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Published: March 19th 2011
The war museum
So how do you guys feel about a history lesson today? Well, you'd better be up for it because it's coming! But don't worry, it's a very simplified version (and hopefully accurate)...
Going back as far as the 19th century, the gap between the rich minority and the poor communities in El Salvador was vast. The rich in power were very busy trying to make sure things stayed that way and the poor weren't too chuffed about it. This caused tension in the country for a long time, including what was called “The Massacre” of 1932, when 30000 opposing the government got killed by death squads. So the civil war had been brewing for many years when it finally broke out. By the end of the 70s, several left-wing guerilla groups joined forces to form a new party: the FMLN and in 1980, the civil war started when the military, supported by the government decided to target anyone who wanted change. The war lasted until January 1992, when a peace treaty was finally signed. During those 12 years, over 75000 died, many of them civilians, women, children, members of the clergy, etc...
One of the areas of significance during the civil
The guerilla camp
war, was the region of Morazan, which remained one of the opposition's stronghold throughout the 12 years. This was also there that one of the more significant mass killings happened. And this was where I was going next...
I left Alegría on the 8am bus that took me to Santiago de Maria ($0.35), where I caught another bus to Villa El Triunfo ($0.25), where I caught yet another to San Miguel ($1) and arrived just in time to catch the next bus to Perquín ($1.75). In fact, the bus from San Miguel was supposed to be at 10.20 and I got there at 9.45, in plenty of time, but then a bus turned up and left at 9.50... No idea!
So it was early afternoon when I got to Perquín and checked into my $8 per night hotel (dark and dingy twin room , Which I shared with some insects, shared bathroom with cold water and smelly toilets).. After a spot of lunch and TV watching (the football was on and we won), I went to the village centre but there wasn't really anything there. The two things to see in Perquín were the war museum and the reconstructed
guerilla camp, so I headed up the hill, which was where I'd been advised I would be able to find them.
Up until I got to the museum, I hadn't properly realised what I was about to hear and see. The guide in the museum was probably in his 50s and started explaining why the civil war had started. It's only when he said “I fought in this war for 12 years” that I realised it was the first time ever I had spoken to someone who had been in a war in my lifetime. And suddenly, it made it a lot more real, thinking that people my age had grown up in these conditions... I looked back at the previous week and all the people I'd met along the way. They all seemed “normal”, never mentioned anything about their childhood but I was now wondering how it was for each of them. Walking around the museum was a bit strange. We were looking at black and white pictures, which gave it the feel that you were looking at older pictures, but then you'd spot the detail that reminded you that it was all too recent. One of the pictures
that struck me showed the back of a cameraman shooting (the video) of the rebels and wearing a t-shirt saying “The revolution will be televised”. Outside of the museum, there were some texts which were statement of witnesses of the Mozote massacre (site which I would visit the next day), one of which was very detailed and poignant.
Having looked at the museum, it was time for some lighter entertainment! Well... Not quite. It was time to go and have a look next door, at the reconstructed guerilla camp. I think it was really supposed to be a bit of fun, with a couple of swing bridges and the attendant taking pictures of me. But then I asked him if there was really a camp on this site and he said yes. He said that's where he used to live. I asked how old he was and he answered 36, then proceeded to say “I was made to join the guerilla when I was 12, come, I'll show you a picture of me” and took me to have a look at him with a machine gun, aged 14. Questions flooded into my head about what it was like then and
how he felt about it 20 years later, now earning a living from it. The guide in the museum had given us a message of hope saying things were improving but it just took time to get over it. One of the things lacking according to him, was the support for the children of the war who were traumatised by the events. And now I was standing in front of one of those children, wondering how he coped and not daring asking what could have been difficult questions... I left having not been particularly impressed by the quality of either the museum display or the camp, but still feeling a bit numb.
After that, I went for a walk to a view point. That was near the helicopter landing area and the terrain was damaged by the impacts of some bombs that had landed around the site. The view was decent over the whole area, but it wasn't what was important about it all.
I slowly walked back towards the town and then my hotel, feeling a bit drained and not really up to doing anything much after this experience. That was lucky in a way, because it was about
Between Perquín and El Mozote
5pm by then and there wasn't a lot more I could have done around there...
The next morning, I was up bright and early to go the the village of El Mozote. To get there I had to catch a pick-up or walk 3km downhill to the crossroads and then catch the 8am bus for the 6km to the village. I set off for the 3km walk at about 6.30amand carried on past the junction for probably another 3km before the bus (which was early! Unheard of) caught me up. He only charged me $0.25 to get to El Mozote from there, so I was happy and got to enjoy some nice countryside.
El Mozote is very famous because this is a village where a massacre happened on the 11th of December 1981. That day, the army came to the village and murdered everyone alive, including many women and children. In total, over a thousand people were killed and thrown into mass graves. At first, the army told the people to stay in their houses and that they would be killed
The murals on the church
if they came out. Some people ran away into the mountains, but many stayed and did as they were told. Unfortunately for them, they were then dragged out of their houses and lined up in the village. The men were made to lie down across the village square and the soldiers walked from one side to the other over their bodies. They lined up the women and children in front of the church and killed them all. The story says some babies were thrown in the air and speared on the bayonets, some children were hanged from trees, many of the other victims , including a heavily pregnant woman were shot dead, the older girls and women often raped before being executed. After that, gasoline was poured over the men and they were burnt alive. The theory from the government was that by killing the women and children, they were taking away the reason why the men were fighting. They called it “taking the water from the fish”. This was 1981 and the war went on for over 10 years, so it obviously didn't work...
When I arrived in the village, I was approached by a young woman who offered
to be my guide, which I agreed. She explained the story I have just related and showed me around the memorials with the list of the victims and a statue. Then she showed my the rose garden, planted where the children's mass grave was uncovered, followed by the murals on the church, representing different stages in the history and beliefs around the village (from the massacre to the hopes for the future). My guide explained that a lot of the people whose names were on the wall were uncles or cousins. Fortunately, her parents had escaped before the army arrived and she was born shortly after the massacre took place. They had returned to the village afterwards and she said for 5 years they slept outside on the ground.
The government denied this ever happened until the mass graves were discovered and science proved that all the people had been killed at the same time. To this day, nobody knows exactly how many people died on that day, but it is thought to be in the region of 1100. Out of those who didn't run away before the army arrived, only one woman survived (by playing dead if I understood
who were some of the children killed
correctly) to tell the tale.
This visit was a truly awakening experience, even for someone like me who isn't generally very interested in history. Once again, it was the proximity in time that shook me the most and the fact I was talking to people who had grown up during the war and were still only around my age...
I think the visit was over before 9am, but it had definitely been worth my $5 (donation to help look after the church and maintain the garden). After that, I was heading to Rio Sapo, a river about 45 minutes hike away from El Mozote. After asking for directions many times, I finally got to the bridge and down to the river. It was pretty and a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours relaxing and enjoying the non-war feel of the place. I walked up the river for a while, taking pictures and dipping my feet in the water (despite the hot day, it was a little cold for me to swim). By 10.30am, I had to start returning towards the village to catch the bus that would take me back to Perquín. I got to El Mozote
a little early, so carried on walking along the road, waiting for the bus to catch me up. It was really hot and I was starting to wish I had just sat in the shade and waited when a pick-up full of wood stopped and offered me a ride. I hopped on and joined a couple of other people who were enjoying the free ride. He took me back the few kilometres back to the junction and I was super grateful when he dropped me off.
From there, as it was only early and I needed some cash, I decided to go to San Francisco Gotera, the main town, about an hour away. Within minutes another pick-up (a legit one you had to pay for this time) stopped and picked me up, taking me to the city for $0.70. Once I arrived, I got some dollars and had a look around the market – buying a few bits for my lunch and dinner – but the town itself didn't seem to have much to offer, so soon enough, I was back on another truck taking me back to my hotel.
It was only about 4pm by the time I was
Read this! It is the story of what happened (in English)
back and I felt it was too early to call it a day. I had seen a sign pointing at a path going past the hotel and indicating a 1 hour hike, so I decided this was just what I needed to end the day (despite having walked about 13km already). The views along the path were lovely, overlooking the countryside and I was happy to be able to clear my head and not think about war crimes for a while. Only, I never really got to the end of the hike, as I turned back after an hour, because I had been mainly going down and wasn't sure my legs would be too happy with the way back up after so much walking in one day, but also because I didn't want to get back after dark. On the way back I saw a really big snake (bigger than I had ever seen before – other than in a zoo) but thankfully, it got more scared than I did and went away before I got time to panic!
Back at the hotel, I had another chilled night (not really through choice but more because there was nothing to do)
The list of victiims
and went to bed early, ready for another early start the next day as I was catching my first bus at 6.30am, the start of what I expected to be another long day of travelling that would hopefully take me all the way to León in Nicaragua...
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