Monday, March 30, 2009

Soul Journal: Daniel in El Mozote

I've written about El Mozote before. It's one of those "thin places" in my life where the distance between heaven and earth, delegations and martyrs, seems very small. There are places where a certain kind of quiet reverence seems to be demanded- the Vietnam Memorial Wall; the site of the Twin Towers in NY; the Holocaust Museum; etc. It seems almost like a violation of the space to speak in anything but a hushed tone or, sometimes, to speak at all. To me, that's El Mozote.

So, along comes Daniel. Here we are, a delegation from the US, traveling quite a ways to visit this site of an awful massacre, and we meet Daniel. What a treat. Our introduction to him was when we first arrived in El Mozote, which is still very sparsely populated and so we're about the only folk there except for a few people who will guide us on our visit. We got out of the microbus and met Maria, who would guide us and tell us the story of El Mozote. But, before that, several of our delegation members were more interested in visiting a bathroom. So, Maria told her little boy, Daniel, to show these folks where the bathroom is. Daniel obeyed his mother, but did it in such a shy way that we were all smitten with him immediately. He looked down to the ground and started walking slowly toward the bathroom, looking up only long enough to see if anyone was following. I did not follow, but those who did told me that when they got near the bathroom he just gestured quickly with his hand toward it and then turned to walk back to his mother. It was fetching and he seemed like such a sweet, shy boy. In the end, he was sweet. But, shy? Hmm...

Maria, Daniel's mother, is a lovely woman who was 11 at the time of the massacre. She escaped death because she happened to be in another town that day. Her five brothers and pregnant sister-in-law were not elsewhere and they were among the people who were killed during the massacre. It is an awful story and one of the great experiences of my life was having the honor of meeting Maya Rufina- the only adult survivor- on a trip to El Mozote and hearing her speak about that awful event. Maya Rufina is now buried at the site of the memorial following her death a few years ago.

The most difficult part of the story of El Mozote, for me, is the massacre of the children, which took place in the sacristy of the church. The children were shot and then the building was burned to the ground as those who were not yet dead cried out for their mothers and fathers. Today, there is a garden there, with some of the pavement still bearing blood stains. But, in that place of death, there is now a beautiful, muti-media display of art on the side of the remaining church building, with images of hope and remembrance. Along the bottom of the artwork are names of the children killed there, with ages ranging from 3 days to 18 years. Lots and lots of names. It baffles me to imagine how hard it would be to identify the children when the entire town was virtually wiped out during the massacre. Some of them were only remembered as a child of So and So..., probably by a distant relative from another town. As I read the names, hear the story again, view the monument that says "El Mozote, Nunca Mas!" (Never again!), see the pavement and the artwork, I enter a tunnel of wonder and reverence, where silence seems to be the only thing to say.

And then, there's Daniel. After escaping his initial shyness, he was loud, happy, and energetic. He teased his little sister, he asked his mother for money to get a drink, he climbed a ladder far higher than someone his age ought to be climbing, he ate unidentifiable (to us) objects that fell from the tree, he was cute and mischievous (whereas his little sister was just adorable.) Daniel was not going to let us walk around El Mozote in stunned silence. Whatever quiet moments we had, were quiet only to the extent that we were able to tune him out and that was not easy.
The most unnerving thing that Daniel did was when we first walked up to the site of the old sacristy where the children were killed. Daniel ran ahead of us and when we got there he was lying on the grass. I don't know if he was acting out the story, playing with us, or simply lying in the grass, but it was shocking to see him lying there, right were children would have been lying after being killed. I was petrified. But, his little sister merely jumped on him and he laughed as they tussled a bit in the grass. The juxtaposition of such light-hearted freedom and life in the location where innocent lives were brutally and senselessly massacred was almost overwhelming to me.

But that's how life is sometimes. A flower grows out of the killing field and a child plays where his cousins died. I'm sure Daniel has heard the story of El Mozote many times over. I suspect he'll hear it again and again throughout his life. But I hope he never loses his ability to play there, to live where death has spoken, and to be a witness to us that the reverence for life is not only found in quiet memorials but also in the loud noise of play.

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