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I rolled them back and forth in my dusty palm, two sun-bleached shards of bone and a dirty tooth, watching absently as they rattled against each other with gentle clicks. Between the rubble and the skeletal ruins of what was once the proud home of a local merchant, the dirt was speckled with them, thousands of tiny white fragments; bones and teeth, morbid reminders of El Mozote's bitter legacy.
In this secluded corner of El Salvador, ensconced deep within the rugged hills of the country's northeastern Morazán district, to even mention the name of this unassuming hamlet is to summon images of the wicked events with which it is inescapably linked.
Over three horrible days in mid-December, 1981, more than 1,000 innocent men, women and children were murdered in northern Morazán, the most horrendous massacre of El Salvador's brutal 11-year civil war.
The attack was orchestrated by the Salvadoran Armed Forces' U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion, ironically named for a Pipil chieftain whose own people were massacred by invading Spanish conquistadors, as part of the government's "scorched earth" campaign to eliminate the base of rebel support in the guerrillas' northern stronghold.
The zenith of the massacre occurred right here in El Mozote, where as many as 500 victims were interrogated, beaten or raped and summarily executed.
From my vantage amidst the debris I could make out the top of El Mozote's brilliantly white church striking a bold outline against the deep blue of the afternoon sky. The church, rebuilt over the same spot where its predecessor had been burned down in a sort of macabre funeral pyre, is El Mozote's most prominent architectural feature, as the church tends to be in most Salvadoran villages. And yet here, at the scorching apex of El Salvador's dry season, it seemed to contrast even more dramatically with the village's dusty streets and parched fields, a glowing testament to the faith of a community that's been scourged by so much injustice.
At the foot of the church, next to the plaza, lies a modest memorial, the iron silhouettes of a family of four set against a brick wall that's adorned with simple wooden plaques immortalizing the names of the massacre's victims. At the feet of the anonymous family another plaque declares in defiant Spanish: "They have not died. They are with us, with you, and with all humanity."
It wasn't until 1992, merely a decade ago, that El Salvador's bloody conflict finally ground to a stalemate, and one need look no further than El Mozote for a vivid reminder of just how recently the bombs were falling on this tiniest of Central American nations. From the sombre memorial in the centre of town, it's only a short walk past a dismal row of bombed-out buildings and mortar-scarred walls to the ruins where I now stood.
Bones and tooth still in hand, I followed the scarred stone outline of the ruined house to the edge of a massive bomb crater, about three metres in diameter, now overgrown with greenery and littered with garbage.
From a branch hanging near the crater I idly plucked a "mozote," a thistle, for which the hamlet was named. Fitting, I thought, that the inquiries and investigations into the El Mozote massacre proved to be a thorn in the side of the Salvadoran government, and for its American backers, for several years after the war ended.
As I crouched to replace the macabre souvenirs atop the dusty pile from which they'd been collected, I caught a flicker of colour dancing faintly in the corner of my eye. I turned and noticed for the first time a small yellow flower sprouting from another pile of dirt and bone, its petals smiling in the sunlight, a breath of life amongst its acheronian surroundings.
When I think back on El Mozote, on the decimated homes, the beaming white church, the heart-wringing memorial, it's that one flower, sprouting nobly from a dusty pile of dirt and bone, that sticks in my mind as the perfect metaphor for this tiny community's struggle to escape the shadows of its haunted past.
The best jumping-off point for visits to El Mozote is Perquin, in the far northern reaches of eastern El Salvador about six hours by bus from the capital, San Salvador.
While in Perquin, be sure to visit the Museo de la Revolucion, established and operated by former guerrillas, which outlines the history of El Salvador's armed conflict and even includes the mangled remains of the helicopter of Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, head of the feared Atlacatl Battalion, shot down in 1984.
For its size, Perquin offers a range of accommodations. The upscale Hotel Perkin Lenca, a mountain lodge about one-and-a-half kilometres south of town has rates ranging from about $20 to $100. Closer to town is the Casa de Hespuedes El Gigante, a converted lumber mill with comfortable but basic rooms for about $9 per person. Artesenas La Muralla, across from the town's central plaza, also offers rustic accommodations for budget travellers.
Canadian citizens do not require a visa to visit El Salvador, but must buy a tourist card, valid for 90 days, upon entry.
The best time to visit El Salvador is during its dry season, from November to April, but keep in mind that midday temperatures during this period can be scorching.
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