Touring the Trenches - "War Tourism" in El Salvador

Huw Hennessy discovers hope amid the harrowing surroundings of the El Mozote massacre site.

Ivan and Alejandra in front of El Mozote’s Remembrance Wall memorial by Huw Hennessy

Ivan, a sombre, wiry man in his mid fifties, opened his shirt to reveal a small but deep scar on the right side of his chest. A bullet is still lodged in his body, so he cannot do any heavy physical work that might shift it towards his heart. He was shot fighting for the rebels during the civil war that tore his country apart in the 1980s. More than one hundred thousand El Salvadoreans died in the battles between successive rightwing regimes and the leftist FMLN rebels; Ivan’s father and all three of his brothers were among the victims. An estimated half a million fled into exile, a huge number, particularly considering the total population is only about six and half million.

I met Ivan - the wartime code name he has adopted – during a visit to Perquín, a small town nestled in the pine-clad mountains of northeastern El Salvador. Few tourists make it here to Morazán, the poorest region in the country, though it has great potential for hiking through its beautiful forests, dotted with crystalline lakes and waterfalls. Its unique but grisly attraction, however, is El Mozote, a little village outside Perquín. Here, one day in December 1981, more than a thousand people were killed in the worst atrocity of the conflict.

souvenirs for sale at the Museo Rufina Amayo, civil war museum in Perquín by Huw Hennessy

Ivan now works as a guide and, although he also takes visitors to local beauty spots, he is most in demand for tours of the massacre site. Like many of his friends who lived through the war, Ivan is very reserved in the way he describes the El Mozote killings. The notorious, US-trained Atlacatl army batallion rounded up all the men, women, and children, and massacred everyone in cold blood. Some were shot in the village square; babies were flung in the air and impaled on bayonets. Other victims were herded into buildings, which were then torched to the ground. The Atlacatl batallion was disbanded in 1992, following the Peace Accord.

The United Nations’ Truth Commission subsequently found widespread human rights abuses by serving military leaders, but the new civilian government declared a general amnesty for all related crimes committed during the civil war. To date, no one has been held responsible for the attack, although efforts have been made in recent years to bring the case before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, based in Washington DC.

Tours of El Mozote today focus on the church and an adjacent monument. A simple iron silhouetted sculpture of a man, woman and two children stands in front of a Wall of Remembrance, listing the victims’ names. On one side of the tiny church a children’s memorial garden has been planted, with statues among the rose bushes and mosaics on the exterior walls. Images of children’s toys, butterflies and balloons form heart-rending tributes to the innocent lives lost. Alejandra, a volunteer guide from the local women’s cooperative, guides visitors around the churchyard and an adjacent craftshop.

Although El Mozote is still quiet even by this isolated region’s standards, Alejandra says that it is slowly returning to life again, with a school, clinic, and new homes being built. Many international NGOs target the region too; during my visit a group of paediatricians from New York ran a mobile surgery in El Mozote, handing out free toothbrushes and vitamin tablets to long queues of villagers.

the children’s memorial garden in El Mozote by Huw Hennessy

Perquín has several comfortable hotels and restaurants, as well as a museum devoted to the civil war: the Museo Rufina Amaya, named after the only survivor, Rufina Amaya, who was only a young girl at the time, and who died a few years ago. In one room is a mock-up of Radio Venceremos, the rebel radio station that broadcast from nearby caves, which can also be visited. The museum’s prize exhibit though is the tangled wreckage of an Air Force helicopter, which was shot down in 1984, killing Lt-Col Domingo Monterrosa, alleged leader of the El Mozote massacre.

Ivan, who is married with three sons, says he wants to publish his memoirs of the war years. Like many of those who suffered the loss of loved ones, he hopes this will help him come to terms with the past. He will never forget, but by sharing his experiences with others it may heal the scars.

Tour information
PerkinTours runs the tourist office in Perquín; it also runs tours of the region, including to El Mozote, as well as local wildlife and adventure packages. Many of its guides and employees are former civil war combatants, including Ivan. For more details, contact: PERKINTOURS. tel. 503 268-04086; email. tours@rutadepazelsaldor.com / perkintours@yahoo.es

Other regions of El Salvador also offer civil war tours. Day trips are available from Suchitoto, another power base of the left-wing insurgents, including a horseback ride up nearby Guazapa Volcano to guerrilla encampments. Under the scrubby trees, the remains of the guerrilla camp are still visible: shallow trenches, now mostly collapsed and lined with leaves, originally comprised a field “hospital”, comedor, latrines, and L-shaped defensive trenches; fox-holes in natural caves, gun emplacements and un-named graves marked with crude wooden crosses. For more information, contact Suchitoto Adventure Outfitters, tel. 503 2335-1429, email: vistacongasuchi@yahoo.com.


Huw Hennessy is a travel journalist and author of several travel guides.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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