Witness to Inhumanity


A Short Conversation With a Hero, Rufina Amaya

Rufina Amaya survived the massacre of 809 people at El Mozote, El Salvador, on December 11, 1981. She died in March 2007 at the age of sixty-four. She was survived by her few remaining family members and a large host of men and women who admired and supported her. She didn’t consider herself a hero, but a simple woman of faith that does justice. And a woman, a person of love.

Bearing witness! Presente! She bore a lot: the killings of nearly an entire village, including four of her children and her husband, by US trained government thugs, ordered by paranoid leaders who didn’t want their power threatened. The soldiers wrenched Amaya’s two little babies from her arms.

Ronald Reagan’s administration trained and equipped the Salvadoran army whom he called “Freedom Fighters,” and supported a government that Bishop Oscar Romero, at the cost of his own life on March 24, 1980, courageously denounced as perpetrators of gross violations of human rights and the murders of innocent people.

As a spirited response to this savage massacre of human beings, human flowers, Amaya spoke to small groups about her Catholic faith and practice and the need for all, both citizens and their governments, to respect and promote human rights.

May she rest in Ever-Abiding, Light-Bearing Peace.

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November 20, 1999 Interview: Fort Benning, Georgia

Rufina emanated an aura of genuine bearing witness to an atrocity, while remaining peaceful and utterly human and humble. I just loved Rufina when I first saw her: light, even in darkness. She had a special beauty, small boned, a round open face, crafted from unbearable suffering met by indomitable spirit. She fixed her hair, pulled back and up into a bun, which stuck straight up. She was slightly chubby; children were extremely attracted to her. She told us she just wanted to tell her story in quiet, righteous anger, calling for real change. She exuded courage, simplicity. and nobility; her voice was strong when she addressed thousands of people at the protests against the School of the Americas (now named Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation).

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God saved me because he needed someone to tell the story of what happened.-Rufina Amaya, New York Times, 1996.

MZC: Thanks so much, Rufina. I just feel I’d like to be with you. That feeling of sharing this little moment with you and wanting to support you. You’re wonderful, a light-full inspiration; I pray for you every day.

When the 1981 massacre occurred at El Mozote, with its 809 victims, it was first denied by both the Salvadoran and American governments, despite what many community and church leaders were telling the world. You, being the sole survivor, had the courage to tell what happened in your village of twenty houses facing the community square. You’ve told this story now for eighteen years.

In 1990, you were the first to testify in a criminal complaint against the Atlacatl Battalion (trained by American advisors) by Pedro Chica Romero of La Joya, a nearby hamlet to El Mozote. Pedro was a witness in his little hamlet to another killing of some of his relatives and neighbors by the Atlacatl Battalion. It wasn’t until the El Salvador Peace Treaty of 1992 that an Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team was appointed by the United Nations to excavate the zone and finally begin exhumation.

You have our admiration and love, Rufina.

May I ask you about what motivates you to tell your heart-breaking story?

RA: I feel I’m doing what God wants me to do, what I have all my desire to do. It’s part of how I practice being a Catholic, not a separate activity. My story telling and speaking with people come from my heart and also from my pain, my suffering the loss of my husband, Domingo Claros, who was twenty-nine; my son, Cristino, nine, and my three daughters Maria Dolores, five, Maria Lillian, three; and Maria Isabel, eight months. I can’t even cry anymore. It’s true: my body produced so many tears that they are all gone. I speak to you; I speak for them, my family, my friends, and my neighbors who cannot speak any more. Even though I’m a simple person, I use my voice so people will not forget what happened at El Mozote.

MZC: Just two more questions would be all right? What’s your participation in the organized church? Do you consider yourself an “activist”?

RA: I’m a lay pastor in the Catholic Church in El Salvador; my faith is very important as it gives me love, as do my family and friends. My religion gives me courage not to be afraid to speak out loudly, and my religion allows me to get refreshed spiritually. I like to lead “reflection groups,” where we talk about the relationship of God to our own lives. I’ve had so many visitors from all around the world; I truly feel I’m meant to talk, and I’m happy and serious to talk. I do practice quiet prayer and have some reflection time also, but I would call myself an activist. I’ll never be quiet about what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s unjust abuse, unjust murder against innocent, good people. I’m publicly asking those responsible for the murders to publicly ask our pardon. Yes, I am an activist and also a Catholic. I’m outspoken. I’m not satisfied. Yet, I’m a person of faith too, not only an activist.