Victims of human rights violations are often robbed of the opportunity to define their own narrative. For the survivors of the 1981 massacre of El Mozote and surrounding areas in Morazán, El Salvador, this reality has thwarted efforts for truth and justice for over three decades, as long-standing government impunity, systematic neutralization of political opposition, and a culture of fear have silenced the voices of victims. Despite these circumstances, individuals continue fighting for accountability of the atrocity in which at least 978 people, a majority of them children under the age of 12, were killed at the hands of the Salvadoran Armed Forces. Moreover, victims are exercising inspiring agency: they fight to heal, build solidarity, and to denounce the narrative of the oppressors that has sought to institutionalize impunity and invalidate their lived experiences.
“Si lo siguen borrando, vamos a escribir y hablar.”
“If they keep covering it up, we will continue writing and speaking.”
In May of 2018, myself and a small team from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights traveled to Northeastern Morazán to meet with massacre survivors and their family members from El Mozote, La Joya, Cerro Pando, and other impacted communities. In a series of psychosocial workshops, our team presented a selection of declassified US government documents from the Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Department of State, which we believe help to illuminate key details, actors, and motives of the US-backed Salvadoran military’s “scorched earth” operations that targeted civilian populations in Morazán during the Salvadoran civil war. Our goal was to not only to share our access to potentially empowering information, but also to facilitate an active dialogue with survivors in which they could react to the documents, counter the claims of military officials, and provide their own accounts of the truth.
As an undergraduate researcher in the international human rights field, it is rare to receive the opportunity to have first-hand interactions of this nature. Perhaps as a consequence, it can be easy to separate oneself from victims during the investigation process, as geographical and historical distance often make it challenging to contextualize the experiences of victims in one’s own life. As a result of these factors, I found it difficult to anticipate how the various communities impacted by the massacres of El Mozote and surrounding areas would react to the cold, mechanical discourse of unfamiliar documents in which powerful government officials recount their version of military planning and operations to eliminate “insurgents”.
While some of the initial reactions of victims such as the sudden evocation of strong emotions and painful memories were unsurprising, several responses stood out to me as particularly harrowing and powerful: the victims’ lack of hesitation to denounce lies and exemptions, to provide their experiences of profound loss as a counter to the narratives of perpetrators (that described massacres as armed confrontations), to analyze and speculate about the motives of the US and Salvadoran government to hide the truth, and to connect the massacres with contemporary violence and government impunity in El Salvador.
Overall, victims expressed feelings of empowerment upon learning this information, and demonstrated an overwhelming desire to set the record straight and continue discovering the truth. As I listened to victims bravely recount their harrowing stories of the execution, violation, and forced disappearance of their family members, the burning of their homes, and the fear, anger, and despair that burdens them more than 30 years later, I found myself emotionally moved and inspired by the endurance and determination of the massacre survivors to carry on with their lives.
However, many participants also illustrated disturbing realities that I had underestimated or overlooked, such as the degree to which fear has been institutionalized as a strategy of civilian repression, both on a domestic and international scale; for example, a woman expressed fear that if she discussed the events that occurred in December of 1981 with our research team, her family in the United States may face deportation to El Salvador.
It was also illuminating to hear victims connect the injustice surrounding the massacres to what they described as a “new war” in El Salvador: many victims who lost entire generations of their families to the massacres are now witnessing their own children fall victim to violence and forced disappearances. From their perspective, the silence and impunity that have followed the civil war are largely to blame, as they have distorted the historical record and have thus prevented that nation from rebuilding, reducing violence, and addressing human rights violations in general.
Perpetrators of crimes against humanity often use their power to dominate the historical narrative. As demonstrated by the case of the massacres of El Mozote and surrounding communities in El Salvador, powerful domestic and international actors go to great lengths to prevent reconciliation and reparation, to institutionalize impunity, and to instill fear into victims. However, despite these efforts to silence the voices of survivors and impede their rights to learn the truth, seek justice, and heal, victims of human rights violations exercise agency. They seek access to information, work to rebuild their lives, form relationships with other survivors, and define their own historical narratives. The creation of safe dialogue spaces and access to information are fundamental to this process.
“Esto es una realidad lo que pasó.
Aquí no hay un engaño con la gente que sufrió en la masacre,
Vivieron lo que sucedió.”
“What happened here is real.
No one who suffered in the massacre is making it up,
They lived it.”
While institutional barriers prevent Salvadorans, and human rights victims in general, from gaining access to official information relevant to their lived experiences, the creative use of laws such as the Freedom of Information Act can help to establish a threshold of accountability, fulfill victims’ right to the truth, and educate future generations. Although providing information and dialogue spaces may seem insignificant in the broader context of international justice and accountability, these efforts are ultimately crucial to providing survivors the opportunity to correct the historical record and to support them in their tireless pursuit for truth and justice.