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Remembering Rufina

Rufina Amaya was the only survivor of the El Mozote Massacre. How do we remember her?



Rufina Amaya lived in the village of El Mozote in the mountains of El Salvador with her husband and four young children. And if you’re familiar with the history of El Salvador, you’ve probably heard her story:

On December 31s​ t​, 1981, around 6pm, like most days over the previous year, Radio Venceremos broadcast out its daily radio show from an encampment in the Salvadoran mountainside.

[crackle of radio song]

Radio Venceremos was the official radio station of the communist rebels fighting against the government in the Salvadoran Civil War. The rebels called themselves the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation, or the FMLN for short.

Radios were scarce, so many people would gather together in “listening circles,” to hear news from the front lines alongside political commentary and the occasional politically charged soap opera. They’d huddle together around the radio in the center of camp or in someone’s home and afterward they’d discuss what they heard. And this particular day, the bodies huddled around the radio would hear the Radio Venceremos mobile unit interview a woman from the town of El Mozote.

En esto momentos la unidad móvil de RV se encuentra con una señora, víctima de la represión en el Mozote jurisdicción de Meanguera en el departamento de Morazán. Señora que logroso a sobrevivir a la massacre perpetrada por los cuerpos represivos en ese lugar y en otros casarrillo del departamento.

The announcer explained that they were talking to a woman who had survived a massacre in el Mozote perpetrated by the government. That woman was Rufina Amaya.

Companera, podria decirnos su nombre? Rufina Amaya
She was thirty-eight years old.
Cuantos anos tiene?

Treinta y ocho

There were surely whispers of what had happened circulating at least through Morazán and the FMLN ranks, but this was the first time El Salvador heard of the woman whose children and husband had been killed in front of her, along with all of her neighbors and their families.

Companera, temenos ententido que usted fue testigo de massacre y victima de ella en la poblacion del Mozote. Podria narrarnos como sucedieron los hechos?

Her interviewer sounds almost like he’s giving her a chance to correct him. ​We understand you were a witness of the massacre and victim of it, along with the population of Mozote. Can you tell us how it happened?​ And she does. She tries to remember the date, how the people were taken from their homes at five in the morning and lined up in front of their houses.

En el dia Viernes de, de doce de diciembre empezaron y llegaron a sacarlas a la gente a la cinco de la manana de las casas a linearla el placita en la frente de la hermita. Y alli los tuvieron. Alli los ninos desnudo aguantando frios …

Only a little more than two weeks after the brutal attacks, here she was—alive, in pain, and telling El Salvador the facts of what had happened to her. How they killed the men, killed the children and burned their bodies, raped and killed the women over the course of two days.

… a las dos del dia a mataron los hombres. a la dos de la tarde la cara a los muchachos y lo hierros la llevaron y la estuvieron a las seis de la mañana otro día de alli las mataron y las quemaron.. para ella las violaran y de alli y despues de que violaran, las mataron. Para los hombres los vendaron de alli los mataron.

This is the story, the moment, the words, that Rufina is known for. After this interview with Radio Venceremos, Rufina also told her story to a few reporters from the United States.​ ​They wrote up front page stories about the atrocities that printed in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

But the United States did not want to face the growing accounts of human rights violations in the country. Throughout the civil war, even after Rufina’s account of the massacre spread, the United States was funding and training Salvadoran military officials in order to fight the communist threat of FMLN. When the government of El Salvador denied that the massacre had taken place, the United States government chose to side with them, arguing that there was not enough evidence to prove that the massacre had taken place. They claimed the FMLN broadcast and Rufina’s story was purely propaganda.

But after this–after this moment that ingrained Rufina Amaya in Salvadoran and US history, what happened to the woman?

Rufina soon left El Salvador to seek asylum in Honduras.​ ​And for almost a decade after the massacre, Rufina lived in a refugee camp that was controlled by FMLN. While there, Rufina would have been surrounded by others who were close to the events of El Mozote and by those who believed the violence had taken place and blamed the Salvadoran government.

Another group of former El Mozote residents survived the massacre because they were away from home when it happened. Most of them were working seasonally in other regions of the country. This group of displaced people ended up in government-run camps or in larger cities like San Miguel. Either way, they were inundated with government-sponsored propaganda about the war for 11 years after the massacre with almost no access to other information about what had happened.

When some of these people returned to El Mozote, they held the rebel FMLN forces at least indirectly responsible for the massacre and a few believed that FMLN forces had actually committed the killings. That is, until January 2012 when El Salvador’s new president visited El Mozote and apologized for the government actions there.

Rufina Amaya did not move back to El Mozote itself, but she returned to El Salvador, choosing to live in a settlement called Quebrachos, a few miles south of El Mozote, at some point between November 1989 and March 1990.

And when the civil war ended, Rufina began to tell her story again.

She met with people who visited the region, giving guided tours of the spot where her loved ones were murdered and she would travel all over the world to speak with people about her story.

If you type Rufina Amaya into the Youtube search bar, a handful of video interviews with her appear, often labeled only with her name.​ ​In one where the camera and audio are particularly shaky, she speaks quietly and intently:

Tengo que digo que no es facil. Para mi no es facil pero no hay mas bien fuentes. No creo que. No fue duras historias. Y yo lo digo que gente estabia con vencido, sin olvidar que es la verdad. que calar priopasar la que es una verdad. No se si veramos, si.

I have to say it’s not easy, s​ he says, ​for me it’s not easy, but there aren’t other good sources. I don’t think so. ​It’s hard to make out all the words exactly, but then she tells us that she remembers and she knows it’s the truth, that the truth is important. She is not sure if we see this.

A lot of people have doubted her story over the years. And so she retold the story of the most painful day of her life again and again. Amaya was a devout Christian and she later wrote that while she hid behind a tree from the soldiers who would have killed her, she prayed to God. She told him that if she escaped, she would tell the story of the people of El Mozote, from that moment for the rest of her life.


Over time, Rufina became a symbol for the massacre and for the bloodshed and extreme violence of the civil war. Within her lifetime, she was the inspiration for a short movie, a composition, an opera, and a video game.

[new music comes in]

Shortly after her death in 2007, Radio Venceremos made this tribute in which they describe her as an almost mythical figure. The witness, dressed in white, almost a martyr to the cause of the truth.


And to the FMLN, and others, the victims of the war are themselves martyrs for the rebel cause. But the people who returned to El Mozote don’t see the victims of the massacre as martyrs.
They see their deaths as empty.​ ​In 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights began its own investigation of El Mozote. Sol Yanez, who interviewed over 200 people and dozens of focus groups told the judges of the Court of Human Rights that there was no meaning to be found in those deaths. “This was a senseless act.” She said, “Thus it is difficult to make sense or give sense to these deaths.”

Rufina rarely went beyond a simple recitation of the facts when she talked about the massacre. And maybe, in the face of that void where an explanation for the violence would surface, she got some solace from those repeated affirmations of just what happened. Maybe she hoped that if she repeated it enough, it would never find a way to happen again—in another time or place.

After the peace accords that ended the civil war​, ​there were victories to be had: The U.N. Truth Commission did an archeological dig in the area and recovered remains that backed up Rufina’s story. In 1993, the New Yorker published Mark Danner’s expose on the massacre that laid bare the violent events, and the United States’ complicity. But over time, the story faded in public memory, at least in the United States. Replaced by newer and newer atrocities.

Shortly after Rufina’s death and the 25t​ h ​anniversary of the massacre, Alma Guillermoprieto, one of the reporters who first listened to Rufina’s testimony, wrote an article in the Washington Post about her. This one ended with the following, quote:

“​The events at El Mozote are no longer in dispute, but after a quarter of a century they are also no longer even a memory for the majority of Salvadorans, most of whom had not been born on the day when young girls were dragged screaming to the hills to be raped, and children cried out to their mothers as they were murdered. In [the US], people who once argued passionately over El Salvador would be hard pressed to remember when they last talked–or cared–about the fate of that tiny country. Having pumped tens of millions of dollars into the Salvadoran military, the U.S. government paid a fraction of the amount for the reconstruction effort once the war ended. And Rufina Amaya, a small, dark-skinned peasant woman, who had no other

weapon but her fierce will to live and to keep alive the memory of what she saw one vile day, is dead of a stroke at the age of 64. She will be remembered in El Salvador because she is now part of its history. She is part of the history of this country, too.” End quote.

And now, El Mozote is something of a tourist destination. A garden was built. Monuments surfaced. The church was rebuilt and covered in murals. An FMLN-affiliated NGO pays local women to lead tours of the site and to a small kiosk where one can buy locally made goods, T-shirts, pottery, memorabilia that reads ​El Mozote, Nunca Mas,​ and FMLN videos.

The women who lead the tours were not there in December of 1981, when the massacre took place. But they recite a condensed version of its story as told by Rufina Amaya. Her words, sometimes exaggerated or altered or perhaps sewn into a longer, more politically-charged narrative of history, are repeated again and again in that place of her pain, this time in new voices.

“Triste Triste (XXVII)”​by opo from the album Estudios Indigeniformes


Amaya, Rufina. “The Long Shadow of El Mozote.” ​Sojourners,​ 1994.
Binford, Arthur Leigh. ​The El Mozote Massacre Human Rights and Global Implications.​

revised ed., The University of Arizona Press, 2016.
Consalvi, Carlos “Santiago” Henriquez. “Radio Venceremos 1981-12-31, Parte 1.” ​Radio

Venceremos,​ 31 Dec. 181AD.
Danner, Mark. “The Truth of El Mozote.” ​The New Yorker,​ 6 Dec. 1993.

Elterman, Eytan. ​Rufina Amaya​. ​YouTube​, YouTube, 1 Oct. 2007, www.youtube.com/watch?v=uugzfJCi9Mw.
Guillermoprieto, Alma. “Shedding Light on Humanity’s Dark Side.” ​The Washington Post​,

14 Mar. 2007.
Ignacio, López Vigil José, and Mark Fried. ​Rebel Radio: the Story of El Salvador’s Radio

Venceremos.​ Curbstone Press, 1995.
Rubel LaChance, Naomi. “It Happened at El Mozote: How Two Reporters Broke the Story

That Washington Refused to Believe.” ​Bard College​, Bard College, 2016.
“Rufina Amaya, La Verdad Sobre El Mozote.” ​Tejiendo La Memoria​, created by Museo de

la Palabra yla Imagen, episode 06, Human Rights Documentation Initiative, 2007.

Wallas, Wendy. ​Rufina Amaya​. Alfalfa Grafics, 0AD. ​[HA1]​Fade out more clearly here