Say it like you mean it

Memoria de mis putas tristesThe Glass Castle

Book: The Massacre at El Mozote, Mark Danner
Start Date: 01/11/06
End Date: 9/1/06

After my father and I saw “Hotel Rwanda” last year he said to me, “These movies, they sometimes exaggerate the details to make the story more compelling.”

“What parts do you think they exaggerated?” I asked.

“I can’t believe that people would target children,” he said.

I looked out the car window and puzzled over this statement for a brief second or two.

“But they do,” I said quietly.

“No. Maybe as collateral damage,” he said. “A stray bullet but not deliberately taking a machete and killing them,” he said. I watched him as he drove, quietly realizing that in his mind, in his world, men who purposefully hurt children don’t exist.

“Didn’t you read the things that were done in El Salvador during the war? Whole families were massacred. Not soldiers or guerillas. Just families, living their lives.”

He only nodded.

I decided to leave that conversation thread alone. Who am I to try and shatter his vision of the world?

It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that my father and I don’t share the same experiences of the war in El Salvador. He left El Salvador in 1974; the quiet murmurs of unrest had begun by then but they wouldn’t reach a fever pitch until the mid ‘80s. By then my mother, brother and I had joined my father in the States.

He didn’t have to experience going blocks out of his way in order to avoid heavily secured areas. He wasn’t there to hear planes flying overhead and bombs dropping miles away. I remember having to sleep in a different room every night because my mother couldn’t decide which bedroom was safer: the front bedroom in case we needed to make a fast escape or the back bedroom in case fighting broke out and bullets ripped into the front of the house? I remember a friend running out into the street demanding a gun so that he could hunt down his father’s killers. The boy was only 11. I remember family and neighbors crying for dead sons, missing daughters; parents fearing their children would be made to take up a gun and pick a side.

But those things were just the tip of the iceberg. Back then I had no idea what was really going on, the fighting was still new and mostly relagated to the countryside. By the time things got really bad in the major cities, we’d left the country. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned of the atrocities that were carried out in the name of justice, the pure evil that men are capable of in time of unrest. The stories shame, anger and sadden me.

“The Massacre at el Mozote” is just the kind of book that I would never recommend to my father. In December 1981 soldiers entered the small village of El Mozote and murdered hundreds of men, women and children. These people were not guerillas, they were not soldiers. They were civilians just trying to make it day by day, but the military’s original plan of surrounding the guerillas at El Mozote failed so they developed plan B—to burn everything and everyone down in order to eradicate insurgency at its roots. Though the major military officials kept telling the soldiers that what they’d done was “just war” and that they were carrying justice out, a great deal of work went into keeping the truth from the public, at home and worldwide. The United States government, who at the time was heavily funding the Salvadoran government and military, dismissed any true accounts of what happened at El Mozote as leftist propaganda.

Danner’s recounting of what went on is hard to ignore. He’s meticously researched the events and included many of the actual sources. As I stumble through the chapter were he describes how dozens and dozens of children were brutally killed, I ask myself why I’m reading this. Then I remember a conversation my mother and I had a few days ago. She told me that a man she’d recently met asked her why Salvadorans are so rude and unwelcoming and why the country was so poor and run down and why we’d behaved the way we did during the war. She was incensed. Her exact response escapes me at the moment but the gist is that she denied that any atrocities had happened during the war.

I shook my head. “I can understand being annoyed by this man,” I said. “God only knows who’s pissed him off and he’s using that to make ridiculous generalizations, but putting that aside, you cannot deny that we did horrible things to our own people, that soldiers killed and tortured children, that the government betrayed its people. It may be hard to admit, especially to some idiot intent on being insulting, but it happened. There’s no wishing that away.”

She remembers quite well the things that went on, but she would rather pretend to not know what I’m talking about, to hide that ugly time in history under the rug, to push it as far away from consciousness as possible. I think that’s why I force myself through books such as this one; because someone has to remember, someone has to talk about it, difficult as it is. Someone has to remember so that the deaths of all those innocent men, women and children weren’t in vain.

Posted on 02/08 at 04:21 AM


I don’t know what to say really except thank you so much for the link to the book and your post. It’s horrifying to read about things like this but we should know what has happened. Paz y amor amiga!

Posted by iliana  on  02/08  at  10:58 AM

Sounds like it is a sad book—if only because the content is true.

Denial is a safe-guard against feeling things we don’t want to feel—or feeling things that are too strong for us to feel.  If we think we cannot handle it, we will not acknowledge it.

Horrible acts are committed every day.  If we thought of them constantly, we would not be able to live as we do.

Posted by Anne  on  02/08  at  11:05 AM

This I am very well aware of. Believe me, denial and I are on very close terms. Still though, fond as I am to push as much as I can to the back of my mind there are times when we have to acknowledge the ugliness. But I do feel a bit like a hypocrite saying that because there are parts of this book that are so horrifying to me that I find the only way to get through them is to not allow myself to dwell on the visuals forming in my head.

Posted by Patricia  on  02/08  at  07:26 PM

Thank you for this post and this reminder.

Posted by anna  on  02/09  at  03:19 PM

forgetting is sometimes a very important process of bearing witness to memory.  i guess i mean “forgetting,” the kind that pushes memory aside and to the bottom of a well.  memory has a voice.  and even from the bottom of a well, the sound rises.  some people are here on earth as witnesses during the “forgetting” times.  maybe you are one of those people?

this was a poignant and very insightful post, pea.  and i’m glad you’re reading that - i don’t know if i would be that strong.

Posted by romy  on  02/09  at  10:04 PM

The duty to bear witness is a noble one.  A duty I often fail to undertake.  I have never been able to bring myself to watch “Schindler’s List” for example. Some things are just too damn haunting for me.  Strength is inspiring.  So’s you.  And this post.  Thanks, Pea.

Posted by sawni  on  02/10  at  04:53 PM

I haven’t read the book BUT I watched the film Hotel Rwanda with horror!  To be totally honest I wont be reading the book anytime soon but these things do need to be shouted about loudly as it can’t be allowed to continue.

Posted by Jo  on  02/12  at  01:26 AM

The refusal to remember or the outright denial of atrocities, be they events in the Congo, Rhuwanda, Nicaraqua, El Salvador or Germany, Poland or Abu Ghraib Prison infuriates me no end.

While the perpetrators are despicable, the deniers are equally complicit, in my estimation.

Thanks for a great entry.

Posted by wil  on  02/19  at  05:16 PM

The attrocities that a few did to the many,
1,000,000 in 91 days, is terrible, and not acceptable.  My deepest sympathy, and sorrow, to the families, who lost their loved ones. i would like to see the u.s. become more involved in preventing these attrocities, from ever happening again in this world.  Every human being has the right to live,  pursue their happiness, freedom of choice, religion and have peace of mind among each other. 
Lets make a difference, and start
caring about what happens around us
in this world. 
Robert Fife

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/11  at  04:47 PM

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