By the time the photographers reached San Francisco Gotera, government forces had retaken the town and waved them in. The five set out on foot up the road. The sun was blazing, and a few took pictures of the body of a dead guerrilla fighter lying in a ditch being eaten by a dog.
Gunfire erupted as leftist fighters began shooting from the hillside. Rebbot crouched beside a low stone wall, but was struck by a high-powered bullet that tore through his flak jacket and passed through his chest. He fell backward into the road.
Mattison, seeing Rebbot fall, ran to him and laid on top of Rebbot’s body, trying to shield him from further gunshots. Pinned down by the gunfire, Sill, Keler, and Gysembergh, who witnessed the event, all photographed it, and on their contact sheets the horrific scene unfolds in timeless black and white: Mattison atop his colleague, turning him over to assess his wound, then helping to drag him into the back of an ambulance.
The next day, Mattison accompanied Rebbot on a chartered flight to a hospital in Miami. Mattison then returned to work in El Salvador. Rebbot died three weeks later. He was not the first or the last journalist to die in El Salvador—some were deliberately targeted. Of the eight photojournalists mentioned in this story, three were killed (John Hoagland, who was on a government hit list, was gunned down in El Salvador in 1984).
Nearly all the journalists who covered the conflict would insist that the loss of their colleagues was insignificant compared to the losses suffered by the Salvadoran population, yet his failure to save Rebbot continues to haunt Mattison, who this year returned to the country for the first time since being expelled by the government. “I told him he’d live. I lied.”
The new president, Mauricio Funes, wants to maintain warm ties with the U.S. and has said that he will not overturn a law providing amnesty for war crimes committed during the conflict. In the dangerous pas de deux between forgiving and forgetting, however, he insists that “the state has to recognize that it committed human rights violations.”
The historic change in El Salvador’s government, which successive U.S. administrations fought so hard to prevent, offers an opportune moment to remember those who created the images that shaped our collective memory. Camped out at the Camino Real Hotel in San Salvador, this small and dedicated community of journalists knew and protected one another, and courageously took on the dangerous task of making the photographs that sometimes embarrassed both the Salvadoran junta and the U.S. government that supported it.
A victim of civil war violence, San Salvador, January 1981 (Credit: Olivier Rebbot/Contact Press Images)
In one of Olivier Rebbot’s last pictures, a soldier reacts to gunfire during a battle between government forces and leftist guerrillas, San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, January 15, 1981 (Credit: Olivier Rebbot/Contact Press Images)
EL SALVADOR. Santiago Nonualco. 1980. Unearthing of three assassinated American nuns and a layworker from unmarked grave. (Credit: Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)
EL SALVADOR. Cabanas. 1983. Soldiers under fire. (Credit: Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)
EL SALVADOR. 1980. Soldiers search bus passengers along the Northern Highway. (Credit: Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)
Mourners in the plaza of Metropolitan Cathedral during the funeral for assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero, San Salvador, March 30, 1980. (Credit: Harry Mattison)
Interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral after the killing of mourners at Archbishop Romero’s funeral, San Salvador, March 30. 1980. (Credit: Harry Mattison)
Nuns being forced out of the Metropolitan Cathedral, San Salvador, March 30, 1980. (Credit: Harry Mattison)
Harry Mattison comes to the aid of Olivier Rebbot, mortally wounded during a battle between government forces and leftist guerrillas, San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, January 15, 1981. (Credit: Benoit Gysembergh)
Olivier Rebbot, moments before he is fatally wounded by gunfire, San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, January 15, 1981 (Credit: Murry Sill)
From Sill: “This young orphan lived in the streets of Soyapongo, El Salvador. According to older children, his parents had recently been killed by soldiers. Shortly after making this picture, I watched a group of soldiers stop their truck, get out, shoot a man then continue on their way.” (Credit: Murry Sill)
A victim of the right-wing death squads lies in the middle of a highway. January 17, 1981 (Credit: © Alain Keler / Corbis Sygma)
Government soldiers on a coastal road. February 8, 1982 (Credit: © Alain Keler / Corbis Sygma)