Five years after a massacre, a Salvadoran town still battles for survival against US-backed military forces. A 1981 massacre devastated the small village of La Joya in El Salvador. Five years later, reporters find La Joya’s residents are still being targeted by the army.
La Joya is a place that does not officially exist. It is a hamlet in the rebel-controlled zone of northern Morazan province, El Salvador. About 200 people live there, amid a patchwork of dying cornfields, mescal cactus and the remains of several strafed and bombed farmhouses. They are survivors of a massacre. On December 11, 1981, the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion entered the village of Mozote and some nearby hamlets, killing more than 1,000 people. The survivors fled into the forest.
Five years later they are still in hiding, haunted by the past, pursued by fears both real and imagined. They are convinced that their relatives’ killers are hunting them down to make sure they will never tell the world what happened in Mozote. As proof the army wants them dead, they say they are subjected to constant aerial attacks. The story of the lost people of La Joya is the most dramatic example of the effects of the war on the civilian population of Morazan province. The Salvadoran government considers northern Morazan to be a zone controlled by leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. The government maintains that the few civilians left in the area are all F.M.L.N. supporters.
Recently we spent a week traveling in Morazan, talking to the people who live there. Based on what we observed, the government view is incorrect. Indeed, as a result of the general shift in the course of the six-year war, the civilian population, which had practically abandoned the area, is returning. At the same time, the guerrillas have withdrawn some of their forces and no longer claim northern Morazan as a liberated zone. In a shaded hollow at the base of the mountains between El Salvador and Honduras, where the river called Quebrada El Mozote levels out, eight of La Joya’s families live in the open air. They left their homes after the most recent bombing, on Christmas Day last year. We spoke with 27-year-old Albina del Cid, mother of seven, as she sat in a hammock strung between two trees on the river bank. She had lived there since October, she said, after the planes scored a direct hit on her house. Before that, raiding troops had burned it down several times, but she had always managed to rebuild it.
La Joya itself–what is left of it–is a forty-minute walk from the river, halfway up a bomb-scorched hill. The only sign of habitation is the wattle and daub hut that serves as the community store. The men gather there to loaf and talk, sitting on the two long wooden benches outside. An open bit of meadow under a towering tree serves as the village’s plaza. After we arrived, the people still in La Joya met and chose a dozen of their members to tell us the town’s story. It was the first time in five years that any of them had dared speak of the past massacre of El Mozote and the present persecution.