I was back in El Salvador, in Santa Ana, in the west of the country.
I didn’t even intend to come here once. All that I knew was the civil war. I learned this from a paper that I wrote on deforestation in Central America while in university. I suppose then that I also knew there aren’t many trees left.
The war between the military government and the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) wrecked the country for 12 years starting in 1980, included death squads, disappearances, kidnappings, tortures, rapes and assassinations, 75,000 dead, cowardice, cover-ups, mass graves, child soldiers, other kids fled to the US where they grew up to become Maras, deported back, impoverished and divided, they metastasised into this great plague spreading through the region, rumoured vigilante death squads clipping gangsters today, almost the highest murder rate in the world, this tiny country already trapped in another kind of war.
The only country in the world to have adopted the name of the saviour, then where the hell is He?
I saw something more real than god on my last visit. We’d gone to Perquin, a tiny mountain town in the eastern department of Morazán, close with the Honduran border. It’s one of those towns that makes you wonder what the hell the young people do. There is nothing there.
During the war Morazán was a red-zone of rebel activity.
The next morning on our way back to San Salvador, we turned off the black road onto a dirt track toward El Mozote, a tiny village that suffered the worst atrocity of the war.
Stood in front of the memorial looking at the names of entire families wiped out and I could hear children singing hymns through the open door of the small church next to me. The church was built in 1992 when the peace accords were signed. Everything was peaceful except for the singing. There was much shade around the memorial, and the sun shot through the trees dappling the dirt that had once been bloodslaked.
On December 10th 1981, the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran army entered El Mozote and pulled people from their homes and lay them down in the dust and kicked them and screamed at them then after an interminable wait for those families with their faces pressed in the earth, the soldiers ordered them back to their houses. They were not permitted to leave their homes overnight, to have light or to eat or take their children outside to clean them.
The next morning, the people of El Mozote were once again pulled from their homes and reassembled in the town plaza. Men were gathered in the small whitewashed church and women and children were crowded into a house directly opposite the church. The soldiers led groups of men from the church, blindfolded and bound, and the soldiers bludgeoned, decapitated, shot, stabbed, and they took girls, some as young as ten, into the hills where they were gang-raped and murdered, and children hung from trees with their throats cut, or like puppets on the bayonets on which they’d been caught out of the air, and the soldiers killed cows, dogs, pigs, and for a long time everywhere there was crying and screaming until at last everything was dead, animals and people all mixed together, and the killing ground was soaked with blood.
More than a thousand people had been slaughtered. They say that the night after the massacre thousands of fireflies filled El Mozote making it as though it was daylight. It was said at the time that they were the souls of all those who had suffered and died.
There is a story that during one of the first exhumations of El Mozote after the war, a Chilean anthropologist was disentangling bits of ruined fabric and she picked up a tiny pair of shorts and out of the pocket fell the head of a toy horse, and she picked it up, and turning the toy piece in her hands she cursed the motherfuckers that did it.
In this toilet world where this kind of thing happens all of the time, when you find something good you should hold it close, right?
I had something good and I left so I came back to be with her because I knew that if I didn’t come back now I never would and I’d lose her forever.
So now I was in her house. I’d left my stuff there until I could get a lift to the hostel. We’d gone into town and come back. I was sat outside in the patio when her uncle invited me into the bar with his old army friends. The mustard yellow walls displaying much military history, portraits of her dad and her uncle in dress uniform, a sword mounted on the wall above a small mantel, plaques, awards, commendations, dog tags, photographs with generals, class photos, photos in the field, a bronze figure with his arms outstretched in the air like he’s dancing the YMCA, all of it echoing a glorious past. I took a beer and listened to them talk. They didn’t talk to me. I was nervous.
Those soldiers that made up the Atlacatl had been trained by the US at the US School of the Americas (the US backing the repression in a proxy Cold War because if El Salvador fell all of Central America would be Left and that of course would mean the end of the civilised world). It was basically the only trained unit in the army. The day following El Mozote, the battalion marched off to massacre the village of Los Toriles.
In 1993, a UN Truth Commission linked the battalion to further massacres, and attributed at least 85% of the atrocities committed to members of the military dictatorship and their sponsored death squads. The same year an ‘Amnesty Law’ was passed by ultra-right legislators, outlawing the prosecution of human rights violations during the war, thereby protecting the army (and the guerrillas). This means that those soldiers that participated in the killings have never had to account for their crimes. Today they are living free and quiet lives.
Amongst the old record player and military history, small items, dusty glasses, half a dozen ashtrays, Christmas decorations, empty bottles and cigarette smoke and silver hip flasks, I sat listening. They laughed. Her uncle left the room and returned carrying his old army jacket. After a while they started talking to me a little. We talked about football, the great equaliser. A litre of vodka appeared. Her ex-boyfriend joined us. We talked. Her mum and grandmother entered the room, sat down.
I was getting tired. I have to listen so hard, you see, to decipher the Spanish, it’s weary, I tune out sometimes. Behind me was a small room that once belonged to woman, unable to tolerate her husband’s infidelity any longer she hung herself from a tree that once stood outside it. The ex-boyfriend was singing karaoke. There was the army jacket crumpled on the chair. I laid my eyes across the patch on the shoulder. The patch said Atlacatl.
We were drinking coffee with some of her friends. I asked where her uncle got his nickname.
In the army.
Which side did he fight for?, one of them asked
She looked as if she didn’t want to say
He was militar, the government.
Her friend pulled a face.
He doesn’t talk much about it. I don’t like to ask him about that time. He says it’s not true they’d kill the animals.
How the hell am I supposed to feel? All the signs, they don’t look good, yet it could all mean nothing, I’m pretty sure it does mean something. I knew the family had a military history but I never thought too much about what this meant. I have since noticed the emblem engraved on the sword above the mantel, the ‘A’ crossed with a lightning bolt and pierced by an arrow; I have noticed the Atlacatl jungle hat hanging in the corner, the US flag in the background of the military portraits.
It’s difficult to act as if nothing at all mattered, terrible things have happened that can never be put right, but I want to judge him on what I know, this man that invited me into his home, insisted I call him uncle, allowed me to spend Christmas and new year with his family, put me up in his house.
I don’t believe he is a bad person. How can I say this? It’s because it’s all shit and I don’t know anything for sure and I can’t equate the vision of a mass murderer with the man I know. But really this has nothing to do with morals, with right or wrong; it’s something else, something very ugly. There is a covering over what happened at El Mozote (and other sites), an evil, climbing all over it.
The Atlacatl Battalion was disbanded under the terms of the 1992 Peace Accords which included the dissolution of all rapid deployment forces (death squads). He wore the jacket on the way out to the airport with me. I don’t suppose it requires hiding. It is accepted or ignored, like the war. Hardly anybody talks about the war anymore, it’s a malaise largely untreated and veterans are left to deal privately with the legacy of wartime violence.
There is one feeling I get, something about him that fights through all other feelings, and that is an intensity, almost uncomfortable, burning like hot coals, all certainty dim and shapeless in the murk of the past.