Saturday, 9 July 2011


THE WAR MUSEUM at Perquin is an interesting collection of propaganda posters, decommissioned weapons, radio sets, witness transcripts and photographs. It's about as well-curated as you'd expect from a remote north-eastern village in El Salvador, but worth an hour. Nearby, an ex-guerilla has made a replica camp complete with tunnels, radio station and weapons. We had a quick look around and agreed to head to El Mozote a few miles away. Nothing happens in Perquin.

On December 11th 1981, the CIA-trained Atlacatl Battalion surrounded the tiny village of El Mozote, after a sustained bombing raid which left 20'-wide craters over a wide area. The locals, at the centre of the guerilla stronghold of Morazán, had nowhere to run. The government troops were about to send a stark message to the rebels, and the people suspected of supporting them. Men and youths were separated from the women and children, the latter taken away to the churchyard. The women were held in two houses a few hundred yards from the plaza. They could only listen to the gunshots as their menfolk were lined up against walls and killed by firing squad. Over the next three days, the women would be systematically and repeatedly raped by the soldiers. This incleded pre-teenage girls. They were then killed, but not before they suffered the anguish at the sound of their children being butchered in the churchyard. Over 700 people were murdered in this operation, 150 of them children.

A pall hangs over this town, as if it cursed. A strange atmosphere pervades the air...I felt it as we pulled into town. It feels like the people are waiting for something, but I don't know what. All eyes were on us as we crossed to a small hut to ask about guides. You could walk around the town without one, but you can't begrudge the inhabitants a few dollars for spending an hour telling the town's harrowing story.

Our guide spoke only Spanish. George's listening skills are better than mine, whereas I speak we understood most of what she told us. Occasionally I wished we didn't. She began by showing us the memorials; telling us the story of the sole woman who survived to tell the tale, forced to hide as she listened to the massacre of the innocents. I can't begin to imagine the horror she felt. The names of the dead line the wall of the church, countless of them just 1 and 2 years old. How can you murder babies? I asked if the soldiers had been brought to justice, she told me not. Many of them were only youths themselves, high on drink and drugs during the slaughter. Much in the same way camp guards at German concentration camps were almost permanently drunk to deal with the tasks they were asked to perform, and American GIs were high during the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. The commander of the battalion was later killed when shot down in his helicopter over Perquin. The wreckage lies in the museum.

The derelict houses have not been demolished, and stand as permanent reminders. She showed us walls full of bulletholes where the men died; the house where the rapes took place; the churchyard ground where infants were put to death, many of them dismembered. Holes from heavy-calibre shells riddled the walls of other houses where fighter planes had strafed the town before the ground attack. Our guide had lost family. She was a year old at the time of the massacre, but her father had taken the family away to the coffee-growing regions for work. Her young cousins had not been so lucky. 12 of her family died in all.

You feel guilty being here, somehow complicit. Over the years, the US and British governments have interfered with the economies and politics of various countries. All in the interests of our multinational companies and their profits. No thought for the people who die in the process. A million died when Britain covertly backed a right-wing coup in Indonesia in the 60s. The consequences of America's involvement in Iraq are steadily coming to light, but the men responsible are not punished. A million people have died in Iraq in our name. For oil and control. Here in the Americas, there are millions more whose blood stains Western hands. No matter who is doing the killing, the trail always seems to lead back to our governments. And it's the innocents who suffer. In World War I, an estimated 10% of the total deaths were civillian. In WW2 it was 50%. In Vietnam 70%. In Iraq it is estimated that that 90% of the dead so far are non-combatants. And we at home are fed the same lies, and excuses when the truth is revealed. It sickens me.

We thanked our guide for her time, and saddled up. I headed out of El Mozote feeling quite gloomy, and deep in thought. It took 20 years before the people returned to this town. Maybe it would have been better to let the ghosts keep it, and start again elsewhere? But the Salvadoreans are proudly defiant people, and these returned to claim their ground, depsite the horrific atrocities carried out on it by their fellow countrymen.

My mood lightened as we headed back out onto the country road. On the way in, a small terrier had run into the road outside his house and attacked he'd gone for our ankles, I'd lifted my foot up. It hit George's elbow and he, thinking it was the dog jumping at him, hit the gas. I flew back, pivoting on my coccyx and screaming at him to slow down. I could feel myself on the verge of falling off the bike backwards onto the stones, to be ravaged by the hound. Regaining my balance with relief, I told George to take it was only my foot. We were clear. Approaching the edge of town, I could see the dog standing sentinel at the end of his driveway, waiting for us. Little bugger likely knew it was one road in, one road out. "Ready?" shouted George. I slapped him on the shoulder in the affirmative. On came the dog, growling and yapping as he tried to bite us. The pair of us lashed out with our feet as George tried to keep the bike upright. I love dogs, but was quite happy to give this one a shoe-ing. He kept at it until George caught him good and proper under the chin with his heavy biker boots...the dog was launched to the grass verge, rolled twice and gave up the chase. I turned and laughed as he sat on his haunches and barked for all he was worth, furious. You have to admire his balls. He probably does on a daily basis.

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