(IPS) – A choked-up Mercedes Alfaro told the fourth session of the International Restorative Justice Tribunal in El Salvador how she lost seven members of her family in a 1982 massacre.
“It’s very hard to lose the ones you love the most,” the 50-year-old survivor of the massacre in Guajoyo told the panel of judges and the courtroom audience in the town of Tecoluca, in the central province of San Vicente.
In Guajoyo, a subdivision of the municipality of Tecoluca, the army slaughtered some 200 people in June 1982, including Alfaro’s parents and siblings.
Testimony from survivors and witnesses to the massacres and human rights abuses committed during the 1980-1992 civil war was heard by the court from Mar. 21 to Mar. 23.
The armed conflict between state security forces and the former guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), now the governing political party, left 75,000 people dead and 8,000 disappeared. The 124 massacres, involving the killing of nearly 8,000 people, were almost all perpetrated by the army.
The fourth session held by the court in El Salvador focused on massacres committed in and around San Vicente, which had a strong guerrilla presence during the civil war. The army carried out around 40 massacres in the province.
The Restorative Justice Tribunal was organised by the Human Rights Institute at the Central American University (IDHUCA), based on the international justice movement originated in the 1980s that does not seek prosecution and imprisonment of those responsible, but rather reparations for the victims.
According to the United Nations, “Restorative justice refers to a process for resolving crime by focusing on redressing the harm done to the victims, holding offenders accountable for their actions and often also engaging the community in the resolution of that conflict.”
“We want to create a space for victims to speak out and be heard,” José Ramón Juániz, president of Lawyers of the World, an NGO based in Valencia, Spain and a member of the bench at the Tecoluca tribunal, told IPS.
Many people who took the stand as witnesses had never described their experiences in public before.
“I didn’t have the courage to talk about everything that happened, but I just asked God to give me the strength,” said Alfaro.
Unlike the 1981 massacre in El Mozote, for example, that drew widespread attention because some 1,000 people had been killed, many of the people testifying now in Tecoluca have not even been recognised as victims, because their cases have never reached the justice system.
Apart from Juániz, the tribunal was made up of Rosario Valpuesta, a professor at the Pablo de Olivide University in Spain; Carol Proner, a human rights expert from Brazil; José María Tomás y Tío, a judge and head of the Foundation for Justice of Valencia, Spain; Suelli Aparecida Bellato, vicepresident of Brazil’s Amnesty Commission; and Ramón Cárdenas, a Salvadoran survivor of the May 1980 Sumpul massacre in Chalatenango province, where some 600 people were killed.
The army suspected these rural communities of providing logistical support for the rebels of the FMLN, which became a political party after a 1992 peace deal put an end to the war.
When the army descended on Guajoyo in June 1982, the people fled, but they were trapped on the bank of the Lempa river. Some managed to swim away, but many adults and children trying to cross the river on a raft were machine-gunned from a helicopter, survivors said.
“Their bodies were carried away by the river,” said Alfaro, who was talking about her experience for the first time. She also described how the soldiers forced her to cook for them, after they had murdered her family.
The Guajoyo massacre does not appear among the human rights violations investigated by the United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission that was established at the end of the war.
The concept of restorative justice calls for the participation not only of the victims, but of the perpetrators, who, freed from the fear of prosecution, can admit to their crimes. The goal is to bring about forgiveness by the survivors, and reconciliation.
“Let the killers come and ask us for forgiveness;” said Juan Cornelio Chicas, a 58-year-old survivor of the 1981 massacre in Junquillo in the northern province of Morazán. “I am willing to forgive them, but I want to hear them say, ‘Look, I killed your children.’ I will never forget my children,” he said with tears in his eyes.
About 70 people, including 10 children, were killed in Junquillo.
But those accused of the murders did not attend the court sessions in Tecoluca, not even the ones identified by the Truth Commission, like Captain Carlos Medina Garay, who was one of the officers commanding the military operation that ended in the Junquillo massacre.
Military personnel involved in human rights abuses have escaped justice thanks to the 1993 amnesty law.
“Unfortunately, the perpetrators are not willing to testify,” Proner told IPS.
In spite of constant calls from local and international human rights organisations for the repeal of the amnesty law, the country’s politicians and justice authorities have kept it in force.
Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes of the FMLN, who took office in 2009, has refused to even open a debate on the possibility of revoking the amnesty law, in spite of having apologised in January on behalf of the state for the victims of the El Mozote massacre.
“This is a government that apologises to the victims while forgiving and protecting the perpetrators,” Benjamín Cuéllar, the head of IDHUCA, told IPS.
The written decisions summarising the testimony and the findings of the tribunal are not binding, but are intended to have moral force for the victims. However, Proner said the reports could form the basis for local and international legal action in future.
In previous sessions of the tribunal, the decisions have called for the state to provide material, psychological and moral reparations for victims. But government agencies have consistently ignored the appeals.
“It is up to the authorities and the Salvadoran state, not the court, to determine appropriate reparations mechanisms,” said Juániz.
Several witnesses called for justice to be done. At the very least, they said, the state should pay compensation, and the army’s archives should be opened, so that the truth about what happened can be made public.
They also called for the perpetrators to apologise, and for the bust of Roberto d’Aubuisson (1944-1992) erected in a square in San Salvador to be torn down.
The rightwing D’Aubuisson was the founder of the death squads that collaborated with the armed forces in the massacres of civilians during the armed conflict.