London researchers want to recover El Salvador's forgotten past

London-based researchers are working on documenting El Salvador's civil war — a history that's largely remained in the shadows.

They hope to recover the stories of massacre survivors, civilians who were displaced

Researchers set up makeshift galleries with decades-old pictures of the civil war in small communities like this one in Copapayo, El Salvador. The photos, which have been archived and unseen for years, are finally being viewed by Salvadorans affected by the war. (Moses Monterroza)

For over three decades, El Salvador's history has remained largely in the shadows. But a team of London researchers is changing that.

In collaboration with organizations in the small Central American country, scholars at Western University are documenting the Salvadoran civil war, which lasted from 1979 to 1992.

"Particularly the experiences of massacre survivors, civilians who were internally displaced and refugees," said Amanda Grzyb, associate professor of Information and Media Studies at Western and leader of the project.

Grzyb has been traveling on and off to El Salvador this year with a team of researchers hailing from all over the world, including Canada, Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Belgium, Mexico and El Salvador. They're calling it "Surviving Memory in Postwar El Salvador."

Last month, she went with Reynaldo Hernàndez, key collaborator on the project and Salvadoran native, to gather interviews and locations. She said part of their project includes the creation of an interactive map of 58 communities that were affected by massacres during the war.

The pictures up on display in Copapayo depicted life in Mesa Grande, a refugee camp that existed in Honduras during the 1980s. Reynaldo Hernàndez says seeing these photos can be emotional but also healing. (Moses Monterroza)

They've been trekking through remote massacre sites and mass graves accompanied with survivors — obtaining GPS coordinates and then recording video and audio testimonies.

"It's really important that these stories are recovered," Grzyb told CBC London. "Survivors are aging and many of them are in their 60s, 70s and 80s now. It's important that this documentation happens."

The project in its entirety includes two other initiatives. The first is a traveling photo exhibition in small communities in El Salvador.

In April, they held one in a small community called Copapayo. The photos, which were obtained through several photo donors and Oxfam Canada, depict life in Mesa Grande, a refugee camp that existed in Honduras, a country that borders El Salvador.

Amanda Grzyb sits in a workshop with researchers and community members of Copapyo, El Salvador. Grzyb is leading the project that hopes to document forgotten history during El Salvador's civil war. (Moses Monterroza )

The second project involves the creation of a community-based memorial park at the site of one of El Salvador's most gruesome massacres, the Sumpul river. This project is in collaboration with two Belgian architects and three Salvadoran organizations, including the Association of Chalatenango Massacres, The Association of the Development of El Salvador and SalvAide.

It all began in a coffee shop.

The project began in the summer of 2011, when former chair of Oxfam Canada, Meyer Brownstone, happened to walk into the coffee shop in Toronto that Hernàndez was working in.

In the 1980s, Brownstone documented refugee camps in Honduras for Oxfam Canada. He conducted fact-finding missions, brought delegations of Canadians to those camps and was head of an investigation on the inhuman practices of Honduran troops to Salvadoran refugees.

Reynaldo Hernàndez was born in El Salvador and as a child, lived in the refugee camp Mesa Grande. He says this project is important for healing and remembering a past that is often intentionally forgotten. (Moses Monterroza )

Hernàndez had grown up in one of those camps: Mesa Grande. And when Brownstone told him he had several photos of those days laying around in his basement, Hernàndez felt obligated to do something with them.

"When I saw the photos for the first time, it took me back 25 years in time," said Hernàndez​

"It was quite emotional, being back there and looking at all these faces that I recognize but I couldn't put the names to. I started thinking, something needs to be done with this. These photos don't belong in a basement in Canada."

Hernàndez had brainstormed a few ideas — making a museum, creating an online gallery and making a movie — but he didn't have the funds to realize them. That is, until he met Grzyb, who'd been already working El Salvador as a researcher.

An opportunity for students

In October, Grzyb plans to take a delegation of students to El Salvador for an opportunity to learn about the country's social movements, its environmental crisis and its history of political struggle.

"We'll be traveling across the country for seven days, meeting with community leaders and visiting various environmental preservation projects and understanding more about those social movements there on the ground."

For Hernàndez, bringing out the old skeletons of the past is important, not just to not forget, but to heal.

"It was a brutal history that I was brought up into," he said. "All of the people that I know from El Salvador, they don't really want to talk about it."

"Now, having the physical photos of this history I believe that it's healing for people."