The legacy of the brutal Salvadoran civil war between the military government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) left the small Central American country in a state of despair.
The vivid images of death squads targeting 75.000 civilians and widespread memories of arbitrary displacement and torture continue to haunt a large proportion of the older generations in El Salvador.
Although the Chapultepec Peace Agreement was signed in 1992 and more recently President Mauricio Funes in 2012 issued an official apology on behalf of the Salvadoran state, genuine efforts towards reconciliation have been overshadowed by the pressing social issues of today.
High levels of crime and violence perpetrated by youthful drugs gangs and vast social inequality have become structural hurdles to the socioeconomic development of the country.
Given these circumstances, political action has been diverted towards urgent visible needs rather than the hidden traumas of the past.
This neglect in addressing the psychological scars of the civil war has hindered the healing of a divided society.
To open up dialogue and generate discussion about the socioeconomic and psychological impacts of the civil war, a UK project called ‘Stories of El Salvador’ was recently shown in London.
Its aim was to educate the outside world about the present struggles and tragic history of the community of Santa Marta in the north of El Salvador, a village which was deeply affected by the atrocities of the past.
The project involved an exhibition by London-born photographer and film-maker Elam Forrester, which illustrated the current struggles faced by the inhabitants of Santa Marta and other villages in the region.
Forrester based her interpretation of the complex political context upon her own experiences in El Salvador, travelling to the country in 2012 under the UK government-funded Progressio International Citizenship Service.
Having been inspired by the local communities’ determination to overcome the challenges of daily life, particularly with regards to women’s empowerment, Forrester began documenting their stories and creating an archive of powerful photography to make the voices of the ordinary people heard.
The exhibition documents the vital role that women played in the 1980s civil war and explores how their skills and determination have continued to promote women’s rights to the present day, helping them to build small businesses and establish women’s organisations.
‘Stories of El Salvador’ also featured the theatre play ‘Stories from Santa Marta’, written and directed by Bethan McEvoy. The work explored the relationships between different generations and, more specifically, how the nation has passed the legacy of the civil war on to its children.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the depiction of social realities was that it was based upon a true story. Through a mixture of psychotherapy and theatrical techniques, McEvoy gathered personal testimonies as part of a three-month workshop in Santa Marta.
In collaboration with trauma healing experts, the project encouraged victims of the civil war to share their fears and hopes with the younger members of their community and to help the older generationscome to terms with the past.
According to McEvoy: ‘Additionally the project aims to address the serious problem of unemployment and lack of opportunities for young people by including a team of young people who will be working on the project. To help provide useful skills and experiences, young people within the community will also be taught how to plan and direct projects for the future.’
The pivotal role of innovative projects like that of the playwright McEvoy was acknowledged by the El Salvadoran National Theatre, where her production was officially performed.
If one thing is to be taken from the culture of telling stories in the community of Santa Marta, it should be their local saying, “we must not forget, because a community that forgets is doomed to repeat it”.