Human Rights Center Blog

Human Rights Photo, Day 6: Mimi Chakarova


Cristina’s family photo, Moldova, 2004
Mimi Chakarova

Mimi Chakarova, a native of Bulgaria, spent 10 years investigating the world of sex trafficking in Europe and the Middle East to produce the documentary The Price of Sex. She says building relationships with the girls–even more than her skills as a photographer–was critical to telling their stories. In this photo, Cristina, a victim of sex trafficking at the age of 16, holds up an old family photograph.

“The young women I followed over seven years grew up in rural villages similar to my own,” writes Chakarova. “Under Communism, we secretly hungered for opportunities in the West and when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, we left hoping for a taste of capitalism. Many young women, however, lacked the skills and education to survive. Desperate to leave, they fell prey to traffickers who sold them to pimps to work in brothels and sex clubs.”


In recognition of our 20th birthday, the Human Rights Center will send you a photo a day for 10 days. The photos come from the 10 world-class photographers who have generously shared their work with the center as part of the Envisioning Human Rights exhibit curated by Pamela Blotner at Berkeley Law this fall. Each photo touches on the center’s work with people who have suffered injustice and demonstrated great resilience.

To learn more about the photographs and the online auction, visit or

Human Rights Photo, Day 5: Susan Meiselas

NORTHERN IRAQ. Kurdistan. June 1992.

Widow at Mass Grave, Koreme, Iraq, 1992
Susan Meiselas

In the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s forces took control of Iraqi Kurdistan, killing thousands of Kurds and other minorities. Before entering the territory, the Iraqi air force dropped chemical weapons on scores of towns and villages. In this photo, a widow looks at the remains of family members found in a mass grave in the village of Koreme.

Following the first Gulf War, photographer Susan Meiselas accompanied a forensic team, led by Eric Stover and forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, to Iraqi Kurdistan to investigate atrocities and exhume mass graves. Evidence collected during the trip was used in the trials of Saddam Hussein and Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali.”

“Working with a small group of Kurds, we excavated where the gravediggers remembered burying the dead,” writes Meiselas about the experience. “Meticulously, earth was shoveled and then brushed away by hand, until finally the skull of a male teenager appeared, bearing a cloth blindfold.” Meiselas was so moved by the trip, she later returned to Iraqi Kurdistan to research and publish Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, a chronicle of Kurdish life told through a mosaic of portraits, diaries, and artifacts.


In celebration of our 20th birthday, the Human Rights Center will share a photo a day for 10 days. The photos come from the 10 world-class photographers who have generously shared their work with the center as part of the Envisioning Human Rights exhibit curated by Pamela Blotner at Berkeley Law this fall. Each photo touches on the center’s work with people who have suffered injustice and demonstrated great resilience.

To learn more about the photographs and the online auction, visit or

Human Rights Photo, Day 4: Nic Dunlop

Kompong Cham

Kampong Cham, Cambodia, 1992
Nic Dunlop

Nearly 40 years after the height of the Cambodian conflict, landmines continue to kill and maim civilians of all ages. This weapon of mass destruction in slow motion has led to thousands of amputees in northwestern Cambodia.

The Human Rights Center’s Eric Stover and British deminer, Rae McGrath, conducted the first research on the social and medical consequences of landmines in Cambodia. Their work helped to launch the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which along with its director Jody Williams, won the Nobel Prize in 1997.

“When I began working in Cambodia in the early 1990s,” writes the Bangkok-based photographer Nic Dunlop, “I became obsessed with the problem of landmines and what they were doing to ordinary people. I took the pictures with a burning anger and desire to see these weapons outlawed.” Dunlop’s photographs helped galvanize public opposition to the production and distribution of landmines worldwide.


In celebration of our 20th birthday, the Human Rights Center will share a photo a day for 10 days. The photos come from the 10 world-class photographers who have generously shared their work with the center as part of the Envisioning Human Rights exhibit curated by Pamela Blotner at Berkeley Law this fall. Each photo touches on the center’s work with people who have suffered injustice and demonstrated great resilience.

To learn more about the photographs and the online auction, visit or

Human Rights Photo, Day 3: Jean-Marie Simon

Religious Procession, Nebaj, Guatemala, 1982 Jean-Marie Simon

Religious Procession, Nebaj, Guatemala, 1982
Jean-Marie Simon

During the 1980s Jean-Marie Simon documented the violence perpetrated by the Guatemalan army on largely indigenous populations in what was called a “scorched-earth” campaign. Over three decades some 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared. Simon photographed both brutality and beauty–often side by side.

Writes Jean-Marie Simon:
“In the early 1980s, I traveled throughout Guatemala at the height of President Ríos Montt’s “scorched-earth campaign” against indigenous communities suspected of sympathizing with the guerrillas. Most of my photographs depicted scenes of violence and destruction, but, occasionally, I paused to capture moments of ordinary life. The portrait of the Ixil schoolgirls was taken just after photographing the bullet-riddled corpses of four men suspected of being guerrillas at the local army garrison up the street. Dawn was taken in Nebaj, Quiche, during a trek over the mountains to Acul, a neighboring Ixil village where the Army had killed 46 men, separating them into groups called “Heaven” and “Hell.” Those who went to “Heaven” were forced to bury those who went to “Hell.” I took the photograph of a solemn feast day procession in Nebaj two years after the Army had subjugated that population into a choice of submission or death. Photographing moments of tranquility and amity in the midst of a civil war may seem pointless—I certainly thought so back in 1980. But I later realized that those same images stood as a stark counterpoint to the brutality of the Guatemalan conflict by honoring the poignancy and dignity of a people under siege.”


In celebration of our 20th birthday, the Human Rights Center will share a photo a day for 10 days. The photos come from the 10 world-class photographers who have generously shared their work with the center as part of the Envisioning Human Rights exhibit curated by Pamela Blotner at Berkeley Law this fall. Each photo touches on the center’s work with people who have suffered injustice and demonstrated great resilience.

To learn more about the photographs and the online auction, visit or

Human Rights Photo, Day 2: Thomas Morley

Rose Lakue. 65 years of age and married with 5 children. In 2002 her eldest son was abducted by the LRA when they attacked her home. During the attack her husband was killed and everything was taken and her home was burned.The hands of Rose Lakue. 65 years of age and married with 5 children.In 2002 her eldest son was abducted by the LRA when they attacked her home. During the attack her husband was killed and everything was taken and her home was burned.

Rose Lakue, Uganda, 2005
Thomas Morley

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, ravaged northern Uganda from 1986 through 2009. The LRA abducted children to be soldiers and sex slaves, massacred villagers, and displaced more than 1.7 million people.

The LRA killed 65-year-old Rose Lakue’s husband, abducted her eldest son, and burned down her home.

Photographer Thomas Morley and HRC’s Eric Stover traveled to the Amida camp for the internally displaced and other camps in northern Uganda to document the violence. They interviewed and photographed survivors like Rose who were willing to tell their stories.

Writes Thomas Morley:
“Outside the Amida camp, under a stand of trees, I set up a wooden chair and sent a messenger inside to see if anyone was interested in having their photo taken. Over the next two days, to my utter surprise, dozens of women appeared in their best clothes, wearing what little jewelry they possessed. Younger women helped older women to sit under the trees, waiting, in turn, for me to take their pictures. I was awestruck and humbled by their quiet dignity and courage and by their determination not to be forgotten.”


In celebration of our 20th birthday, the Human Rights Center will send you a photo a day for 10 days. The photos come from the 10 world-class photographers who have generously shared their work with the center as part of the Envisioning Human Rights exhibit curated by Pamela Blotner at Berkeley Law this fall. Each photo touches on the center’s work with people who have suffered injustice and demonstrated great resilience. To learn more about the photographs and the online auction to benefit HRC’s work, visit


Human Rights Photo, Day 1: Gilles Peress

Forced Separation, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1993 by Gilles Peress

“Forced Separation, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1993″
Gilles Peress

In Gilles Peress’s photograph “Forced Separation, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1993,” family members are forced to flee while others are left behind during a conflict marked by ethnic cleansing, rape, and mass killing. Eric Stover, the Human Rights Center’s faculty director, worked with Peress during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and its aftermath. This photo, Stover says, captures the anguish of families being torn apart and the uncertainty of not knowing whether it is safer to stay or to go.

Gilles Peress raises the dilemma of human rights photography:

“I keep asking myself the fundamental question: Can human rights photography, like 18th century novels, be a vehicle for empathy? Can photographs motivate viewers to engage with human rights issues and bring about real change? As we know, badly used photography can be a vehicle for propaganda or emotional exploitation of the worst kind, and can ultimately desensitize viewers. Alternatively, if we accept the postmodernist argument mentioned above, we run the risk of photographs not being taken and entering a black hole of not seeing and a complete absence of consciousness. Which do you choose?”


In celebration of our 20th birthday, the Human Rights Center will share a photo a day for 10 days. The photos come from the 10 world-class photographers who have generously shared their work with the center as part of the Envisioning Human Rights exhibit curated by Pamela Blotner at Berkeley Law this fall. Each photo touches on the center’s work with people who have suffered injustice and demonstrated great resilience. To learn more about the photographs and the online auction to benefit HRC’s work, visit

Sex & Ed: The keys to unlocking a new future for girls

How asking for underwear and menstrual pads in northern Uganda breaks new ground 

Students at the Pader Girls Academy in northern Uganda launched a letter-writing campaign to ask for menstrual pads and are also sewing their own reusable pads.

Today we celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child, a date set aside each October to bring attention to the needs and rights of girls around the world and to encourage activities that will help girls to realize their power and achieve their potential. Here is why the Day of the Girl matters and why the weight of the #dayofthegirl movement can’t be distilled to a tweet.

In May, I packed my bags for east Africa to fulfill a summer internship requirement for my Masters of Public Health degree. Awarded a University of California Human Rights Fellowship from the Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law, I would spend three months at Pader Girls Academy (PGA), a boarding school in rural northern Uganda. I aimed to create the school’s first-ever sexual and reproductive health curriculum.

I quickly learned to back up a few steps.

Uganda tells us a lot about the experience of the “girl child.” Seventy percent of Ugandans are 25 years old or younger and 25 percent of Ugandan girls aged 15–19 are pregnant or already have a child. Discrimination against women in Uganda is a result of rules and practices that explicitly exclude women, such as the traditional policy that requires schoolgirls to terminate their education for two years if they become pregnant. Though policy has been overturned, many institutions continue to adhere to the original rule. To further highlight the lack of agency that Ugandan girls experience, the most recent Demographic Health Survey reported that 77 percent of girls ages 15-19 are not allowed to participate in household decision-making.

Girls across the developing world share these complex barriers to health, education, and empowerment. However, the girls of northern Uganda face an additional challenge.

The country continues to suffer the aftermath of a 25-year rebel war, which was characterized by infamously brutal “recruitment” tactics. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—the rebel group at the heart of the violence—abducted an estimated 60,000–80,000 people throughout the course of the conflict, manipulating young boys to fight and forcing young girls to act as “brides” to high commanders.

As the conflict drew to a close, many abductees escaped or were released. But coming home was not always celebratory or even possible.

Adolescent girls who came out of the LRA often brought with them their children who were born in captivity and fathered by rebel commanders. These young women faced enormous barriers to acceptance from their families and communities and challenges reintegrating in society. Pader Girls Academy (PGA) was founded for them.

PGA is the only school in the region that allows young mothers to keep their babies with them as they continue their studies. The school even provides free childcare. PGA has opened its arms to child mothers and other vulnerable young women beyond the original former-abductee population.

During my time in Pader, I surveyed these students, interviewed their teachers and conducted focus groups to better understand their needs and desires for sexual and reproductive health. My students did want information, but they also wanted something much more basic: underwear, soap, and menstrual pads.

I realized that if I didn’t own underwear, I probably wouldn’t be thinking about my long-term family planning strategy either.

In the United States, the average woman spends $150 each year on menstrual hygiene products. Many families in rural Uganda earn less than $150 in an entire year.

According to some studies, 66 percent of girls know nothing about menstruation until they start their menses. Imagine how traumatic this could be. Most girls at PGA use rags or old t-shirts to stuff in their underwear during their period. Most can’t afford disposable pads and many cannot even afford underwear. If blood soaks through their clothing, they may skip classes to avoid the embarrassment. According to a UNICEF study conducted in Uganda, 61 percent of girls reported missing school due to their monthly period.

Some of my students told me that girls’ inability to afford pads was a key reason that so many became pregnant. What? The causal pathway was not immediately clear to me.

The students explained that when a girl cannot afford pads (or clothing, transportation, school fees, etc.), an older man may offer to pay for those things and later expect sex. This exploitation coupled with the extreme lack of family-planning knowledge contributes to Uganda’s high school drop-out and teen pregnancy rates.

After listening to these needs and concerns, I organized an advocacy workshop. The head girl of the school, Grace, selected a few girls from each grade who were considered the “best writers.” I worked with them to identify and articulate their needs and to communicate those needs to key decision-makers.

The girls wrote letters to companies such as Hanes and Kotex on behalf of the school. They wrote about their dreams and their challenges, describing how donations of basic hygiene resources would have a positive impact on the trajectory of their studies.

The response was overwhelming. The girls’ letters sparked a conversation between Lunapads, a Canadian company that sells reusable menstrual pads, and me and ultimately led their Ugandan partner company, Afripads, to donate “hygiene kits,” to every student at Pader Girls Academy. Each kit contains several pairs of underwear, a set of reusable pads, and a bar of soap.

The students were thrilled. At our end-of-term assembly, we recognized the girls who wrote the letters and applauded them for their initiative and their service to the school. It was a powerful moment.

Building on this momentum of self-sufficiency, the tailoring instructor of PGA and I identified a simple pattern and local materials to sew reusable pads ourselves. We taught the vocational students how to sew their own pads and encouraged them to make extras to sell in their home villages over the term break.

PGA is a community of girls who have been stripped of their power. Poverty happens to them, sex happens to them, pregnancy happens to them. To see these strong young women reclaiming their voices, taking initiative, and finding a sense of control over even one aspect of their lives is thrilling—especially when that one seemingly small thing—menstruation— can have such a ripple effect on other areas of their lives and on the rest of their lives.

On this International Day of the Girl Child, we must recognize that educating girls is a priority that goes hand-in-hand with ensuring that their basic needs are met—and working with them as they regain their voices to ask for what they need.

Maggie Crosby is a student in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley and a 2014 Human Rights Fellow from the UC Berkeley School of Law. 

Human Rights Fellow dispatch: views and visuals on Gaza

As part of my internship with Visualizing Palestine, I went through the names and ages of those killed in Gaza during the recent conflict, including those of more than 450 children. Despite the divisiveness of the  Israeli occupation of the West Bank and their blockade of Gaza, I thought that surely the numbers of dead children would stir empathy on both sides. But many in the United States can only support Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas’ rockets, not the Palestinians’ right to defend themselves from Israel’s siege.

The United States was the only country on the United Nation’s Human Rights Council to vote against an investigation into Israel’s invasion of Gaza, and the Senate voted unanimously in favor of Israel’s ground incursion. I do not condone violence by either side, but what is lost in the debate is the disproportionality of the violence inflicted. This is what Visualizing Palestine has tried to show with these three infographics.

One of the infographics is an update to the Timeline of Violence that charts the deaths on both sides. If all human life is equal then why is there not more outspokenness in the United States against Israel’s violence against the Palestinians? The second traces ceasefire violations by both sides since the last Israeli military operation in Gaza in November 2012. Although Israeli violations were more frequent and more deadly, why—especially in the United States—do we only hear about Hamas’ rockets? The third infographic draws a comparison between the terror experienced by the United States on September 11th, and the terror experienced by the Palestinians of Gaza so many times in recent years. It tries to communicate shared experiences of grief, while contrasting stages of healing and recovery, showing how the people of New York city mourned and memorialized their losses, while their counterparts in Gaza were not allowed to recover when they have had little respite from Israeli violence and blockade.

More than 40 percent of Gaza’s population is under the age of 14. This is a generation growing up knowing only war. In my research for these three infographics for Visualizing Palestine, I took down many of the names and ages of those children who have become victims of this violence. If their deaths cannot change minds, and hopefully change my country’s policy, then I do not know what will. 

The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
vp-timeline-of-violence-en-rev01-20140716 VP-Gaza-Grief-2014-07-26-02 VP-CeasefireViolations-DATASKETCH-20140724

United Nation’s Bangura visits Boalt, delivers frank words on sexual violence in conflict

(Left to right) The Human Rights Center's Kim Thuy Seelinger and the United Nation's Zainab Bangura speak about sexual violence in conflict at Boalt Hall on Feb. 18.

Zainab Hawa Bangura, the United Nation’s Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, spoke to UC Berkeley students and community members at Boalt Hall on February 18 in a dynamic interview-style conversation with Kim Thuy Seelinger, director of the Human Rights Center’s Sexual Violence Program. These two experts discussed the serious problem of conflict-related sexual violence, the role of courts, the experience of men and boys, and hopes for advancements in the field, in an event sponsored by the Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law, International Human Rights Law Clinic, Human Rights Center, and Boalt Hall Committee for Human Rights.

Bangura attributes her current appointment at the UN, which she has held since September 2012, to her past work as founder and director of the largest humanitarian organization in her home country of Sierra Leone, where she led significant work to document wartime atrocities. She has 20 years of practical, political and diplomatic experience in the fields of governance, conflict resolution, and reconciliation in Africa. As the founder and chair of the Movement for Progress Party, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (she was the second woman to hold this position), and the Minister of Health and Sanitation for Sierra Leone, Bangura advocated for affordable health care and the elimination of genital mutilation. She has also been instrumental in managing numerous peace-building initiatives.

Seelinger directs the Human Rights Center’s teaching and research on conflict-related sexual violence. Her fieldwork in Uganda, Haiti, Liberia, Kenya, and Vietnam, in conjunction with her academic focus on the legal and health implications of sexual and gender-based violence, has led to groundbreaking research initiatives with direct policy implications.

Bangura’s and Seelinger’s perspectives and warm candidness fueled an enlightening conversation. Read on for excerpts.

Kim Thuy Seelinger: What do you hope to accomplish in this term as the United Nations Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict?

Zainab Bangura: My biggest wish is to make sure we prosecute people and send the message that it is a crime. It’s not a second-class crime that happens to second-class citizens. It’s a war crime. It’s a crime against humanity. If you commit it, irrespective of who you are, or where you are, we will go after you.

KTS: How do we define conflict-related sexual violence?

ZB: The perpetrator and the victim have to have a relation to the conflict. It’s in the form of rape, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization….[The definition] has helped me to be able to do my job because it is very specific. You know, we have violence happening in South Africa but I can’t get involved, because . . . you have to have the legal opinion that it is a “conflict country.”

But we do believe that if you don’t protect your women in peace, you will not be in a position to protect them in conflict. Obviously, the issue of sexual violence does not happen by accident, it is related to the social structure in the society and community.

KTS: We have more and more evidence and reporting about men and boys being victims of rape and other types of sexual torture in conflict. How does your office deal with this issue?

It is different than with women, in a sense, because it happens often during interrogation, when [perpetrators] want to solicit information, under detention, checkpoints. Basically, it’s used as a tool to intimidate and force information from these men—and on occasion, to humiliate them. In Bosnia, we only learned quite recently that men were sexually abused. I met a man who was forced to sexually abuse his own son. . . . It’s something that has been so hidden.

The challenge we have is that the whole structure and the mechanism of the UN was geared toward protecting women. We still believe that 95 percent of the victims or more are women—but more and more evidence is coming out that we have men who have been sexually abused.

KTS: I remember there were a few studies that came out in the past few years with data about a surprising number of men who mentioned that they had been violated and that there had been female perpetrators involved in some cases. It’s such a nuanced problem. We’re just starting to understand the whole spectrum of harm that happens and to whom. How can the UN move in that direction?

ZB: How do we re-orient ourselves? We’re getting people to accept that it’s not just a women’s issue. It’s a development issue. It’s a human rights issue. It cuts across gender and age . . . .My youngest victim as I sit here is 3 months old; I’ve seen a 75 year old blind woman in Somalia; I met an old man in Somalia who saw his two daughters—4 and 6 years old—being raped. . . . No continent has a monopoly on it.

KTS: Often the perpetrator is a state actor or a military agent. I was wondering if you could comment on the particular challenges to accountability that arise when it’s actually the state that is implicated in perpetration.

ZB: In some cases, the key perpetrators invariably are the security forces. It’s the weakness of the state that leads to conflict in most cases. So the government’s reaction, from my personal experience in Sierra Leone, is to increase the military. They don’t give them adequate training. They don’t even know where they are. They deploy them for long periods of time without following up on them.

And when I spoke to military leaders in the DRC, I asked why they have so much sexual violence. They said it’s because there’s no accountability. They said, “If people commit the rape and they are investigated and prosecuted and forced to serve their sentences, we would control the rape.” And I think that’s what we’re trying to do with governments—to go into agreements with the military and get a plan of action to support military prosecutors. The rule of law has collapsed. If the police commit the crime and you ask a police officer to handle the investigation, what do you expect?

KTS:  As you say, each conflict has unique features. On the other hand, the UK Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative is underway and they are hoping to draft a protocol for the documentation and investigation of sexual violence related to conflict. Can you tell us about the initiative, the protocol and its key features, and how it can actually be useful on the ground?

ZB: First, I need to commend the British government . . . .The leadership has been tremendous at the global level. One of the biggest challenges we have in terms of sexual violence is prosecution. How do you prosecute without collecting the evidence? If you don’t collect the evidence in time and don’t do it extremely well, you destroy the case.

To actually get a protocol that puts the standards in place that would [establish] how you document and collect the evidence . . . how you protect it . . .how you use that evidence to prosecute. . . . It’s fantastic. . . . We have the legal framework. The next step is implementation. How do we make sure that perpetrators are prosecuted, witness are protected? . . . We will use that tool to train in countries to work with judiciaries, the police, from country to country.

KTS: What is the possible contribution of academia to help with this work?

ZB: By doing a lot of research and work on it, we tell the right story. It will help us to put faces and names and identities behind stories.

We need to generate more information to understand the scope and characteristics of sexual violence . . . .When does it happen and how? [There is] so much information we still don’t have in terms of [male victims]—we still don’t have the statistics, so it’s very difficult to convince partners to put aside services for men . . . . You don’t send a man to a gynecologist or a midwife. It requires resources, planning.

That’s why we need to develop a relationship with the academy, to help shape our response.

Audience question: Please share some of your experiences in Sierra Leone before you became the Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General:

The reason why I became a women’s rights activist is because I was discriminated against . . . . My father was a Muslim cleric and my mother was illiterate. By the time I was 12, my father wanted to marry me off to some grandfather. My mother refused and so he kicked us out of the house.

My mother was not allowed to go to school, but my mother insisted that I go to school. She knew what happened to her. The male members of the family were educated and she wasn’t educated. . . . And I think by virtue of education and the position I came to accept . . . . everyone realized the value of the girl child.

In my village, they still don’t have a school; they don’t have water supply, a health facility. It’s the real village life. But today, I am head of that family. In one generation I have moved from being a chattel, a property, somebody who cannot make a decision, to being the head of a family. Today no decision is being made in that community without reference to me. What changed this was education. All of a sudden, they realized: She’s educated. And because of that education she has been able to achieve one of the highest positions in the country. Now she’s respected in the country and around the world. She’s our daughter.

The society in which I was born and the society I grew up with and the society in which I see now in my country in are completely different. And the war, one way or the other, helped. In the area or region where I come from, we didn’t educate the girls. When people went to refugee camps, they saw humanitarian workers who were women…and it changed their perception. When we came back after the war, the enrollment of the girl child in school increased by 300 percent. They now realize that we have to educate our daughters. . . . It’s changing. I feel proud because now I am like a role model. Everybody has seen that if she can do it, so can we. I take that as an opportunity to be an inspiration and hope to young women and to tell them, ‘I did this so that you can.’


Forensic Experts Bolster El Salvador’s Intended Investigation of El Mozote

Dorila Márquez (second from the left) talks about losing her parents and other family members in the massacre of El Mozote.

Forensic experts from around the world met in El Salvador last week to support the country’s first tentative steps toward investigating what is considered among the most heinous atrocities in Latin American history—the massacre of El Mozote.

By inviting the Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law and forensic scientists from Argentina, Guatemala, and Bosnia-Herzegovina to El Salvador, the Supreme Court of Justice gave hopeful signs that it intends to comply with the sentence of the Inter-American Court to investigate the massacre that took place in December 1981.

Like the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 and the six Jesuit priests in 1989, the massacre of El Mozote is both a painful reality and a tragic symbol of the darkest days of the war. Over three days in the eastern department of Morazan, the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion terrorized and killed more than 1,000 villagers, among them some 400 children—the youngest only three days old.

Since the end of the 12-year war in 1992, El Salvador’s Amnesty Law has prevented the prosecution of those who committed human rights abuses during the armed conflict. However the Inter-American Court ruled in October 2012 that the massacre of El Mozote violated international law, specifically the American Convention on the “rights to life, to personal integrity and to personal liberty” and other articles related to rape, torture, and the murder of children. The Court sentenced El Salvador to investigate the facts of the massacre, identify and prosecute those responsible, and return remains of the victims to their next of kin.

El Salvador was asked to take action within two years—by December 2014—but the clock ticked for a full year without progress. Until now.

Finally, under the new leadership of El Salvador’s provisional Supreme Court Justice Florentín Meléndez Padilla, who took office last fall, the state has begun to comply. Meléndez and the Supreme Court’s Institute of Legal Medicine invited the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, the International Commission on Missing Persons in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center to spend four days in El Salvador offering scientific advice and insights.

The meeting has helped to establish progress on El Mozote in case any political winds (and political personnel) shift with the presidential elections—the second round of which will be held on March 9.

“We do need great wisdom in these four days so that we can agree to an action plan—not in months but in weeks,” said Dr. Cristián Orrego Benavente, director of the Human Rights Center’s Forensic Program, at the outset of the meeting, expressing the need to act quickly.

The forensic scientists who visited El Salvador have decades of experience searching for graves, exhuming bodies, identifying remains, and scientifically documenting crimes—often with the participation of grieving families. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team has worked on El Mozote intermittently over two decades under the sponsorship of Tutela Legal, the former human rights office of the Archdiocese of the Catholic Church of El Salvador.

While El Mozote’s massacre has been well reported by journalists (most notably Raymond Bonner in The New York Times, Alma Guillermoprieto in The Washington Post, and Mark Danner in The New Yorker) and intensive investigations and exhumations have been performed by the Argentinians, the state itself has never investigated the crime.

During meetings at the Supreme Court of Justice in San Salvador, the visiting scientists raised critical questions for their Salvadoran colleagues who will conduct the work, including: How will the families of the victims of El Mozote be involved from the very beginning of the process, as mandated by the Court? Are there more graves to exhume and what will happen if family members don’t want to unearth them? What are the best forensic tools to use in this investigation? What are the challenges associated with investigating a massacre that happened 32 years ago?

The scientists and Salvadoran colleagues traveled more than three hours east from San Salvador to El Mozote to see the massacre sites and to hear testimonies from victims’ family members. They also spoke with the legendary Belgian priest, Father Rogelio Ponselle, who has worked with the community for some 20 years, and visited the monument that honors the victims.

“This is where we found fifteen people—five from my family and ten from another,” said Orlando Márquez, standing on a hill and pointing to a stretch of field flanked by cows where El Mozote’s dead were once strewn. It’s a story he has told several times in the 32 years since the massacre.

Now, with a new state-sponsored investigation, he and other family members will likely recount their stories again—this time for the official record.

Despite the ubiquitous history of political violence in the country, Salvadoran forensic investigators simply have not had the means to investigate or formally prosecute massacres. Moreover, they are burdened by simultaneously investigating an all-consuming gang war marked by brutality that has produced a steady stream of disfigured and mutilated victims.

All agreed that the scientific expertise of forensic experts who have worked in the trenches throughout Latin America, Africa, and Europe will be critical to the future of El Salvador’s investigation of El Mozote. Last weeks’ meetings marked an essential step toward revisiting and beginning to repair a wartime atrocity and accurately preserving historical memory—for surviving families like that of Márquez and for all Salvadorans.

Rapid next steps—including meetings with families, scientists, prosecutors, and Salvadoran officials—will hopefully propel El Salvador toward satisfying the Inter-American Court’s ruling and seeking a measure of truth and justice for victims and the nation as a whole.