Mark Danner Publications: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Truth of El Mozote

Page 6 of 12

Meanwhile, the soldiers sat and gazed at the burning house. Finally, one stood up. "Well, no witches came out," he said. "There are no witches. Let's go see what kind of food they have in that store."

With that, the other men got to their feet, picked up their rifles, and trudged off. A few minutes later, Rufina could hear, from the store of Marcos Díaz, "bottles clinking -- you know, as if they were drinking sodas."

The fire was still burning furiously, but the big crab-apple tree, which some miracle had kept from igniting, shielded Rufina from the heat. Over the crackling of the fire she could still hear, coming from the hill called La Cruz, the screams of the girls. Now and again, she heard a burst of gunfire.

After a time, when the soldiers seemed to have finished drinking their sodas, Rufina heard crying and screaming begin from the house of Alfredo Márquez: the screaming of the children. "They were crying, 'Mommy! Mommy! They're hurting us! Help us! They're cutting us! They're choking us! Help us!'

"Then I heard one of my children crying. My son, Cristino, was crying, 'Mama Rufina, help me! They're killing me! They killed my sister! They're killing me! Help me!' I didn't know what to do. They were killing my children. I knew that if I went back there to help my children I would be cut to pieces. But I couldn't stand to hear it, I couldn't bear it. I was afraid that I would cry out, that I would scream, that I would go crazy. I couldn't stand it, and I prayed to God to help me. I promised God that if He helped me I would tell the world what happened here.

"Then I tied my hair up and tied my skirt between my legs and I crawled on my belly out from behind the tree. There were animals there, cows and a dog, and they saw me, and I was afraid they would make a noise, but God made them stay quiet as I crawled among them. I crawled across the road and under the barbed wire and into the maguey on the other side. I crawled a little farther through the thorns, and I dug a little hole with my hands and put my face in the hole so I could cry without anyone hearing. I could hear the children screaming still, and I lay there with my face against the earth and cried."

Rufina could not see the children; she could only hear their cries as the soldiers waded into them, slashing some with their machetes, crushing the skulls of others with the butts of their rifles. Many others -- the youngest children, most below the age of twelve -- the soldiers herded from the house of Alfredo Márquez across the street to the sacristy, pushing them, crying and screaming, into the dark tiny room. There the soldiers raised their M16s and emptied their magazines into the roomful of children.

Not all the children of El Mozote died at the sacristy. A young man now known as Chepe Mozote told me that when the townspeople were forced to assemble on the plaza that evening he and his little brother had been left behind in their house, on the outskirts of the hamlet, near the school. By the next morning, Chepe had heard plenty of shooting; his mother had not returned. "About six o'clock, around ten soldiers in camouflage uniforms came to the house," Chepe says. "They asked me where my mother was. I told them she had gone to the plaza the night before. I asked them if I could see my mother, and they said I couldn't but I should come with them to the playing field" -- near the school. "They said when we got there they would explain where my mother was."

Carrying his little brother, Chepe went with the soldiers and walked along with them as they searched house to house. "We found maybe fifteen kids," he says, "and then they took us all to the playing field. On the way, I heard shooting and I saw some dead bodies, maybe five old people." When they reached the playing field, "there were maybe thirty children," he says. "The soldiers were putting ropes on the trees. I was seven years old, and I didn't really understand what was happening until I saw one of the soldiers take a kid he had been carrying -- the kid was maybe three years old -- throw him in the air, and stab him with a bayonet.

"They slit some of the kids' throats, and many they hanged from the tree. All of us were crying now, but we were their prisoners -- there was nothing we could do. The soldiers kept telling us, 'You are guerrillas and this is justice. This is justice.' Finally, there were only three of us left. I watched them hang my brother. He was two years old. I could see I was going to be killed soon, and I thought it would be better to die running, so I ran. I slipped through the soldiers and dived into the bushes. They fired into the bushes, but none of their bullets hit me."

Lying amid the maguey that night, Rufina Amaya heard the chorus of screams dwindle to a few voices, and those grew weaker and weaker and finally ceased. She heard the officers order that fire be put to the house of Alfredo Márquez and the church and the sacristy, and from the maguey she saw the flames rise and then she heard faint cries start up again inside the buildings and the short bursts of gunfire finishing off a few wounded, who had been forced by the flames to reveal that they were still alive.

Soon the only sounds were those which trickled down from the hills -- laughter, intermittent screams, a few shots. On La Cruz, soldiers were raping the young girls who were left. On El Chingo and El Pinalito, other soldiers busied themselves making camp. Down in the hamlet, a few troops walked about here and there, patrolling. Not far from the still burning house of Israel Márquez, two soldiers halted suddenly, and one of them pointed to the patch of maguey. He lowered his rifle and fired, and after a moment his companion fired, too. In the patch of brush, the stream of bullets sent a dark-green rain of maguey shreds fluttering to the earth. Then the soldiers charged forward and began poking among the weeds.

"She was right here," one said, pulling at some maguey. "I saw her, I know it."

Up on the hills, the soldiers listened to the shots, exchanged glances, and waited. Then they went on with what they had been doing: watching the flames rise from the burning houses and talking quietly among themselves, telling tales of the day's work.

They spoke wonderingly about the evangelicals, those people whose faith seemed to grant them a strange power.

"They said maybe some of the people believed in God so strongly that they just delivered themselves up, they didn't resist," the guide told me. "They said some of the people were singing even as they were killed."

There was one in particular the soldiers talked about that evening (she is mentioned in the Tutela Legal report as well): a girl on La Cruz whom they had raped many times during the course of the afternoon, and through it all, while the other women of El Mozote had screamed and cried as if they had never had a man, this girl had sung hymns, strange evangelical songs, and she had kept right on singing, too, even after they had done what had to be done, and shot her in the chest. She had lain there on La Cruz with the blood flowing from her chest, and had kept on singing -- a bit weaker than before, but still singing. And the soldiers, stupefied, had watched and pointed. Then they had grown tired of the game and shot her again, and she sang still, and their wonder began to turn to fear -- until finally they had unsheathed their machetes and hacked through her neck, and at last the singing had stopped.

Now the soldiers argued about this. Some declared that the girl's strange power proved that God existed. And that brought them back to the killing of the children. "There were a lot of differences among the soldiers about whether this had been a good thing or whether they shouldn't have done it," the guide told me.

As the soldiers related it now, the guide said, there had been a disagreement outside the schoolhouse, where a number of children were being held. Some of the men had hesitated, saying they didn't want to kill the children, and the others had ridiculed them.

According to one account, a soldier had called the commanding officer. "Hey, Major!" he had shouted. "Someone says he won't kill children!"

"Which son of a bitch says that?" the Major had shouted back angrily, striding over. The Major had not hesitated to do what an officer does in such situations: show leadership. He'd pushed into the group of children, seized a little boy, thrown him in the air, and impaled him as he fell. That had put an end to the discussion.

Now, up on the hills, the soldiers talked and argued and watched the burning houses, while the two men down below still searched among the maguey, cursing at the sharp thorns.

"I know she was here," the first soldier said. "I saw her. She was right here."

"No, no," his companion finally said. "There's no one here. You're just seeing the dead. You're seeing ghosts. The ghosts of the people you killed are frightening you." With that, the soldiers looked at each other, then turned and trotted back to the center of the hamlet. Amid the maguey, Rufina Amaya closed her eyes, remained motionless. After a time, she reached out a hand and began groping about in the weeds, slowly pulling the thorny strips to her, gathering them into a pile and heaping them over her body.

She lay there still when the stars began to disappear from the lightening sky. She heard sounds of movement from the hills, rising voices as the men woke, urinated, ate, prepared their equipment. Shots echoed here and there, interspersed with the barking and howling of dogs and the lowing of cows as the soldiers killed the animals one by one. From up on La Cruz came a burst of high-pitched screaming and begging, followed by a prolonged chorus of gunfire, and, at last, silence. And then the men of the Atlacatl, having completed the operation in El Mozote, moved out.

Hours earlier, when the chill of the night came on, Rufina Amaya had shivered, for the maguey had badly ripped her blouse and skirt. The thorns had torn the flesh of her arms and legs, but at the time she hadn't noticed. Now she could feel the cuts, swelling and throbbing, and the blood, dried and prickly, on her limbs. And as she lay sobbing amid the thorns, listening to the soldiers pass, her breasts ached with the milk that had gathered there to feed her youngest child.

Marching past the church, which was burning still, past the carcasses of cows and dogs, and out of El Mozote, the men of the Atlacatl did not see the dark shape in the maguey patch, the heap of dark-green leaves. Their minds were on their work, which on that Saturday morning in December lay ahead in the hamlet of Los Toriles.

In Los Toriles, "the soldiers pulled people from their houses and hustled them into the square," the guide told me, "and went down the line taking money and anything of value out of people's pockets. Then they just lined the people up against a wall and shot them with machine guns. The people fell like trees falling."

Even so, the killing in Los Toriles took much of the day. Some of the residents, having seen the columns of smoke rising the afternoon before from El Mozote, had fled their homes and hidden in caves above the hamlet. But most had stayed, wanting to protect their homes: they remembered that on a previous operation soldiers had set fire to houses they found empty, claiming that they belonged to guerrillas.

By afternoon, the streets of Los Toriles were filled with corpses. "It was so terrible that we had to jump over the dead so as not to step on them," the guide told me. "There were dogs and cows and other animals, and people of all ages, from newborn to very old. I saw them shoot an old woman, and they had to hold her up to shoot her. I was filled with pity. I wished we had gone out and fought guerrillas, because to see all those dead children filled me with sadness."

As night fell, the soldiers walked through the town setting fire to the houses. It was dark by the time they left Los Toriles, to march south toward the guerrilla stronghold of La Guacamaya. They made camp in open country, rose at dawn, and, as they prepared to move out again, Captain Salazar motioned them over. The men of the Atlacatl gathered in a circle, sitting cross-legged on the ground as he stood and addressed them.

"Señores!" the Captain said angrily. "What we did yesterday, and the day before, this is called war. This is what war is. War is hell. And, goddammit, if I order you to kill your mother, that is just what you're going to do. Now, I don't want to hear that, afterward, while you're out drinking and bullshitting among yourselves, you're whining and complaining about this, about how terrible it was. I don't want to hear that. Because what we did yesterday, what we've been doing on this operation -- this is war, gentlemen. This is what war is." And for perhaps half an hour the Captain went on speaking in his angry voice, and the men shifted uneasily.

"There had been a lot of talk about whether it was right," the guide said, "and this had clearly got back to the Captain." Finally, the tirade over, the men got to their feet. Soon they were marching south again.

Late that afternoon, they reached La Guacamaya. They found nothing there but dead animals; the guerrillas had long since departed. The soldiers spent two nights there, resting and cleaning their equipment. Helicopters landed, bringing Colonel Flores and other top officers, who met with the Atlacatl officers for "evaluation and coördination." The operation was now winding down.

"It was a walk-through by then, a joke," an officer in another unit told me. "The guerrillas were long gone, and everybody knew it."

On the second morning, the men of the Atlacatl marched west, heading for the black road. On their way, they passed the hamlet of La Joya. "Everything was dead there -- animals and people all mixed together," the guide said. "Vultures were everywhere. You couldn't stand to be there, because of the stink."

Above the hamlet, in the caves and ravines and wooded gullies, those who had managed to escape the troops shivered and waited, and tried to keep their children still. Some had left their homes before the soldiers came; others had managed to flee when men from the Atlacatl, on the day some of their comrades were "cleansing" El Mozote, stormed La Joya. "Suddenly, there was shooting and explosions all over," Andrea Márquez, who had been twenty years old at the time, said. "We didn't even see the soldiers at first. There were bullets flying everywhere. I grabbed my little girl -- she was one and a half -- and put her on my back, and we started crawling through the brush with bullets flying and explosions all around." She showed me an ugly scar from a shrapnel wound on her knee. "We crawled and then we ran and ran, and after a while my baby made sounds as if she were thirsty, and I pulled her around and then I saw there was a wound in her head, and I realized I was covered with blood."

No one else was around -- the people had scattered at the soldiers' assault -- and Andrea Márquez was too terrified to go back toward La Joya. Holding her child in her arms, she climbed higher into the mountains, found a cave, and tried to care for her daughter's wound with leaves and with water from a stream. Eight days later, she found a stick and dug a hole and buried her little girl. Then, delirious with grief and shock and terror, she wandered high into the northern mountains.

Months later, the surviving villagers, those few who remained in Morazán, began to murmur fearfully to one another that a witch had come to haunt the mountains -- a savage woman, who could be glimpsed from time to time late at night by moonlight, naked but for her waist-length hair, as she crouched by a stream and stripped the flesh from a wriggling fish with long, sharp fingernails. The villagers were frightened of her, for they knew that it was after the matanza, the great killing of El Mozote, that the witch had come to haunt the mountains.

As the tide of soldiers ebbed from northern Morazán, the guer- rillas flowed back in. "We knew there would be killing, but we never expected what we found," said Licho, who was with one of the first units to return. "It was desolation, total desolation -- not a person alive, not an animal alive, not a house that hadn't been burned. There were bodies in the houses, bodies in the fields, bodies in the wells."

The guerrillas immediately sent reports of the killing to their commanders; but there was a problem. "The comandancia didn't believe us -- they didn't believe the numbers," Licho said. "So we began to count. We sent units all over looking for bodies. A lot of them were not in the houses -- they were lying out in the grass, in the fields, in the woods. We sent three reports up to the comandancia, and finally they sent other people down to the zone, because they still couldn't believe the numbers."

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