EL MOZOTE, El Salvador – Returning home after the war has been a difficult experience for María de la Paz Chicas, 39.
It’s been 18 years since she moved back to her rural town of El Mozote, but the ghosts of the past still haunt her everywhere.
“It was very sad to return; we were the first family to come back, and the place was like a desert. We used to play here as children… it has been very difficult to return. It’s still hard to talk about, but I ask God for help…” Chicas says, he voice trailing off.
Chicas was 11 years old in December of 1981, when her father took her up into the nearby mountains to help him pick coffee – a chore that ultimately saved her life. She wasn’t in town that day playing with her siblings and friends when the military arrived with orders to wipe out the guerrillas.
The soldiers didn’t find any guerrillas in El Mozote, but that didn’t matter.
“They killed everything that moved; 85 percent of the people killed were under the age of 12,” said Chicas, who lost six siblings and 17 cousins in what later became known as the El Mozote Massacre, one of the worst slaughters of innocent civilians in Central America’s recent history. “The children were running everywhere, as the soldiers shot and beat them to death.”
By the end of Dec. 11, 1,700 residents of El Mozote – including most of Chicas’ family and virtually everyone she knew – had been slaughtered, their bodies hacked and burned.
Only three people managed to escape, including one woman whose infant was shot dead in her arms as she fled town.
Now Chicas is back in her hometown, working for El Mozote’s Historic Committee and talking to the occasional tourist group. “It’s hard to talk about; here there used to be kids running and playing all over town,” Chicas said.
Today, where the children once played, stand several simple monuments acknowledging them in death. “They have not died, they are with us, and with you and with eternal humanity,” reads a plaque on a silhouette statue of a family holding hands. Behind the statute are the names of all who were killed.
Nearby, is the town’s small church, which was rebuilt in 1996 after being destroyed in the 1981 massacre. Next to the church is the “Garden of Innocent Children,” a quiet place of reflection where the names of 460 massacred children are written on the church wall.
The monument in the garden holds the remains of 146 children who were exhumed by a team of Argentine forensic anthropologists in 1992.
El Mozote is part of El Salvador’s upstart rural tourism effort known as the “Route of Peace,” a series of historic, cultural and ecotourism destinations in the mountainous northeastern department of Morazán, which two decades ago was the country’s most brutal theater of the war.
Other highlights of the Route of Peace are the revolutionary museum in Perkin –complete with historic photographs, helicopters shot down by the guerrillas, old weapons, and the souped up, bulletproof getaway cars (with James Bond-like oil slick dispensers) formerly used by guerrilla leaders Schafik Handal and Joaquín Villalobos.
The surrounding mountainsides feature old bunkers that used to hide the guerrillas, and 10-meter craters where 500-pound bombs were indiscriminately dropped on the forest in efforts to root out the insurgents.
As an authentic touch to the Route of Peace, many of the tour guides are former guerrillas themselves. And for many, talking about the war to tourists and student groups each week has been almost like a kind of therapy.
“At first it was difficult to talk about, but now it’s become normal,” said former rebel Leonor Marquez, who joined the guerrilla movement when she was 13.
Marquez, who gives tours at the revolutionary museum, was part of a battalion of young women known as “Las Samuelitas.”
The group was part of several heavy combat missions and was known as being “young and fast,” Marquez said.
Now, she says she remembers the war as if it were “a movie or a dream.”
Facing the Past
Like Chicas, Marquez says that being a tour guide has helped her to work through her past traumas on a day by day basis.
On a larger scale, El Salvador’s nascent tourism industry is also helping the country face its past.
Roberto Ayala, of El Salvador’s Ministry of Tourism, said the government can’t turn a blind eye to its past when tourists show up asking about places such as El Mozote because “it’s in their Lonely Planet guidebook.”
Even so, the government has been slow to acknowledge some of the darker incidents from the war. It wasn’t until last year that the revolutionary history became part of the country’s school curriculum, and last week that the government of President Mauricio Funes said it will comply with reparations for the 1980 assassination of San Salvador archbishop Oscar Romero.
To date, the government has never formally acknowledged or apologized for the massacre in El Mozote.
In fact, the previous government blocked permits to continue exhuming the bodies, about 700 of which have yet to be uncovered, according to local residents. The hope is that with a new leftist government in power – a party with guerrilla origins – there will finally be some recognition of what happened, and compensation for the surviving family members.
Until then, Chicas and others will continue giving tours and talking to the new generation, so that the memory of her community lives on.
“Today, the children of El Mozote ask about the past. I feel comforted talking about our history so that we never forget it ever again,” Chicas said.