My first awareness of Mark Danner, I think, was reading his long article in the New Yorker The Truth of El Mozote, about a massacre by the army of El Salvador. The full article is on his website. That was December 1993. I kept the magazine sitting around for months because of the cover.
I’ll share a little, because it’s all connected. This wasn’t about Osama bin Laden, it was about the Cold War and the military versus the guerillas, but it was the US behaving badly again. We backed the military despite knowing it was up to its armpits in atrocities.
This is about a massacre, so, be warned.
This is after the men have been killed, after the young girls have been dragged away and raped and then killed.
Around this time, the soldiers returned to the house of Alfredo Márquez. “I was still sitting on the bench with my kids,” Rufina says. “When they came back, they began separating the women from their kids. They pulled the mothers away, leaving the children there crying. They took one group of women and then in a while they came back and took another. That was the saddest thing — little by little, the mothers disappeared, and the house became filled mostly with crying children.”
Rufina found herself in one of the last groups. “It must have been five o’clock. There were maybe twenty of us. I was crying and struggling with the soldiers, because I had my baby on my chest. It took two soldiers to pull the baby from me. So when I came outside into the street, I was the last in the group. I was crying and miserable, and begging God to help me.”
The soldiers marched the women down the main street. They passed the house of Marcos Díaz on the right and, on the left, that of Ambrosiano Claros, where Rufina and her family had spent the previous night. Ambrosiano Claros’s house was in flames. “I saw other houses burning, and I saw blood on the ground. We turned the corner and walked toward the house of Israel Márquez. Then the woman at the head of the line — we were in single file — began to scream. She had looked through the door and seen the people in the house.”
What the woman had seen was thick pools of blood covering the floor and, farther inside, piles of bloody corpses — the bodies of the women who only minutes before had been sitting in the house with them, waiting.
“The first woman screamed, ‘There are dead people! They’re killing people!’ and everyone began screaming. All down the line, the women began resisting, hugging one another, begging the soldiers not to kill them. The soldiers were struggling with them, trying to push the first women into the house. One soldier said, ‘Don’t cry, women. Here comes the Devil to take you.’ ”
Rufina, still at the end of the line, fell to her knees. “I was crying and begging God to forgive my sins,” she says. “Though I was almost at the feet of the soldiers, I wasn’t begging them — I was begging God. Where I was kneeling, I was between a crab-apple and a pine tree. Maybe that was what saved me. In all the yelling and commotion, they didn’t see me there. The soldier behind me had gone up front to help with the first women. They didn’t see me when I crawled between the trees.”
She was one of the only survivors from El Mozote.
Some soldiers sat down for a break right next to her, so she couldn’t move lest they hear her.
The soldiers watched the fire and talked, and Rufina, frozen in her terror a few feet away, listened. “Well, we’ve killed all the old men and women,” one said. “But there’s still a lot of kids down there. You know, a lot of those kids are really good-looking, really cute. I wouldn’t want to kill all of them. Maybe we can keep some of them, you know — take them with us.”
“What are you talking about?” another soldier answered roughly. “We have to finish everyone, you know that. That’s the colonel’s order. This is an operativo de tierra arrasada here” — a scorched-earth operation — “and we have to kill the kids as well, or we’ll get it ourselves.”
“Listen, I don’t want to kill kids,” the first soldier said.
“Look,” another said. “We have orders to finish everyone and we have to complete our orders. That’s it.”
They went to get some sodas at the town store a few yards away.
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.
The US government at the time denied the massacre, saying it was a battle between government troops and guerrillas.