El Mozote was a ghost town. When people began returning in 1992, at the end of El Salvador’s civil war, skeletons and land mines protruded from the soil. Weeds enshrouded ruins. The church was rubble, the fields fallow, and the school caved in by a bomb. The village’s social fabric lay in shreds as surely as its leaders lay in shallow graves. Over the course of three days in December 1981, Salvadoran Army soldiers trained and armed by the United States had machine-gunned, machete-slashed, bayoneted, and burned to death more than 1,000 civilians in El Mozote and six surrounding villages as part of a scorched-earth strategy to root out leftist guerrillas. The survivors had spent a decade in caves and refugee camps, and now they were coming back.
Rosario and her four surviving siblings gathered in La Joya—a village down the mountain from El Mozote—to divide up their dead parents’ land. Soldiers had massacred their mother, two of their sisters, and 20 other relatives. The meeting was tense and inconclusive, and a few years later, Rosario and her sister Francisca fought over a tiny piece of hilltop property. (Francisca requested that I not use her real name in this article.) Rosario volunteered in the Catholic Church, while Francisca had become evangelical. Rosario’s son had died fighting for the rebels, while Francisca’s brother-in-law had served in the military. Each blamed the other for not being able to save their mother. As the years went by, they became known as the rival sisters who lived within shouting distance but rarely spoke.
Rosario and Francisca are “the rule, not the exception,” among victims of human-rights abuses during El Salvador’s civil war, says Spanish psychologist Sol Yañez, who teaches at Central American University, a Jesuit school in the capital city of San Salvador. In 2006, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accepted a decades-old petition from Tutela Legal, the human-rights office of the Catholic Church, against the Salvadoran government for committing, covering up, and failing to investigate the El Mozote massacre. Yañez was asked to serve as an expert witness. Over the course of 12 months, going door-to-door in the mountains, she interviewed 211 people—survivors and relatives of those killed—and led over a dozen group sessions and two community assemblies. Yañez has doe-like eyes, wears overalls and sensible shoes, and is quick to offer a shoulder to cry on. People in El Mozote opened their doors and offered her coffee, but many were too afraid to talk. Getting people to the group sessions was nearly impossible. Yañez had never seen a community so divided.
In April 2012, Yañez accompanied Rosario and two other women who’d survived the massacre to the Inter-American Court in Ecuador. It was their first time on an airplane. Rosario, who is barely five feet tall, wore a blouse and a flowered skirt, her gray hair in a braid down her back. She stared straight ahead as she told the judges how she, her husband, and their three young children fled to a cave above La Joya when they heard gunfire, and how they hid in the ravine for six years, surviving on sugarcane and turtles. When she finished speaking, a judge asked why she’d chosen to endure such hardship rather than descend the mountain to a nearby town. Rosario’s voice shook as she answered. “We were afraid that they’d kill us like they killed the rest of my family,” she said. On the way back to El Salvador, airport-security officers pulled a knife out of Rosario’s carry-on. “How else am I going to protect myself?” she said.