After a three hour drive from San Salvador, we arrived in the beautiful town of Arcatao in the Chaletenango district of El Salvador. This small rural town was one of many effected by the civil war and the brutal massacres that took place. This area was originally used by the indigenous population to grow crops for material dye but due to the development of synthetic dyes in Germany the land was taken from them and instead used for growing coffee beans, an industry from which the rich could profit.

In 1932 the area suffered from a massacre initiated by the government killing more than 30,000 people. Until 1979 a process of oppression began which would see the indigenous culture wiped out. One of the most significant massacres in the area was the Sumpul River massacre. This took place on the 14th May 1980. 600 villagers were killed and their bodies dumped in the river.

During these times many locals fled to the nearby mountain La Canada and created caves to use as second homes, a safe retreat from the fierce military. Many of today's youth were born in the mountains whilst their parents and grandparents fought with the guerrillas, defending their livelihoods and protecting loved ones, fighting for their human rights.

Since being here, we have heard from the church about the important role it plays in the lives of those who live here. We have also heard first hand from those who were involved in the war and have been given a tour of the La Canada caves.

We have climbed La Canada a couple of times, firstly to explore the volcano and learn of its history and secondly to collect samples of plants in different areas to understand the change in vegetation and to detect what species of plants grow in this natural forest environment and how the war may have affected it. We have begun to create a brochure for the tourists Arcatao is hoping to attract within the coming year. We have written a short history of the area and the civil war and about the need to preserve its natural resource, the mountain, La Canada.

Memorial museum

The memorial museum is very special to those who live in Arcatao and they took great care in showing us around and explaining in great detail every aspect of the war and how it affected the area. The room was filled with makeshift explosives, photos of captivating moments during the war, personal belongings of those who fell victim to the massacres and implements used by aid workers in the cave's makeshift hospital.

The people of Arcatao are extremely welcoming and eager to share their stories; they want their memories to live on for generations. People need to know exactly what happened, need to understand the importance of humanity and solidarity to ensure history never repeats itself.

Memorial museum sign

Below is a story, as if told through the eyes of a young child living in Arcatao during the civil war, mentioning facts and events from those whose stories we have heard here.

Day 22 – Another night spent in La Canada

"This cave is slowly beginning to feel more and more like home. We’re sharing it with another family, making it very cramped. The continuous bombing shakes the fragile mountain, leaving several scattered craters, where once stood makeshift homes. Nowhere is safe when the military attack but the mountain does its best to protect us.

"We have been here for a continuous three weeks. Our trusted but forbidden radio station alerts us to any impending attacks from the military. The guerrillas, my father being one of them, make their weapons from whatever material they can find, including nails and shrapnel to make bombs.

"Many of the injured victims are treated by Victoria, the German aid worker who works in the cave set up as a hospital. It’s a treacherous path on the mountain edge to get to the hospital. She's a brave woman using whatever implements she can find to carry out surgery.

"I hope one day, very soon, that the military government will regain a conscience and put a stop to their brutality. Stop their fighting and end this injustice and return the land and homes they took from us.

"No one is safe in this country, especially those, like us, who fight for their rights. Those who want a humane, civil society, and not to be killed by the wealthy power and greediness of the corrupt government we now rebel against. We have no other option but to fight, and continue to do so until there is change."

The hills near Arcatao

We explored the nearby countryside and visited the river Sumpul which is now a beautiful place to relax and enjoy a gentle swim in the therapeutic waters. It was hard to imagine a brutal massacre once taking place in this serene environment.

There has also been a small festival in Arcatao over the past few days, including live music, food stalls, pupusa-eating competitions and an overall Salvadoran party atmosphere! It's refreshing to be experiencing this secluded town in the present day, whilst not forgetting its history and the people which have made it how it is today.

Blog by ICS volunteer Molly Girvan in El Salvador. Photos (from top): learning about the history of the area; an installation at the memorial museum; a view from the hills.