If you look closely at the hand-stitched embroidery that hangs on the walls of the Museum of the Image and the Word in San Salvador, you can make out a stretched hand reaching out from under the water. Another smaller figure, presumably the figure of a child, is stitched with arms outstretched, floating in a river, as helicopters fly over them and over a group of peasants on the run.
Though there’s not much said about the person who crafted it, it was made by a Salvadoran refugee in a camp in Honduras in the 1980s, where many residents from the region of Chalatenango, a department in northern El Salvador, were sent seeking refuge from the war. It depicts descriptions of accounts told by survivors of what has become known as the 14th May, 1980, Sumpul River massacre.
In a remote area called Las Aradas, where the river straddles Honduras and El Salvador, more than 600 people were killed over a 12-hour period that day, after government forces from both countries and a paramilitary group on the Salvadoran side opened fire on an unarmed group they had surrounded.
Because some of them were active in workers’ unions, unlawful at the time, they were believed to be subversives. However, many children like Julio Rivera, eight years-old at the time of the massacre, were just looking to survive.
“I left my hometown after my entire family, except my father, had been assassinated,” he said in a January interview with Catholic News Service.
Most painful was the killing of his 13-year-old brother, accused of being a communist; then his mother was killed, followed by his other brothers. “That’s how my family ended, killed, tortured,” he said. “And then they killed (St) Oscar Romero.”
Bishop Oswaldo Escobar Aguilar of Chalatenango, where more than 50 such mass killings took place, said what happened at the Sumpul River that day, like other assaults in the Department of Chalatenango, was a “crime against humanity.”
“There’s such a history of pain and suffering,” he told Catholic News Service, and what happened at the Sumpul River that day was just another instance in a long list of human rights violations in the region, and one in which the Honduran government participated.
Though the Salvadoran government has at the moment strict social distancing limits in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, he said he plans to celebrate Mass for the victims and survivors for the 40th anniversary of the massacre today (14th May) in an empty church in Arcatao, the hometown of many of the Sumpul River victims.
Like St Romero’s assassination, no one has ever been brought to justice for what happened at the Sumpul River, he said. And most people wouldn’t know about the killings at the Sumpul River if it hadn’t been for the Catholic Church.
Though the area where the massacre took place is remote, mountainous and rocky – it can take up to three hours to reach by foot – soldiers guarded it for days after the massacre, preventing anyone from entering, making it difficult for information or documentation about about what happened to get out.
But as survivors started trickling into Honduras, seeking medical help for their injuries, church members heard from them what had taken place. On 19th June, 1980, a little more than a month after the massacre, priests and women religious from the neighbouring Honduran Diocese of Santa Rosa de Copan, including its bishop, made a public denunciation.
Though both governments dismissed the denunciation as “lies” and “calumnies,” it caught the attention of two journalists who briefly went into the area and were able to photograph scattered skulls and bones in parts of Las Aradas. Over the years, the government of El Salvador finally admitted that something had taken place there, though only saying the number of those killed was much lower than the 600 that church members have alleged.
“What I want people to know this year is that these victims still have not found justice,” Bishop Escobar said. “And the state needs to ask for forgiveness and provide transitional justice and reparations for survivors. These crimes clamour for justice. The church is not doing this out of an ideological point of view, but because we follow the Gospel.”
A survivors’ group he belongs to once was asked what it was that they wanted from the perpetrators. “We don’t want the death penalty, we don’t even want prison,” he said. “What we want is justice and truth. For there to be forgiveness, there has to be acknowledgment of fault, for the people (who committed the crimes) to recognise what they did, that they ask for forgiveness for what they have done. We’re willing and open to forgive, but there is no true reconciliation if there is no acknowledgment of the truth, if there is no justice.”
A framed piece of embroidery stitched by an unnamed Salvadoran refugee in a Honduran camp was part of an exhibit at the Museum of the Word and Image in San Salvador, El Salvador, in January 2020. The artwork depicts the Sumpul River massacre in El Salvador. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)