Unfinished Sentences: A Collaboration to Preserve the Historical Memory of El Salvador’s Civil War

By Maggie Von Vogt


Recently, we’ve heard a great deal about the current wave of migration from Central America primarily from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and through the 24-hour news cycle we have become poorly informed witnesses of complex geopolitical factors that are currently displacing people from this region.

The truth is that the flow of humanity from these countries to the U.S. and other parts of the world has never really stopped. Yes, many of those fleeing today cite increased violence from maras (gangs) that actively endanger public safety and often serve as de facto authority that exerts control over the government and individual lives. However, this is only one symptom of a series of economic and political interventions that over the years have left these three countries vulnerable.

El Salvador in particular experienced a devastating and prolonged civil war that impacted the lives of those who lived through the experience and for generations afterwards. In this three-part multimedia article series compiled by Maggie Von Vogt, she chronicles how the Salvadoran people have organized to preserve their collective memory of the conflict.

Using oral histories, Salvadorans weaved together stories that will inform others about their own history. They are doing so on their own terms — to ensure that future generations obtain an informed account of their remembrances and how this act of memory preservation has contributed to their survival. Above all, the participants of this project remind us how oral history can serve as a tool to support efforts for truth and accountability in the continued advocacy for human rights for all.

This article will be published in three installments. In this first installment, we will learn a bit about the historical context of the Salvadoran Civil War, the community of Arcatao, and the emergence of the Historical Memory Committee, the group that played a central role in the archives.

Lastly, the article is also published here in Español. Scroll through to find it!

-- Fanny Julissa García, Oral Historian & Educator

Historical memory is important to me. First of all, for those of us who have experienced this reality, if we forget it, what will happen with the newer generations? We also have to leave a legacy behind for new generations of everything we have experienced, so that they struggle and so that it does not happen again. Because, of course, a people who forget their history will surely be condemned to repeat it. And I don’t want what I lived through, for my family, or anyone, to have to experience it again. That is why I am interested in the issue of survivors’ memories. Because those of us who are involved in this effort, all of us are all survivors. – Rosa Rivera, member of the Historical Memory Committee of Arcatao

Rosa is a woman from Arcatao, Chalatenango, a town in northern El Salvador where the Salvadoran civil war of the 1980s had disastrous impacts, particularly on rural peasant communities. Rosa is a member of the Historical Memory Committee of Arcatao and a participant in the historical memory archive called "Unfinished Sentences", fruit of a process of collecting testimonies facilitated by the Historical Memory Committee, the Human Rights Center of the University of Washington (UWCHR) and the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University José Simeón Cañas (IDHUCA in Spanish).

Unfinished Sentences is a compilation of oral histories shared by 48 people living in the community of Arcatao, province of Chalatenango (El Salvador), during the time of the civil war. More than 170 excerpts from these interviews tell the experiences of the civil war from the perspective of people who lived it firsthand. The testimonies are organized in sections called 'chapters' that focus on different issues of the conflict in more or less chronological order. The testimonies are presented in short videos in Spanish with English subtitles. In addition, the platform contains resources for users and/or instructors, lesson plans and recommended readings.

This project seeks to document and share the stories of people who have survived the crimes against humanity committed in El Salvador during the armed conflict and to support current efforts underway by Salvadorans to seek truth and justice.

A Brief Summary of the Salvadoran Civil War

The people began to organize themselves because there was a need for it. We no longer had land to work on, each day it became more difficult to buy the basic food we needed. And for someone who wasn’t a professional and could only work the land… it was a very hard life…When we worked on the coffee plantations, they would exploit us so much. They would give us a tortilla to eat, as if we were pets. -Margarita

From 1980 to 1992, El Salvador was devastated by a bloody civil war whose impacts continue to this day. The war claimed the lives of at least 75,000 civilians, many of them victims of the "scorched earth" practices that eliminated entire villages from the map. According to the United Nations Truth Commission Report, more than 85% of these crimes can be attributed to the Salvadoran military forces and the death squads that aligned themselves with them. However, several decades later, no individual has been held responsible for giving the orders that caused these atrocities.

My father died and I wasn’t able to see him. He died in the war, and that is one of the reasons why I travelled here [to Arcatao to watch current exhumations], is because I need to see, even if it’s only the last signs of him, I don’t even know what that might be, but I have had that desire and carry a feeling of mourning in my heart. I want to finish this, and see it to the end, because I didn’t get to see him. I lived so many years without him, and now I’d like to have at least this. - Herlindo

A large number of Salvadorans to this day continue searching for information on the whereabouts of their loved ones, trying to recover their remains so as to give them a dignified burial or struggling to honor their memory without fear of reprisal or recrimination. (Read more about the war and its causes on the Unfinished Sentences website.)

The violence displaced thousands of people from their homes in many of El Salvador's rural areas. Some sought refuge in other areas of the country, while others went into exile or sought asylum in countries around the world.

Arcatao, Chalatenango

Map of Arcatao, Chalatenango, El Salvador.

Map of Arcatao, Chalatenango, El Salvador.

During the 12 years of the civil war in El Salvador, the United States channelled more than US $5 billion in economic aid to the Salvadoran government to support the fight against the insurgency and actively participated in training the Salvadoran Armed Forces. Many questions remain about the role played by the United States in the human rights violations that occurred in El Salvador. In 1993, President Clinton decided to publish 12,000 declassified documents related to US participation in El Salvador. These documents indicate that there were many instances in which the US government had greater knowledge about the human rights violations that it had recognized at the time.

Arcatao is a small picturesque town located between mountains that spread across Salvadoran and Honduran territory. Most people in the community live off of small-scale agriculture, planting corn, beans and vegetables. Some families have cattle and raise other animals.

It was one of the most affected areas during the civil war, where the aforementioned "scorched earth" campaign was implemented before and during the war, destroying all signs of life in operations that aimed to eliminate possible supporters of the guerrillas. Many crossed the border into Honduras, where they eventually concentrated in the Mesa Grande refugee camp created by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Sumpul River in the Chalatenango province forms part of the border with Honduras and was the site of various massacres during the war. Photo: Dalton Anthony

The Sumpul River in the Chalatenango province forms part of the border with Honduras and was the site of various massacres during the war. Photo: Dalton Anthony

Even in the camps in Honduras, conditions were difficult and repression by Salvadoran and Honduran military and security agents continued. Refugees weren’t allowed to leave the camps without security. Some people in the camps were disappeared or killed, and many others died of preventable illnesses due to poor living conditions. Despite these difficulties, the refugees organized, many participating in health, education, and economic initiatives. Some refugees decided to return to El Salvador alone. Others collectively negotiated with the government to resettle during the last years of the decade of the 1980’s, despite the war continuing to cause devastation in their country of origin. The vast majority of the people that lived in Arcatao during the war were in refugee camps or joined the guerrillas.

The Historical Memory Committee of Arcatao

In early 2017, 12 people for the Historical Memory Committee met with me in a church in the Jesús Rojas neighborhood of Arcatao to share their experience participating in the creation of the archive. We did the interview collectively and they began to tell how the committee first formed.

I remember, right after the signing of the Peace Accords, that we had a dream of making a book about the survivors. I remember that we went to visit some older folks, but unfortunately we hadn’t had the opportunity to study. This made things difficult for us, and also we didn’t have a tool to record with, we just had to write down what people would say, and it just wasn’t realistic for this dream to come true because of [our] lack of experience writing. We didn’t know much of anything. When people would finish talking about their experience, we had captured very little. This also made us feel discouraged… and we could see that it wasn’t a very worthwhile effort. - Rosa

Click the SoundCloud embed link below to liste to Rosa speak this quote in Spanish.

Unfortunately the lack of opportunities for schooling and lack of adequate tools made it difficult for this original historical memory effort to get started, making it impossible to progress much in the years just after the war. Years later, a non-governmental organization called the San Bartolomé de las Casas Center facilitated a workshop series focused on mental health issues.

Around 2003 the committee connected with CBC (Centro Bartolomé de las Casas). They invited us to a workshop series on mental health that went on for a year and a half I think. That’s where the idea that our history should not die was reborn. We know many people who are old by now are dying, and that then the newer generations aren’t going to know our history. – Élida, Arcatao Historical Memory Committee member

Some of the committee members did not want to participate in the mental health processes, and for for others who did participate, it was very difficult:

My head ached for about a month. I felt irked that they wanted to talk about this kind of process, but when conversations began about salvaging memory, because the group started saying it was necessary to discuss it, I felt like a space opened up for me… so it’s like that was the push that opened up the space for us to come together a bit more. - Rosa

Click the SoundCloud embed link below to liste to Rosa speak this quote in Spanish.

The group began to take shape and work on four objectives: 1) publish a book about the massacres and murders (published by UCA in 2016), 2) build a community sanctuary space where the remains of the people whose bodies had been exhumed could rest in dignity, 3) create a museum with different objects on display from the war and the community, and 4) establish an exhumation process in the area surrounding the community.

A mural in San José Las Flores commemorates massacres during the war as a part of the community effort to remember events that occurred during the war. Photo: Dalton Anthony

A mural in San José Las Flores commemorates massacres during the war as a part of the community effort to remember events that occurred during the war. Photo: Dalton Anthony

The committee was formed and identified its goals. They also saw that they were going to need some support in finding information, resources, and tools.

As a Committee we mapped out our own goals and objectives, but it was really solidarity that helped make things happen. It would have been difficult for us as a committee to be capable of everything we’ve done. It’s a collective effort we have… - Rosa

In the next installment, we will learn more about the collective efforts between various groups to create the archive.

Maggie Von Vogt.jpg

Maggie Von Vogt is our Operations Coordinator at Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change. She is an independent media maker, popular educator, and activist from Maine. She lived in El Salvador from 2008-2017, working as a workshop facilitator on participatory video and community media focused on social and environmental issues. Since moving to rural northern California in early 2017, the focus of her work has been facilitating communication between (majority Mexican) immigrant and nonimmigrant members of her community and supporting resilience-building in the immigrant community.  She co-manages the Anderson Valley Adult School and is working on an oral history and photography project with stories from Salvadorans who have immigrated from and returned to El Salvador. In her free time she loves hiking with her dogs Little and Ramona, swimming, looking for otter, exploring new places, and anything that brings about a laugh.