From 1979 until 1992, El Salvador was mired in a civil war that left 75,000 people dead and untold numbers displaced or unaccounted for. It was a conflict marked by extravagant violence: On December 11, 1981, in the mountain village of El Mozote, the Salvadoran army raped, tortured, and massacred nearly 1,000 civilians, including many children. News of the killings didn’t reach the United States until January 27, 1982, the same day the Reagan administration announced El Salvador was making a "significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights." Washington continued to pump aid into the regime—$4 billion over 12 years.
Part of what made the war so complicated, at least for US interests, was the ultimatum it seemed to present: Defeat the guerillas at any cost or lose the country to communism. In the twilight of the Cold War, any threat of a domino effect in the region—Nicaragua had already fallen to the Sandinistas—was too ominous for Washington to bear. By backing El Salvador’s right-wing junta and, by extension, its paramilitary death squads, the United States created a conundrum for journalists: how to document a war whose maneuvers and motivations were kept deliberately murky?
Photographer Donna De Cesare traveled to El Salvador in 1987 to “witness and report on war, with all the earnest idealism and naïvete of youth,” as she puts it in her new photo book Unsettled/Desasosiego. What she couldn’t have known at the time was how the experience would shape the next 20 years of her life. She visited refugee camps in Honduras, Jesuit killings on the campus of Central American University, a morgue in Guatemala City. Her work—like that of Larry Towell and Susan Meiselas—is essential to understanding a chapter in Central America’s history that is too often whitewashed or denied.
“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” – William Shakespeare
See more of Donna De Cesare’s work at Destiny’s Children