Lessons Learned at El Mozote

By Robyn Stegman

At the end of a busy week, I finally got a chance to write more on the experiences of Mary Baldwin College students on a spring break trip in El Salvador with artist-in-residence and human rights activist Claudia Bernardi. In four short days, we have painted two murals with mothers, female ex-combatants and other women from the community. We painted one in particular on the side of a library without books in a community of former leftist fighters of the political group Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). We have taught children how to make stained glass windows out of construction paper and filmed them as they described their school for an exchange video. We have interviewed two mayors, police officers, religious leaders, business owners, ex-combatants and many more members of the community who have illustrated a story of Perquín and its surrounding areas.

As we wrap up our work in Perquín to go to San Salvador, there is one place that sticks in our minds. It is the community at El Mozote. In 1981, during the country’s bloody civil war the national army came into El Mozote and killed an estimated 1,000 people. These were young girls who were brought up to the hills to be raped, men who were interrogated and killed, women who were shot and burned, and children — a startling number of children — who were killed in a church.  From the entire town there was only one survivor of the massacre who has spoken out: a woman named Rufina who escaped by hiding in a tree.  There she heard the screams of her own children as they were killed and saw the destruction of her friends and family.

Claudia Bernardi’s involvement in El Salvador began here. She worked with the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team) to excavate the  bones of hundreds of children in the church, the only part of El Mozote to be uncovered like this.  She was there with us to tell the story of her work  and of Rufina.  While our group had read about the incident before, it came alive as we scanned the names and ages of the children who died there. The lines told of children only a few years old; some only days old; one yet to be born.

This story is punctuated by hope. Claudia has helped bring beauty back into a place of death. Today, the site is a garden with a beautiful mural that celebrates the children’s lives. On the other side of the now rebuilt church is another mural that celebrates both the past before the war and the future that is awaiting them.  El Mozote is rebuilding, including the addition of a clinic. Children play in the plaza right in front of the memorial, and women get water from a nearby well. There are signs of life returning to El Mozote like the flowers that now bloom out of the graves of those murdered.

It is here we are reminded of our role in this story. Rufina told her story to anyone who would listen, until she died a year ago.  She believed she had been spared so the massacre at El Mozote would not be forgotten. Claudia reminded us that it is our charge as well to tell the story of El Mozote.

We now know the importance of this. In El Mozote you see the slogan oft repeated in sites of such destruction: ¨Never Again.¨ It is not a new thought, that perhaps the history of war will teach us how to prevent it. Herodotus began his own look at the histories of his time with this message:

” … to the end that neither the deeds of men may be forgotten by lapse of time, nor the works great and marvelous … may lose their renown … especially that the causes may be remembered for which these waged war with one another.”

Centuries later we find ourselves with the same charge: to turn the history of war in El Salvador into a message that will stop the repetition of violence.

So we return to the murals in Perquín, and we help beautify a community that for years saw the worst of human ability. We work with the new generation and teach them hope with color and light. We know that in the background of every mural is the war, but we remember that in the foreground is a community that thrives and the hope a future without massacres.  Above all, we bring Perquín home to the United States, to our lives, and we learn how we take these lessons and this charge and apply them to our future.


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