BY MARK DANNER
HEADING up into the mountains of Morazán, in the bright, clear air near the Honduran border, you cross the Torola River, the wooden slats of the one-lane bridge clattering beneath your wheels, and enter what was the fiercest of El Salvador’s zonas rojas — or “red zones,” as the military officers knew them during a decade of civil war — and after climbing for some time you take leave of the worn blacktop to follow for several miles a bone-jarring dirt track that hugs a mountainside, and soon you will find, among ruined towns and long-abandoned villages that are coming slowly, painfully back to life, a tiny hamlet, by now little more than a scattering of ruins, that is being rapidly reclaimed by the earth, its broken adobe walls cracking and crumbling and giving way before an onslaught of weeds, which are fuelled by the rain that beats down each afternoon and by the fog that settles heavily at night in the valleys. Nearby, in the long-depopulated villages, you can see stirrings of life: even in Arambala, a mile or so away, with its broad grassy plaza bordered by collapsed buildings and dominated, where once a fine church stood, by a shell-pocked bell tower and a jagged adobe arch looming against the sky — even here, a boy leads a brown cow by a rope, a man in a billed cap and bluejeans trudges along bearing lengths of lumber on his shoulder, three little girls stand on tiptoe at a porch railing, waving and giggling at a passing car.
But follow the stony dirt track, which turns and twists through the woodland, and in a few minutes you enter a large clearing, and here all is quiet. No one has returned to El Mozote. Empty as it is, shot through with sunlight, the place remains — as a young guerrilla who had patrolled here during the war told me with a shiver — espantoso: spooky, scary, dreadful. After a moment’s gaze, half a dozen battered structures — roofless, doorless, windowless, half engulfed by underbrush — resolve themselves into a semblance of pattern: four ruins off to the right must have marked the main street, and a fifth the beginning of a side lane, while an open area opposite looks to have been a common, though no church can be seen — only a ragged knoll, a sort of earthen platform nearly invisible beneath a great tangle of weeds and brush.
Into this quiet clearing, in mid-October last year, a convoy of four-wheel drives and pickup trucks rumbled, disgorging into the center of El Mozote a score of outsiders. Some of these men and women — most of them young, and casually dressed in T-shirts and jeans and work pants — began dumping out into the dust a glinting clutter of machetes, picks, and hoes. Others gathered around the hillock, consulted clipboards and notebooks and maps, poked around in the man-high brush. Finally, they took up machetes and began to hack at the weeds, being careful not to pull any, lest the movement of the roots disturb what lay beneath. Chopping and hacking in the morning sun, they uncovered, bit by bit, a mass of red-brown soil, and before long they had revealed an earthen mound protruding several feet from the ground, like a lopsided bluff, and barely contained at its base by a low stone wall.
(published in the New Yorker, Dec. 9, 1993. Read the rest here. The article is quite long.)