Sunday, November 9, 2008

Honoring the Fallen

I'm going to start at the middle of the week on this one.

This picture was taken in El Mozote, El Salvador, the site of what might be the most repugnant atrocity in the history of Latin America since the end of colonial rule.

The woman in the picture was a volunteer guide, the kid is her son. At one point we were watching her son play with his truck. She told me he was now the same age as her sister's son had been when they had been killed together. They were not alone.

December 11, 1981, the US-trained Salvadoran National Army came here and slaughtered roughly 1000 civilians. The army had separated the men, women, and children, but her sister would not let go of her son. She was herded into the wooden church with the rest of the children and locked inside. The Army then set the church on fire. There were no survivors. The women were separated and raped before being killed. The men were tortured and killed. The bullet holes are still in the walls, the bomb craters are still in the ground.

The town of El Mozote today has a simple motto: Nunca Más. It means Never Again. It's a theme I could feel throughout the second half of my time in El Salvador. Anyone about my age or older remembered the war. I visited the revolutionary stronghold of Perquin, not far from El Mozote, where arms, posters, and radio equipment used to bring down an Army helicopter were all on display. In San Salvador, I visited the Museum of the Word and Image, showcasing the FMLN revolutionary radio as well as pictures and poems from the war. Then there was the Center of Monseñor Romero, dedicated to the Archbishop and his fellow Jesuits who died because they dared to speak up for the people. There's a collection of about anything they could find with the blood of these martyrs on it. I was shown a book with photos of their bodies as they were found on the college campus, including two girls who were shot because the army heard them crying in another room and were ordered to leave no witnesses. I was then taken to the room where the girls had been killed. Everything was left the same aside from a change of upholstery.

As one New York native told me after she saw what was there, it's an exhibit the screams "Bear witness to this, bear witness to this, please somebody, for the love of God, bear witness to this. "

But there's more to it than all that. Yes, this was a bloody civil war. Few people know how it happened. The atrocities were terrible, and those that died are due every respect and memory. But, as I learned there there's more to El Salvador than its tragedies. There's more to this country to know than its war.

I happened to be in Suchitoto on November 2nd. In many places, this is All Saints Day. In Mexico, it the Day of the Dead. In El Salvador, it's a bit of a mix. It ends up simply being a day to honor the dead. At the time, I was hanging out with a friend I'd met there who himself was from Portland, but whose Father was from Suchitoto, north of San Salvador. Since the war ended, they've come to visit together just about every year. We took some time to go to the graveyard, navigate the crowds, and stand in silence in front of the grave of my friend's grandfather for a while.

But then we moved on. I spent the next few days with his family, friends from the town, other travelers, all together out exploring, showing that people here are living life more than ever. Everyone I met in El Salvador was friendly, wanted to help out. This family took me and another traveler under their wing, fed us, gave us a place to sleep, brought us to to San Salvador, then to a gorgeous Pacific beach which we practically had all to ourselves, then all the way back again. All the way being generous, friendly, and fun hosts.

They certainly weren't alone. When I got into San Salvador the first time, at least four people went out of their way to help me get to my hostel. One even walked me around for a good half hour or more making sure I got to the door, and then refused any offer of anything in return. The owner of my hotel in Suchitoto threw open his doors, inviting me to use his laundry machine, computer, kitchen, and even to raid his fridge if I wanted to, saying he'd do the dishes. I got back to the place at 1 am on a Sunday after still more locals had taken me out to the local discoteque, and found a crowd of at least 12 more local guys partying in the courtyard and who wanted me to join in.

I think the most impressive image wasn't the hospitality. It was when I was visiting a former battleground in Perquin. It was a hill above the village where the guerrillas used to be camped. On that hill, I didn't find plaques commemorating the blood of the fallen. I found two things. One was on one side, where two boys were laughing and running with kites. The other was on the other side, where a couple, about high school age, were sharing a moment with the view together. From a battleground to that is a sign of healing if I've ever seen one.

So, where does this all leave me? Well, in Nicaragua at the moment. I spent the last few days trekking my way from the border near El Mozote, into Honduras by anything I could find, including many chicken buses, a ride in Tegucigalpa from a couple who wasted no time in asking whether I'd accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, and bed of pickup truck in the rain, sharing my poncho with Salvadorans and Hondurans talking politics. It meant a couple nights in places with no toilet seats and with buckets of cold water instead of showers... then there was the haul today over five buses, the second of which I was told had been canceled, the third that was either and hour early or an hour late, and the fourth which the first two people I asked claimed did not exist, and the fifth spending more than an hour on a road so riddled with potholes that we slowed enough to be passed by a guy on a bicycle. Twice. But that's travel.

And now I'm in a posh hostel in Leon, watching Nicaraguans work their own election day today. Tomorrow I'm getting up early to meet some people from a non-profit I met over dinner so that they can drive me up to a spot the head of the foundation claims is the great metaphor for the country. Intrigued yet?

Check out this entry's Photos


  1. I'd forgotten that you'd switched over to a new blog until just now, and that your old account isn't being updated, so I'm a bit late to your trekking.

    I'm really impressed by the maturity of your voice in this piece in particular, but throughout the blog. Even if I didn't know you, I'd want to read on.

  2. Thank you! And don't let the voice fool you, I'm still the immature annoying little punk you all know and love.