Grave Undertaking

Horrors of El Salvador massacre are exhumed in award-winning local documentary

"Argentina has a history of violence -- especially political violence -- that is daunting," notes Adams. She says that in the late '70s and early '80s, anything outside the holy trinity of the military, the ruling oligarchy and the Catholic Church was suspect and subject to attack -- college students, guerillas, trade unionists, as well as any young, politically extreme or intellectual person.

"People who were non-Catholic, homosexuals, Jews, Protestant evangelicals -- everyone who wasn't straight and narrow and accountable in the military's view of what was correct [was a potential target]," says Adams. "Universities were shut down or monitored very carefully. Obviously, the press was put under tight constraints.

"Since there wasn't a definitive enemies list," she adds, "it was always fluid and could include anybody. These kinds of things are what create terror -- when you don't know what act is punishable, but you know that certain acts will be, you start censoring yourself."

Artist Claudia Bernardi in the video Pasa Un Angel.
Artist Claudia Bernardi in the video Pasa Un Angel.
Penelope Price directed the movie and recently returned from shooting additional footage in El Salvador.
courtesy of Penelope Price
Penelope Price directed the movie and recently returned from shooting additional footage in El Salvador.

It was because of this personal experience that Bernardi agreed to become part of an Argentine forensic team that would literally unearth the truth about the civilian massacre at El Mozote.

Evidence of that bone-chilling event had been buried since the town of 300 was destroyed in December 1981 -- covered up not only by physical rubble, but also by official repudiation and defiant naysaying on the parts of both the Salvadoran government and the Reagan Administration.

Denial that the massacre ever took place continued for years, even in the face of eyewitness accounts from Rufina Amaya Marquez, a resident of El Mozote and the lone surviving witness to the wholesale decimation of its population, including her husband and children. News reports by well-respected reporters who had traveled to El Mozote shortly after the incident were denounced as unsubstantiated, guerilla-generated propaganda.

It was in early September 1992, following the signing of peace accords ending the Salvadoran civil war between the government and guerilla-led FMLN (Farabundo Martí Liberation Front), that Bernardi first visited El Salvador as a member of the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology. The peace agreement created a "truth commission" to delve into the question of human rights violations committed by both sides during the protracted war. After negotiating bureaucratic stumbling blocks thrown up by the Salvadoran government (including conscious foot-dragging by the chief justice of the Salvadoran Supreme Court), the U.N. Truth Commission appointed the Argentine forensic team to undertake the exhumation of what was left at El Mozote.

Bernardi's sister, archaeologist Patricia Bernardi, had been a member of the team since its formation in Buenos Aires in 1984. And Claudia Bernardi says the Argentine forensic group was particularly well-equipped for its grisly task in El Salvador. The team had been specifically created to conduct exhumations related to murders committed during Argentina's "dirty war" by the right-wing Argentine military junta that came to power in 1976.

"Given the history of Argentina, the team had a lot of practice throughout the 1980s," says Bernardi, who, at her sister's urging, joined the team as its official artist. She was responsible for mapping the first randomly chosen exhumation site located in the ruins of el convento, the sacristy area of El Mozote's small church.

What the Argentine forensic team uncovered, bit by bit, at El Mozote in late 1992, was the gruesome conclusion that Salvadoran army forces had systematically massacred civilians in El Mozote. The findings were based on testimony from witnesses (including Rufina Amaya), the Argentine team's exhumation discoveries and a final forensic investigative report prepared by American experts.

El convento was "where all the children were," Bernardi says. It was an important coincidence that the site was picked as the first to be exhumed.

"If we would have found five adults, one child, three older people, it would have been a much more difficult case to prove -- that murder against civilians had occurred," Bernardi notes, "because [the army] could have said that these people [were] members of the FMLN or harbored them. But with children, they couldn't."

According to the Truth Commission report: "There is no evidence to support the contention that these victims, almost all young children, were involved in combat or were caught in the crossfire of combat forces. Rather, the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that they were the intentional victims of a mass extra-judicial execution."

Though tried and found guilty of human rights violations, those responsible for the slaughter were ultimately given amnesty.

Three years ago, Claudia Bernardi sent Joe Segura a copy of the diary she kept during the exhumation at El Mozote -- a record she says she doesn't even remember keeping at the time. Segura was intrigued by her experience and its impact on Bernardi's art. For the past six years, the soft-spoken print publisher and his studio staff have been involved with the creation of the artist's monotypes -- heavily pigmented, richly colored one-of-a-kind prints Bernardi refers to as "frescoes on paper."

Almost immediately, Segura approached Bernardi with the idea of making a film, which he wanted to put on video, a less costly and easier medium to work in. With $7,000 in seed money from an ASU faculty grant, he began to assemble a working crew, get exhumation site photos reproduced and buy film and materials.

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