When Concheso and Maria Magdalena Chicas moved to El Mozote in remote northeastern El Salvador eight years ago, the village's only inhabitants were death and fear. A carpet of bones marked where the church once stood, a bucket lowered into the well yielded only human remains. Maria vividly recalls the skeleton of a woman with her fetus' tiny skull wedged in her pelvis, ready for birth.
With no electricity, night fell like a curtain, and the couple, in their 70s, huddled together for comfort, accompanied only by sparse candles and memories of the six of their 14 children whose bones lie somewhere in the surrounding soil. These grown children, and their families, were just a few of the 1,200 peasants who died in the worst massacre in modern Latin American history--a tragedy that left El Mozote razed. "You wouldn't believe how black it was, and how quiet," recalls Maria. "There wasn't a Christian or a dog."
Now, as El Mozote marks the 19th anniversary of the Dec. 11, 1981, massacre, the veil of darkness that shrouded the village for years has receded a little. Some three dozen families have trickled into the hamlet since the end of El Salvador's civil war in 1992, sweeping up the bones both real and symbolic. On a recent Sunday afternoon, new houses stood in various stages of construction, and smoke from chimneys signaled meals of black beans and tortillas. Children curled tongues around sweets as they stared at a foreign visitor. The massacre--carried out by government troops on a village suspected of supporting leftist guerrillas--seemed like something from another epoch.
"We don't think about it," says former guerrilla Emilia Argueta, 34, who lives beside the main square in a two-room adobe house with her husband, five small children, and a dozen cheeping chicks. They and several other ex-guerrillas moved to El Mozote after being demobilized. In the havoc left by war, it seemed as good a place as any.
CLOUDING WITH TEARS. "Little by little, people have been coming," says Maria Victoria Claro, 78, a resident who fled well before the soldiers arrived. She moved back to El Mozote six years ago, one of only two former villagers to do so. She actively avoids thinking of old neighbors, but a visitor's questions bring a sharp rush of memories. "There must be remains everywhere. It's so sad," she says, her gray eyes clouding with tears.
The new residents of El Mozote prefer looking at the future. Life here is hard, with no industry to provide jobs. Families exist on eggs laid by their hens, and corn and beans grown in lots behind their homes. Roads are dirt tracks, toilets are holes in the ground.
The massacre--once it was officially confirmed in '93--at least brought official attention to the village. It now enjoys electric power, a new school donated by the U.S., and a square, with fancy benches and lights, paid for by the European Union. The Catholic church has been rebuilt; its blue and white paint gleams. The only sign of tragedy is a wall in the village center bearing the names of 700 victims. Each December a ceremony is held there.
The wall ensures that what happened at El Mozote does not slide into oblivion, but few in El Salvador today remember its casualties--dirt-farmers in a village some 500 kilometers from San Salvador, the capital. "[Because the village is remote and poor], there has never been a public consciousness of the massacre," says Jose Miguel Cruz, director of the University of Central America's Public Opinion Institute.
Since a truce ended the 12-year war in 1992, most Salvadorans have been eager to forget its atrocities. In 1993, the government approved a law granting amnesty for human-rights violators. There has never been a trial of the soldiers in the elite U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion who threw babies into the air to spear them with bayonets, or of the officers who ordered El Mozote and four nearby villages in Morazan province burned. Even the exact number of casualties is unlikely ever to be confirmed. Activists were dealt a setback in October, when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the amnesty law--although it left a loophole, saying a lower court could suspend the law in a particular case. That loophole may not count for much: Consider what occurred last December, when a judge ruled that the soldiers who murdered six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter in 1989--one of El Salvador's more publicized crimes--were shielded by the law.
Others have sought justice by different routes. The relatives of four American churchwomen raped and murdered in 1980 brought a civil lawsuit in Florida, where two former generals accused of ordering the killings have retired. In November, the jury ruled in favor of the generals.
But the peasants of El Mozote don't enjoy the kind of outside leverage that has raised the profile of other cases. About as far as anyone has got is to get approval to exhume remains for burial--34 children were reinterred on the massacre's last anniversary. Lawyer David Morales says a reactivated InterAmerican Human Rights Commission probe will take years to reach a finding. "We're up against very powerful sectors--the government, the military," he says. "They want to forget it."
There is one person who cannot forget. Rufina Amaya, 60, is the sole survivor of the massacre, in which four of her five children and her husband perished. Her fingers fidget as she recalls darting from a line of women who were about to be shot, and creeping into a bush. She stayed immobile for hours, recognizing her children's voices crying "Mamita, they're killing us!" as they were bayoneted. Although she has never received aid of any kind from the government, Rufina says what she really wants is for the perpetrators to ask her forgiveness. After 19 years, she holds little hope it will happen. "Justice isn't about vengeance, it's a spiritual recognition," she says. "But God is seeing all these things that they deny." With little chance of earthly justice, faith in the divine is about all the survivor of El Mozote has to hang on to. By Christina Hoag
As a college student, Hoag protested against U.S. military aid to El Salvador.
EDITED BY GEORGE FOY