"You are now entering the village of El Mozote." Harold Recinos, a community advocate from Washington, D.C., led a band of U.S. seminarians and clergy on a three-mile pilgrimage this spring that precisely followed the route of the Salvadoran military's Atlacatl Battalion some 15 years ago.
In December 1981, the U.S.-trained and funded Atlacatl entered El Mozote and massacred a village of evangelical Christians. The group of pastors and students that entered the village this spring was met by dozens of small children who spontaneously surrounded themreaching out in a mysterious depth of hospitality that was especially poignant in light of their town's past.
In some ways El Mozote, crucified by war but with a tenacious will to survive, symbolizes the nation of El Salvador after four years of so-called peace. In January 1992, the government of President Alfredo Cristiani and the commanders of the FMLN, the umbrella guerrilla group that waged civil war against the U.S.-backed government throughout the 1980s, gathered in Mexico City and signed an agreement to end the 12-year-old war that left more than 75,000 Salvadorans dead.
Among other things, the 1992 peace accords provided that the army be purged of "known human rights violators" and be reduced by half; that the guerrillas disarm and some of their number join a new civilian police force; and that the Atlacatl and other rapid-reaction battalions be disbanded. The agreement also provided for a Truth Commission that would investigate "serious acts of violence" since 1980.
Within the framework of internationally observed elections in 1994, the FMLN became a legal political party and the second-largest force in the new Salvadoran parliament. However, the 1994 elections also clouded El Salvador's future with the victory of the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA), a party with ties to the death squads implicated in the murder of so many human rights workers and reform-minded clergy, including Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Many Salvadorans are concerned that the 1992 peace accords are stagnating. For example, Alicia Garcia, a partner in Comadres (the Mothers of the Disappeared), described her son's murder by right-wing elements of the Salvadoran police because he testified before the Truth Commission, and she spoke of continued harassment and attacks on Comadres' offices. "The new national police force is dominated by members of the old guard," Garcia said. "We continue to lose mothers in political assassinations and car bombings. I am convinced that the new order cannot effect deep positive change."
Chief Adrian Lisco, a spiritual leader of the indigenous people of El Salvador, pointed to the bombed home of his son, destruction that happened just days before the religious delegation's visit. "You and other international observers are our only antenna to the outside world," said Lisco.
Where is the hope in El Salvador? It does not merely lie in structural, practical political change such as elections, transformed public policy, or even pressure for human rights from the international community.
New national elections will be held in 1998. Luis Gonzales, an official with the human rights institute at the University of Central America, said that U.N. observers are returning to El Salvador because of documented abuses in the new military and national police. Such events are important and have the potential to bring healing.
But the real hope for El Salvador's resurrection lies in the heart and spirit of the Salvadoran people, especially the children. A member of the U.S. delegation asked Garcia, "How have you experienced God's presence?" She described a vision of her son, Juan Carlos, appearing at her bedside after his death, when she was undergoing serious surgery and her life was in danger.
"The men who killed my sonnot even they nor death could separate us," Garcia said. "It is only thanks to God that I'm still here. I'm still here, alive, and fighting for my people despite beatings, torture, the murder of my family, and illness. This is enough for me to know that God is true and real."
At El Mozote there is a simple, wooden memorial to those who were killed in 1981. Like the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., the El Mozote memorial contains the name of each martyr killed there 15 years ago. The memorial reads, "They did not die, they are with us, with you, and with all humanity."
Through the children of El Mozote, yesterday and today, we can know that God is not dead, but ever with all Salvadorans, with each one of us, and with all humanity.