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River of Blood is based on a 1980 massacre of Salvadoran peasants at the Rio Sumpul by right-wing military forces armed and trained by the United States. Six hundred civilians were killed in the attack. Women were tortured to death, and babies were cut apart with machetes.
River of Blood is not a tone poem mimicking the actions of the day but is rather a collage of images and emotions from that tragic time. Images include violence but also the incredible bravery of Salvadoran journalists who tried to tell their country and their world what was happening, human rights campaigners risking their lives in the face of terror, and the faces of the fishermen who found the bodies of 5 children caught in their fishing traps downstream from the massacre. The work ends with a prayer of mourning and a plea for forgiveness for our involvement.
I first became aware of the massacre while composing a choral work, Hay Días, a setting of a poem by Salvadoran journalist Jaime Suárez Quemain who was murdered by the same junta a few months later. The poem ends:
It is then, sir,
when the enemies of roofless children
shadowed by the moonlight
and rap on the doors of angels
and take them away, bound,
to dig a grave
where flowers will grow.
(translated C. Alegría & D. Flakoll)