One week ago, I visited El Mozote in Morazan department, El Salvador for the first time. In the years before this visit, I had read many accounts of the massacre which occurred there in December 1981 including the initial story reported by Raymond Bonner in the New York Times, the UN truth commission report followng the war, Mark Danner's book The Massacre at El Mozote and Danner's article The Truth of El Mozote in the New Yorker. I have also watched video of Rufina Amaya, the sole survivor of the massacre, providing her testimony. More than 1000 civilians were killed by the Alcatl Battalion of the Salvadoran armed forces.
So intellectually I knew what had occurred almost 27 years ago, but the impact of actually being at the site of such horror was powerful. Particularly heart-wrenching is the Garden of the Innocents, next to the restored church, where the remains of 146 children are buried. There names and ages are inscribed on plaques on the wall of the church, from 3 days to 14 years.
Rufina Amaya described the murder of these innocents to journalist Mark Danner:
The fire was still burning furiously, but the big crab-apple tree, which some miracle had kept from igniting, shielded Rufina from the heat. Over the crackling of the fire she could still hear, coming from the hill called La Cruz, the screams of the girls. Now and again, she heard a burst of gunfire.
After a time, when the soldiers seemed to have finished drinking their sodas, Rufina heard crying and screaming begin from the house of Alfredo Márquez: the screaming of the children. "They were crying, 'Mommy! Mommy! They're hurting us! Help us! They're cutting us! They're choking us! Help us!'
"Then I heard one of my children crying. My son, Cristino, was crying, 'Mama Rufina, help me! They're killing me! They killed my sister! They're killing me! Help me!' I didn't know what to do. They were killing my children. I knew that if I went back there to help my children I would be cut to pieces. But I couldn't stand to hear it, I couldn't bear it. I was afraid that I would cry out, that I would scream, that I would go crazy. I couldn't stand it, and I prayed to God to help me. I promised God that if He helped me I would tell the world what happened here.
"Then I tied my hair up and tied my skirt between my legs and I crawled on my belly out from behind the tree. There were animals there, cows and a dog, and they saw me, and I was afraid they would make a noise, but God made them stay quiet as I crawled among them. I crawled across the road and under the barbed wire and into the maguey on the other side. I crawled a little farther through the thorns, and I dug a little hole with my hands and put my face in the hole so I could cry without anyone hearing. I could hear the children screaming still, and I lay there with my face against the earth and cried."
Rufina could not see the children; she could only hear their cries as the soldiers waded into them, slashing some with their machetes, crushing the skulls of others with the butts of their rifles. Many others -- the youngest children, most below the age of twelve -- the soldiers herded from the house of Alfredo Márquez across the street to the sacristy, pushing them, crying and screaming, into the dark tiny room. There the soldiers raised their M16s and emptied their magazines into the roomful of children.
Hay que recordar para no repetir.
One must remember in order not to repeat.