years?

Nobody knows exactly how many people were massacred at El Mozote, but everyone agrees that it was a lot — perhaps a thousand, maybe more. Even if it were less, it would not reduce the horror of Dec. 11, 1981, the day when the infantry battalion known as Atlacatl — the most skilful and ruthless fighters that the repressive right-wing government of the day had in its employ — came and lowered its crushing fist on every man, woman and child in El Mozote. The simple monument in the village square speaks volumes: four silhouettes — a father, mother, sister and brother — standing side by side and holding hands. This was a family massacre. Grandparents, parents and children were marched into this square, separated by age and gender, the women raped, and everyone, in systematic fashion, killed. No one, save a couple who miraculously escaped, was spared. “The order was to kill everything that moves,” the woman, Raquel Marquez, said.

Marquez was 30 years old at the time of the massacre. She was away in a neighbouring province looking for work when it happened. A member of a big family, Marquez lost four older brothers as well as cousins and other relatives in the slaughter. Upon learning of the events, she rushed back and found her village completely in ruins. “There was nothing. No people, no animals. Nothing alive,” she remembers. “I asked God to give me strength to get through it.”

While El Mozote is still a grim place replete with reminders of that day, people from the area have nonetheless rebuilt and moved on, and the village now features colourful murals and a flower garden growing over the mass grave next to the church. Can she ever forgive? I ask. “No one has ever come to apologize,” she says firmly. “I am only human. I can’t forgive. I leave it to God to do that.”

I was in El Salvador for a week to ask that very question: Can a small nation that lost so much find redemption? Running from 1980 to 1992, the Salvadoran Civil War pitted an American-backed military government against five allied rebel groups known collectively as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. The conflict claimed 75,000 lives, perhaps most notably Oscar Romero, archbishop of El Salvador, whose cold-blooded assassination by government forces became a symbol of the horrors and injustices being carried out in Central America’s smallest country.

My visit to Mozote was part of a tour of nearby Perquin, a mountain town that served as the rebel’s stronghold and last redoubt during the war. My guide, Serafin Gomez, is a diminutive man whose boyish smile belies the awful things he has witnessed and his own participation in the war. A native of Perquin who lost five cousins in the massacre, Gomez joined one of the rebel groups at the tender age of 10. He worked his way up from foot soldier to intelligence officer, intercepting opponents’ communications and feeding information to guerrilla fighters.

Now the chief guide for a group of former rebels who have formed a co-operative to promote tourism in the area, Gomez takes me through the Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña, which showcases war memorabilia and tells the story from the rebel point of view. Showing me the crumpled remains of a military helicopter arrayed outside the museum, Gomez recounts the now-famous story, one in which he played a role.

Back then, one of the biggest thorns in the government’s side was the rebels’ radio station, which blasted out news and encouragement to soldiers and supporters from a portable transmitter. One day, the guerrillas decided to play a trick. They created a scene simulating a camp that had been hastily abandoned, leaving everything — including the radio transmitter — behind. But the transmitter was simply a shell, and a remote-control bomb had been planted inside.

The ruse worked. Government forces descended on the “transmitter,” secured it to a chopper and lifted it high into the air. Rebel forces pushed a button, and the chopper — along with all those on board — blew into a million pieces. The government’s regional commander was killed in the attack. Though Gomez told me earlier, earnestly, that he hates war, that the only way to resolve conflict is through peaceful means, that indeed his biggest fear is that his children will ever have to go to war, there was still a tiny glimmer in his eye when he told this story — a little sparkle of pride in what they’d done.

That was one of the things I noticed throughout my travels in El Salvador: although healing and reconciliation had often taken place and the rebel side had agreed to lay down their arms and join the political process (a rarity in these types of affairs), old feelings — sometimes just a whisper of them — held on. Pride in a military victory. Pain due to the long-ago death of a brother or friend. A deep sense of loss over the murder of their national icon.

By every account, Oscar Romero was a man loved by all, or at least by most, a Catholic who drew Christians of all denominations when he gave mass. To this day, Romero’s smiling face gazes steadily upon this nation, from the many murals painted on city walls to the T-shirts worn by teenagers. I visited his elaborate tomb at the national cathedral in the capital, San Salvador, as well as the small chapel where he was shot down while presiding over a funeral service for a friend. I toured his humble home, now preserved as a sort of shrine with everything left precisely as it was at the time of his death — robes hanging in the closet, toothpaste on a shelf in the bathroom.

“It didn’t matter what religion you were, he was just concerned for the poor,” said the old woman who serves as caretaker there. “People see him as a prophet. God doesn’t choose a regular person to become a martyr.”

Later that day, I visited the small museum at San Salvador’s Jesuit University that honours the memory of six priests (plus their caretaker and her daughter) who were dragged out of their bedrooms and summarily executed during the waning days of the war. I heard singing and wandered over to the campus chapel, where a student choir was giving a concert. When the music finished, I chatted with Carlos Garcia, who introduced himself with a big smile as “Charlie.” He had a guitar slung over his shoulder and explained that he’s a student at a different Catholic university, that he was there to visit his girlfriend and that his passion is music. I shared with him my experiences over the past week. Although his English isn’t perfect, he understood. “All people, old and young, can search the music. It’s a symbol of peace,” he said in a heavy accent. “It can change people, and they can change the world.”

While his sentiments were perhaps a tiny bit clichéd, I was heartened. Music. Peace. And especially youth. Redemption is available to all, but sometimes, it’s the young that lead them.

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