A Western University project documenting dozens of massacres that took place during the Salvadoran civil war is allowing survivors to reconcile their country’s history and mourn their lost loved ones.
El Salvador’s civil war began in 1979. More than 80,000 people were killed by the military regime, many of them during raids on isolated towns and in the jungle. Thousands of bodies were buried in mass graves with nothing to mark them.
Since 2017, researchers from the University of London, Ontario have been traveling to El Salvador to work alongside survivors, archaeologists and local organizations to find and commemorate the exact location of each massacre site.
They are currently using GPS locators, pinning locations on an interactive map along with detailed monuments of witnesses.
‘A very long process’
“It’s been a very long process working with survivors to walk through very dense jungles and forests to reach very remote sites,” said Amanda Grzyb, project leader and professor at Western.
“We bring a lot of equipment with us, including GPS and cameras to obtain precise locations. If survivors wish, we often film a testimony at the scene.”
The interactive map and testimonials are found on a website the group has called Surviving memory in postwar El Salvadorand with each visit to the country, it grows to incorporate more survivor stories.
It’s slow work. The team explains that, in one case, they have been working since 2018 to locate the site of a grave hastily dug by villagers trying to save themselves from the military.
Locals remember seeing 14 people die: six women, five children and three men.
Working for reconciliation
“We brought in a witness who was 10 years old at the time of the massacre and who had watched it from the top of a hill with his father,” Grzyb said.
“We thought we had located the site and our partners carried out an exhumation, but unfortunately it was not the location. So we thought we may need to introduce ground-penetrating radar to find the precise location.”
LISTEN | The researchers talk about their project and the importance of memorials:
Fresh air14:38How a new project is reviving the memories of those killed and buried in mass graves during El Salvador’s brutal civil war
The project also focuses on commemorative activities and workshops held on anniversaries of specific massacres.
“It has opened a space in the country that had not been very clear in recent decades and is attracting people from different backgrounds to talk about what happened during the Civil War,” said Salvadoran postdoctoral student Adriana Alas López, who has been involved in translating the stories of the people of the region.
“With the idea of a reconciliation, that is something the country needs to work on. I think the project is contributing a lot by documenting history, listening to the stories of survivors and discovering the complexity of their family history,” Alas López said. .