They are singing hymns in the little pastel colored church in El Mozote, a tiny hamlet in the green mountains, ridges tangled with trees and rocks dirt roads. They built the chapel on the ashes of the old one, the one where all the children died two weeks before Christmas almost thirty-five years ago. The soldiers herded the children inside, then pushed the women into a nearby house, shot them all, and set the house on fire. With only children left inside the church, the soldiers raked the building with gunfire. Then they burned it down. Maybe they were lucky. Girls who were old enough were drug into the hills, raped, and finally killed -- shot, bled to death, hung from trees. That was the civil war in El Salvador. That was El Mozote.
Now the Spanish voices flow easily from the chapel and wash onto the village square outside. A boy and dog on the front stoop of the church. A game of soccer, dust puffs where the soccer ball bounces. Little girls swinging their legs on a park bench. Two women and a sleeping dog selling trinkets. A big tree with a shady embrace overhanging the monument to the massacre. A wall where they wrote the names of everyone who died by the bullet, the blade, the burning, on a Friday in 1981. Two days before the twelfth day of Christmas.
It's a warm Saturday evening in July, we're outside the colorful little church, we hear the gentle hymns. The garden beside the chapel bursts with color. Flower buds. Dresses on the bustling little girls, carrying their mussy-haired siblings or neighbors, you can't tell where one family ends and another begins. The mural on the wall of the church facing the garden is sunray yellow, dusk blue, cherry red, summer green, white silhouettes of children playing. A reminder. But not of the dark days of the war, the mind-numbing inhumanity of it all. That was El Mozote. But instead, a reminder that we somehow go on. This is El Mozote.
They dug up the bones in the rubble of the old church more than twenty years ago, when the civil war ended, to prove to the denying world what happened here. The few that avoided the massacre, that hid in rock crags in the hills, that saw the smoke and heard the screams, but who lived, they came back, they put up the colorful church, they went on. Probably for no lofty or noble reason or principle. Just because that's what you do when you're alive.
I read the names on the memorial and I feel hollow. I blink. I look somewhere else. Into the town square. There's a girl with a bowl of souvenirs to sell. Long black hair. Black eyes. Maybe she's twelve. She smiles shyly when our eyes meet. I think of my daughter. I hear the sounds of El Mozote, the singing, the children. It's still alive.