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1979: Witness to a massacre
Photographer Ken Hawkins was in El Salvador on assignment for French magazine Paris Match in May 1979.

He had gone to the country to cover the hostage-taking of French ambassador Michel Dondenne, who was being held in his embassy by left-wing guerrillas.

But he ended up witnessing a massacre when police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador.

It was a beautiful day - sunny, blue skies - and when we got there it was a typical BPR [left-wing group Popular Revolutionary Bloc] demonstration.

They were symbolically "holding" the cathedral - there were barricades around the main steps leading up into it and there were a number of masked sign-carrying "leftists" on the steps.

They were reciting their speeches to a noon-time crowd. People were eating their lunch in the park across the street listening to the demonstration.

It was not at all a tense atmosphere - pretty much the routine for a demonstration in the middle of San Salvador.

Something said to me this was not going to be a good situation

There were two other photographers with me - one from United Press International and the other from the Associated Press out of Mexico City.

We were on the steps working up close, taking some tight shots of the demonstrators, when I looked up and spotted a line of national police in their riot gear marching up the side of the street.

They surrounded one side of the park across from the steps of the cathedral. About a minute later another phalanx of national police arrived on the other side of the park.

Something said to me this was not going to be a good situation. They were basically sealing off the cathedral and the park.

Gunfire

The little hairs on the back of our necks stood up and we immediately retreated down the side of the steps to the park and some cover if anything happened.

About 30 seconds after we cleared the steps a large amount of gunfire broke out. All of the gunfire that I recall came from the direction of the national police.

The police later accused some of the demonstrators of shooting towards their column, but I certainly can't validate that.

The demonstrators that we had seen appeared to be unarmed. Immediately after the firing started to break out they began clambering up the steps to get through the open doors of the cathedral.

People were hit in the back as they retreated into the church

A number of the people at the top were immediately hit and fell where they stood or were running, and people behind them started tripping on their bodies.

The gunfire kept on for a period of time and we saw person after person falling.

While I was on the steps I was chatting with a young pregnant woman, who was one of the demonstrators. She was one of the last to get hit.

The majority of these people were hit in the back as they retreated into the church from the initial gunfire.

As the demonstrators lay on the steps the gunfire continued and there was no reason for that at all.

The troops were just shooting into bodies.

The three of us were able to make it out of the square a few minutes after the firing ceased.

We beat a hasty retreat several blocks down to the Associated Press bureau where we collected ourselves and reported to the AP what we had seen.

Blood

The police kept the square sealed off for some time.

The bodies were where they lay and I believe it was 24 hours before anyone was allowed to move them.

People were only allowed to come through and look at what had happened.

There were rivers of blood coming down the stairs - it was a horrid thing to witness.

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Police firing on demonstrators
Police sealed off the cathedral and park and then fired on the demonstrators


Ken Hawkin's 1979 press pass
The photographer went to El Salvador to cover a story for Paris Match magazine
Ken Hawkins on assignment in Moscow, 2000
Ken Hawkins retired from frontline news photography in 1993
In Context
Ken Hawkins now runs a business taking photographs for corporate publications.

He is based in Atlanta but works all over the world.

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