Twenty-nine years ago, as she was preparing the ground to rebuild her family home in El Mozote, El Salvador, Miriam Nunez found the bones of her in-laws scattered all over the property.
They were among the nearly 1,000 people — half of them children — massacred ten years earlier by government soldiers who accused the village of aiding leftist guerillas in El Salvador’s bloody 1980-1992 civil war.
“I had to collect all the teeth of the little girls, small bones… fingers… and put them in a bag,” Nunez told AFP, forty years after the massacre for which no one has yet been held accountable.
The El Mozote massacre, which took place over five days in December 1981, was one of the deadliest in Latin American history.
Nunez, now 63, recalled coming across the bloodied dress of a little girl called Yesenia, then 18 months old, who would have become her sister-in-law, as well as the dentures of her mother-in-law.
In all, Nunez’s husband Orlando Marquez lost 15 family members in the mass killing — the worst episode of El Salvador’s internal conflict, which in total left more than 75,000 dead and more than 7,000 people missing.
Three of Marquez’s murdered relatives were children.
In 1981, the residents of El Mozote were living a peaceful life in the midst of war, raising beans, corn, sugar cane and cows among green hills some 200 kilometers (124 miles) east of the capital San Salvador.
Unbeknownst to many, a leftist rebel guerilla group was operating in the area.Then on December 9, the country’s military arrived in the region. Five days of bloodshed followed.
The deadliest day was the 11th, in El Mozote.
Soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion — a counter-insurgency command trained by the United States — burnt homes, raped women and killed all the villagers they could find.
Some children were thrown in the air and slashed with machetes, according to survivor accounts. At the time, Miriam Nunez lived in Lourdes, near San Salvador, and her husband survived as he was away, studying in the capital.
Another survivor, Maria de la Paz Chicas, who was 11 at the time, was visiting a nearby village with her father.
When they tried to return home, “they (soldiers) would not let us enter. This is what saved us.” Chicas, now 51, lost six brothers and 17 cousins.
No verdict yet
In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights blamed the Salvadoran government for the El Mozote massacre and ordered reparations.
Four years later, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that a blanket amnesty for people accused of war crimes during the conflict was unconstitutional.
Charges were brought against soldiers accused of involvement, but no verdicts have yet been passed.
The long-dragging trial suffered another setback this year, when presiding judge Jorge Guzman resigned in solidarity with colleagues who were fired in a controversial judicial reform.
Ovidio Gonzalez, a lawyer for the victims, accuses the government and army of seeking “to delay the process and prevent the conviction of the soldiers responsible.”
“Forty years later, we want to tell the Salvadoran state: ‘look, enough of continuing to want to cover up this case’,” added Leonel Tobar Claros, president of the Association of Victims of El Mozote.
Now 43, he lost two dozen family members as a toddler.
Nunez and her husband returned to El Mozote a decade after the massacre, at the end of the civil war in 1992, to rebuild the family home.
Chicas returned at about the same time, and recalls that the once-happy village had become an overgrown refuge for coyotes.
“When we got there we started collecting skulls, bones…. we kept them,” and later gave the body parts to forensic investigators, she said.
Bones were found all over the town.
“My sister, we found in the convent. She was six months pregnant” when she was killed aged 27, next to her four-year-old son, said Chicas.
“She never let go of the boy.” He was also killed.The residents of El Mozote are now trying to build a new life on a foundation of pain.
As part of reparations, the government has paved roads and built a memorial near a cemetery for the victims. The site includes a mural decorated in mosaic tiles, which Chicas said reminds her of “hearts shattered to pieces.”
by Carlos Mario MARQUEZ