Rightly or wrongly I think most people associate El Salvador with its terrible civil war that started in the 1970’s and didn’t end until the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed in 1992. And although I personally very much disagree with widespread notion that the country is too dangerous to visit, it’s sad history from those dark days is very real and should never be forgotten. Some of the earliest fighting of the war took place in the capital, San Salvador, and in Suchitoto which is about 20 miles north of San Salvador. But the most horrific atrocities occurred in the area of what is now called the Ruta de la Paz (Route of Peace) in Eastern El Salvador.
In order to get a better understanding of just how tragic the war really was, during our stay in the volcanic, coffee growing region of Berlin and Alegria we took a full day’s drive to the heart of the Ruta de la Paz, the towns of Perquin and El Mozote. Although people from all over the country became guerrilla fighters to take on the government’s army, Perquin, located in the poorest part of the country, became the headquarters for the FMLN, the left wing resistance party.
There is no doubt that both sides committed atrocities during the war, but given the fact that the government was heavily backed with money and supplies by the biggest super power in the world the guerrillas definitely suffered much more carnage. I know that what we saw cannot possibly let us know the full extent of just how terrible things really were for the people in this region during the war, but I do think our time there at the very least served as a great reminder of how much we all, no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, must never forget and do our best to help mankind avoid violent conflicts that so often spiral out of control.
El Salvador in general has more murals than any other country I’ve ever visited. Paz means peace, and after some many terrible years of war this country now quite understandably relishes it.
La Casa Mia was our little home away from home while we were staying in the city of Berlin which is in one of the best known coffee growing regions of the country. Although Berlin is not technically on the Ruta de la Paz, it was also the site of several battles between the guerrillas and government forces.
A mural of Archbishop Oscar Romera in the town of Alegria which is near Berlin. Romero was assassinated in 1980 by government forces due to his vocal, left-learning teachings of Liberation Theology. His murder galvanized the revolution.
The town of Perquin was the unofficial headquarters of the FMLN rebels, i.e. the guerrillas, and it is the home of the most famous museum in the county, The Museum of the Revolution. This room was full of fascinating yet sad photos that told the stories of so many in the war that tore the country apart for so many years.
Like all proxy wars where governments around the world get heavily involved by supplying ‘their side’ with weapons, guns from nations around the globe poured into this tiny little country. We saw weapons there from East Germany, the US, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, Belgium and other countries.
One of the many political posters on display at the museum. This one of course is in English, but there were posters in several languages.
Our guide at the museum, Jose Oscar, was a former FMLN guerrilla and had been severely wounded during the war, lucky to still be alive actually. He explained to us how incredibly difficult it was for the guerrillas due to the fact that the government forces were infinitely more heavily supplied with weapons and other materials.
As is true with all wars, the dissemination of information, whether true or not, is critical. This equipment was part of the guerrillas’ mobile radio station, Radio Vencermos (We Will Win).
Next to the museum is a model guerrilla camp full of weaponry and other materials collected by the owner from the mountains around town. Like other places in the world that have experienced relatively recent war ‘bomb art’ tends to be occasionally found. These used shell casings spruce up the rope line divider at the entry of the camp.
A rusted out machine gun with bullet casings at the camp.
Just like the Viet Cong did with the Tunnels of Cu Chi in Vietnam, during the civil war in El Salvador the guerrillas dug out tunnels that were used as hospitals, hideouts and kitchens which had additional tunnels to send the smoke plumes further away from the camp.
A very bumpy few miles away from Perquin lies the town of El Mozote which was where one of the most brutal massacres of the war took place. Around 1,000 people, including approximately 140 children were gathered to the central part of the village one morning and executed by government forces. One woman named Rufina Amaya Mirquez survived by hiding in a tree and later told the international press the whole story. The Salvadoran and American governments both originally denied that the massacre ever took place, but after the war a forensics team uncovered all the indisputable, gruesome evidence. The memorial in the picture above serves to remind us what happened and to hopefully help prevent these kinds of atrocities from happening again.
Not far into our long drive back to our hotel in Berlin from Mozote we stopped at a viewpoint along the road. It’s hard to imagine that so many terrible and tragic things happened in such a beautiful country as this. With the war happily and safely behind them, the people of El Salvador want the hard-earned peace to remain forever and hope that others around the world will now come and explore what their country has to offer.