El Salvador research project receives major grant

Felipe Tobar survived three massacres in the 12 years that civil war wracked El Salvador – a memory he has carried for four decades and has kept alive with help from a collaborative research initiative.

Surviving Memory in Postwar El Salvador is one of five Western research grant recipients announced this week by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

The other four SSHRC grants to Western professors, part of a $635-million envelope of funding support across disciplines, go to Peter Howe and Angela Schneider for research on Special Olympics and the Olympics, respectively; professor Joseph Orange on mitigating dementia effects; and Abe Oudshoorn on long-term affordable housing.

Surviving Memory, led by project director and Western professor Amanda Grzyb, is committed to documenting the Salvadoran civil war and preventing future violence through commemoration. The seven-year, $2.5-million partnership grant will be used to continue and expand the program.

“It’s a massive, sprawling project,” that began in 2015 and includes more than 60 partner researchers, community groups and agencies,” said the Faculty of Media and Information Sciences professor.

About a dozen other Western faculty members and graduate researchers are contributing expertise to Surviving Memory, through the Music, Social Science, Arts & Humanities and the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry faculties.

Project elements include memory-building through survivor storytelling, photographs, videos and books; finding massacre sites and mass graves and creating an interactive map of their locations; recovering traditional knowledge; building a music archive; commemorating through art, parks and architecture; and enabling mental health interventions.

Together, they compose a perpetual record of the dead and the living, Tobar said this week through a translator.

“Some of the survivors have already died, others have bad health. If their stories are documented, their testimonies will not be lost. And the new generation can see their own relatives telling their life stories, and understand that we struggled so that the new generation will not find themselves in the same situation that we did in the 1980s.”

Keeping the legacy

El Salvador is a land whose history across the past 150 years has been riven by a colonial legacy of political instability, division and unrest.

The Salvadoran civil war from 1979 to 1992 – an unequal conflict between U.S.-backed military governments and a coalition of left-wing guerilla groups, with civilians caught in the crossfire – killed 80,000 people and displaced one million of the country’s five million people.

Tobar was 23 in 1980 when pro-government forces rounded up, brutalized and slaughtered entire families of refugees at Sumpul River, near the Honduran border. He survived that atrocity, escaped a military attack on civilians at El Alto, and then survived the Guinda de Mayo massacre two years later.

Today, he is elected leader of Asociación Sumpul, a group dedicated to memory, education and restoration.

“I have a whole life during which I have accompanied the people and lived with those vivid memories, those scenes of all the massacres I survived that cannot be forgotten. For this reason, we will continue to fight, to be there for war-affected families, providing testimonies, and working with young people so that they can carry on this important memory work in our communities,” Tobar said.

Yet to most of the world, the El Salvador civil war is all but forgotten; even in that country, in spite of a Truth Commission that detailed the travesties, there have been efforts to minimize the war’s stories and impact.

Tobar said the impact of Surviving Memory has been “of fundamental importance” to Salvadorans. “The SSHRC team has accompanied us – they are very educated and understanding people who are deeply committed to understanding our histories and working with our communities. The SSHRC team, our solidarity, makes a single body with the same objective: fighting for justice. This is what moves all of us.”

Western PhD student and lead research assistant Giada Ferrucci has been part of the project for three years and is in El Salvador for the ninth time; Surviving Memory has changed her at least as much as it has made an impact on Salvadoran memory-keeping.

“There have been so many experiences talking to our partners and survivors when I have had the opportunity to see their strength, their resilience, their hope..

“Our aim is to listen to, and amplify, their voices. We don’t want to extract our knowledge, do our research and then say goodbye. Their legacy must not be forgotten,” Ferrucci said.

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Path to reconciliation

Tobar said the new grant will enable the team to strengthen and diversify its work.

“We will have the resources for research activities, bringing survivors together, and the massacre commemorations. We are very happy to have resources to mobilize more people, to make the murals and monuments, and for a documentation lab that will be of benefit to the people.”

Grzyb and the team were honoured with Western’s Humanitarian Award in 2019 for their dedication to the project.

But she defers credit to the communities of survivors and the growing transnational group of partners. “I serve the project and try to rally people around a common vision for future projects.”

Part of the researchers’ goal is to examine the recommendations of the Truth Commission and focus on documenting, commemorating and recognizing the victims of state violence.

“But what we’ve also heard in our workshops, in our meetings with survivors is that it is often

about keeping alive the memory of those people that they lost so that they don’t just become numbers, that they aren’t lost to history.

“There has to be recognition and commemoration for there to be true reconciliation,” Grzyb said.

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