A glimpse of El Salvador's guerrilla past
Inside the reconstructed guerrilla camp in Perquín, El Salvador. (Paula Dear)
The climb up Cerro de Perquín, a sun-bleached peak overlooking the town of Perquín in El Salvador's northeastern Morazán region, was mercifully short, given the unrelenting morning heat. Felipe, a guerrilla-turned-guide for the Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña, wore a t-shirt that read “We need a world without violence”, a fitting commentary for the war-themed tour he led.
By exposing the realities of what happened during the country's brutal 12-year civil conflict, which ended in 1992, the curators of Perquín’s inspiring yet sobering Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña aim to prevent war from happening again. It also gives visitors an exhilarating glimpse into the life of a guerrilla fighter from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, a coalition of five guerrilla groups at the time.
Cerro de Perquín, the peak adjacent to the museum, is pock-marked by bomb craters and old trenches. It was one of the most strategically important sites in the fight against El Salvador’s government forces, where more than 70,000 were killed and thousands more disappeared. The hill is also one part of the Sendero Historico El Escondido (“the hidden path”), a trail on the Ruta de Paz (Route of Peace) that is now used for Spanish-language walking tours of sites significant to the rebels.
“Some people think it is good to tell the story, and that it brings benefits to the people,” said Felipe (who did want to give his last name). “Others are not sure about selling the war for tourists.”
The museum, which has some information in English, sets a stirring overview of the struggle, displaying a collection of arms and personal effects, posters illustrating international solidarity, and the testimonies of dozens of “heroes and martyrs”. Visitors can enter a studio from the guerillas' influential clandestine radio station Radio Venceremos (“We will overcome”), which adopted an astonishing array of tactics to avoid detection during the war, including broadcasting from water-logged caves and transmitting via barbed wire.
Outside the museum sits the twisted remains of a downed helicopter in which notoriously brutal military commander Lt Col Domingo Monterrosa died after being lured into an explosive trap by Venceremos activists using a rigged transmitter.
Next door to the museum, visitors pass through a curtain of bullet shells to enter a guerrilla camp, re-constructed to provide a taste of daily life during the conflict. Cross rope bridges, enter underground tunnels and gaze incredulously at the “hospital” tents -- shacks with rustic bark-covered wooden benches -- all to a soundtrack of historical radio broadcasts and guerrilla songs.
Just more than two miles southeast of Perquín is the village of El Mozote, the scene of one of the war's most horrific massacres. Over two days in December 1981, at least 800 civilians were killed by government soldiers, more than half of them children. A giant memorial dominates the tiny village, containing a wall of victims' names. Below a striking silhouetted sculpture of a family holding hands, a plaque reads, “They have not died. They are with us, with you, and with the whole of humanity.” The walls of El Mozote's church are covered in brightly-coloured murals, including children depicted as guardian angels watching over the village, designed to represent hope and peace. Below them is a list of identified victims, some just days old. The remains of 140 children, all less than 12 years old, are buried in a mass grave under a rose garden in front of the murals.
Dusty tracks snaking a mile south of El Mozote lead to an area near the hamlet of Guacamaya, home to the Cueva del Murciélago o de las Pasiones (the Bat Cave, or Cave of Passion). One guide there, Tereso, is a former Radio Venceremos activist who lost eight members of his family in the war. He leads groups over rocks and across an improvised bridge to the damp and chilly natural cave, from which the station would broadcast for up to two weeks at a time, with metres of solid rock protecting them from detection.
“They called it the Cave of Passion because Santiago[the most famous wartime voice of Radio Venceremos] spent a lot of time here with his compañera,” Tereso said of the legendary broadcaster and his female companion, with a raspy chuckle that displayed his gold teeth.
Twenty years after the war ended, the passion and the stories are still poignant. With domestic tourists as numerous as overseas visitors, there are many reasons for keeping those memories alive, Felipe said. “It is a point of historical reference for the new generations. If they know the story, and reflect on it, they will not allow it to happen again.”