Humanitarian Project Turns El Salvador’s History of Bloodshed into Community Empowerment

Canadian researchers are fundraising to build a park in El Salvador to remember the government massacres of civilians almost 40 years ago. 

By Aruna Dutt

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Miriam Ayala speaking at the commemoration of the Sumpul Massacre on May 14, 2018, 38 years after she survived the massacre. PHOTO CREDIT: Juan Bello/Triana Media.

Miriam Ayala was 12 years old when she fled to the Honduran border.

Ayala and her family were among the several hundred Salvadorans gathered by the Sumpul river to take a rest, unaware of the gruesome state-led massacre awaiting them.

It was early in the morning on May 14th, 1980 when the Salvadoran army initiated their bloody counterinsurgency operation to prevent those fleeing the civil war from crossing the border to safety.

“The anguish was great because there was massive machine-gunning from several soldiers,” Ayala remembers.

Ayala threw herself into the river out of desperation. But like many of those fleeing, she could not swim.

“There my oldest sister died, she was 14 years old. She drowned,” said Ayala.

She saw others drowning and screaming for help, but couldn’t do anything since she herself was struggling to stay afloat. In that moment she saw someone who could swim. With three other women, they managed to make their way out of the river by holding on to each other’s hair and avoiding gunfire.

Many didn’t make it out. About 600 women, children, elderly and young people were killed that day in the second-biggest massacre during El Salvador’s Civil War which lasted from 1979 to 1992. The conflict raged between a U.S.-backed, military-led authoritarian government and left-wing guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Over this period, the government committed hundreds of massacres, including 58 in the region of Chalatenango, where the Sumpul massacre took place.

When asked how she survived, Ayala said, “They say by luck…God did not ask me to die, he asked me to share my testimony.”

To help survivors in El Salvador like Ayala continue to tell their stories, a group of Western faculty, students and alumni are now fundraising to build a memorial park at the site of the Sumpul massacre.

“When we think of major massacres and genocides around the world we often associate them with the sites of memory that commemorate those atrocities. That’s missing in the case of the Sumpul Massacre,” said Amanda Grzyb, professor of Information and Media Studies and leader of the project.

Amanda Grzyb sits in a workshop with researchers and community members of Copapayo, El Salvador. Grzyb is leading the project that hopes to document forgotten history during El Salvador’s civil war. (Moses Monterroza)

Grzyb’s Western Humanitarian Award-Winning research, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), documented and commemorated the massacres during El Salvador’s civil war. The project involved more than a dozen members of the Western community.

The team hopes to see the memorial built before the 40-year anniversary of the Sumpul massacre, in May 2020.

They have been planning the memorial in collaboration with Association of Survivors of the Sumpul Massacre and Other Chalatenango Massacres, an association started by Ayala, and other survivors. They have purchased the land and the design is being created by two Belgian architects.

According to the preliminary design proposal their aim is to improve accessibility. Currently, access to the site requires a three to four-hour walk, including river crossings.

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Design proposal for the memorial park of the massacre of May 14th 1980 ( “a square of adobe” by Justine Morlion, “a forest of fire trees” by Melina Doutreloigne)

The design proposal includes a large and dense circle of ‘fire trees’ which blossom in May in “a spectacular explosion of red,” states the preliminary design proposal, which was presented to the community of survivors in October.

“The poetic image of the red trees transferring the blood shed in 1980 into red blossoms in 2020 is quite strong,” the proposal explains.

Grzyb said there is a great urgency for this memorial to educate future generations about this history of state violence in El Salvador.

“Right now, it is a very critical point in history for El Salvador. Many young people are not learning enough about the democracy and human rights that their aunts, uncles, fathers and mothers struggled for during the civil war.”

Salvadoran-Belgian architect, Evelia Macal, leading a workshop with massacre survivors in February 2018, discussing the possibilities for the Sumpul Memorial design.

“Survivors do not want to remain silent.” – Giada Ferrucci, Western PhD student in Media Studies.

 “Yes, there is no war any longer, but El Salvador is not at peace yet,” added Giada Ferrucci, one research team member leading the memorial fundraising campaign.

The researchers say there are parallels between the civil war and the situation that El Salvador is living through right now with its high incidence of gang-related deaths and murders.

“A lot of the survivors and families are getting older and older and they are worried that their children and grandchildren will not know about the difficulties they faced,” said Ferrucci, adding, “If they do not try to create the bridge between them and the new generation then they feel that the war may happen again.”

“Many people in El Salvador say they feel more unsafe now than they did during the war,” said Jaime Brenes Reyes, a member of the Western research team who is leading the fundraising campaign.

Western team members attending the 2017 celebrations of the Peace Accords in El Salvador, January 2017. From L to R: Jaime Brenes Reyes (PhD Candidate, Comparative Literature), Amanda Grzyb (Associate Professor, FIMS), Beatriz Juarez (PhD Candidate, Anthropology), Ulises Unda Lara (PhD Candidate, Visual Arts).(Credit: Amanda Grzyb)

Reyes himself has seen how survivors’ stories can be told for the benefit of their country. The PhD student in Comparative Literature led a workshop with former refugees in El Salvador last April, some of whom didn’t know how to read or write.

Some were mesmerized when they heard their stories read to them. It was a touching moment for him, said Reyes.

“History is in the making. Being a campesino [subsistence farmer] doesn’t mean that you don’t know how to tell the story, or that you can’t change the future,” he adds, and emphasizes, “These things change how they approach their community, how they think about themselves, and what they know about their own history.”

Building from the bottom-up

This project is not like traditional humanitarian work. Solidarity with the community is at the core, instead of the usual top-down research model, said Grzyb. They work with communities at their own pace, supporting them to realize their own vision for the memorial, she said.

“Sometimes the process is just as important as the goal,” said Grzyb. “It always needs to be led by the community members themselves.”

The SSHRC grant funded the preliminary design, but the physical construction of the memorial park will need external fundraising of $300,000.

Emily Ansari (Music History), Dr. Arlene MacDougall (Schulich), and Marithza Andagoya (MA, Linguistics) lead a workshop about music and refugee experience in Copapayo, El Salvador in April 2018. (Moses Monterroza)

“Our goal is to help the community with their main goal – not to impose our views,” said Reyes.

“It is a more equal and fair approach – ultimately it belongs to them,” said Ferrucci.

She added that although this memorial is focused on a specific local reality, it sets an example for how to remember the many massacres that have taken place in the last century.

“It can be used to spread a message all over the world,” said Ferriucci. It shows it’s possible to reunite again after these atrocities, try to face the difficult legacy, and validate the experience of survivors, she said.

Western University team members work collaboratively on a strategic plan with elected leaders of the Association of Survivors of the Sumpul Massacre and Other Chalatenango Massacres in November 2017. Back row L to R: Amanda Grzyb (Associate Professor, FIMS), Beatriz Juarez (PhD Candidate, Anthropology), Felipe Tobar, Vilma Mejia, Julio Rivera, Mirian Dubon, Alfredo Marroquin (Executive Director, SalvAide), Giada Ferrucci (PhD Student, FIMS). Front L to R: Miriam Ayala, Marta Tobar, Representative from CCR. (Credit: The Association of Survivors of the Sumpul Massacre and Other Chalatenango Massacres)

Bridges across borders

In the middle of the Sumpul massacre, after Ayala made it through the river, she dodged bullets to find a tree in which to hide and wait. “That is how I saw so many things, I stayed hidden and they did not see me,” she said.

She watched from above as people passed to the other side of the river, were taken by the Honduran army, tied by the hand, interrogated, then handed over to the Salvadoran army to be killed.

“I could see with my eyes when they put 25 people in a line – most of them young, and one of them, a girl – they then gunned them down,” said Ayala.

Although she had no power to do anything on the day of the massacre, Ayala has found the strength to make sure her loved ones and others who died are commemorated.

Because of the solidarity from the team at Western and internationally, all the survivors from the Salvadoran communities feel supported as they continue their work, Ayala said.

“We are very motivated by the bridge they have given us… We know that we are not alone,” said Ayala.

With the work of her community and international solidarity, she is determined to achieve a future of peace with dignity for all.

“It is important for Canadians who do not know the story. It is important for everyone to know what the Salvadoran people went through in this terrible conflict,” Ayala emphasized.

And hundreds of survivors are coming forward today to make their experiences known to the world.

“Each one of the survivors has our own story of what we experienced that day of the massacre,” said Ayala “The youth of today, they do not believe there was war. It is our commitment, the ones who experienced this, to tell our stories,”


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