The same day (Tuesday) that I posted on this blog some of my reminiscence on my recent trip to El Salvador, the woman who introduced me to the country back in 1996, Linda Rea, was being life-flighted to the intensive care unit at Akron hospital, having just been in a head-on collision which left her with serious head injuries and internal bleeding. They say that the first 72 hours are critical. In the first 72 hours, anything can happen. The worst can happen.
I’m trying to focus on my work, but my brain is on repeat: 72 hours, 72 hours, 72 hours. It’s a testament to the many lives that Linda has touched that, within 24 hours of hearing the news, 110 people had signed up for the Facebook group “Friends of Linda” in order to share news and updates.
To keep the positive energy going as she heals, I thought it would be appropriate to share my own memories of how she touched my own life so profoundly, so many years ago. If I’m guilty of being a “do-gooder,” it’s entirely Linda’s fault. She opened my eyes to the world. She showed me the path. The following is an excerpt from just one day of my life-changing three-week trip with Linda Rea.
Santa Marta, El Salvador, December 1996
In the early 80s, the war in El Salvador (funded in part by the U.S.) was at a level of high intensity. One thousand Salvadorans were being killed every month–victims of the Scorched Earth policy of the military and government. Entire communities were forced to flee, and anyone left behind was killed; then crops, houses, and livestock were burned. The rational of the military behind the Scorched Earth policy was that if they wiped out all of the communities who might be sympathetic to the FMLN guerrillas, the rebels’ strength would be weakened.
It wasn’t until the late 80s that international pressure finally caused the army to abandon their Scorched Earth policy, and refugees sought to return to their homes.
Despite the international pressure to end the violence, their homes were still in a war zone. Nevertheless, communities chose to go back. I say “homes,” but since everything had been destroyed, there were really no homes to return to. They had to start from nothing because they were left with nothing.
And where in all of this was their crime? What had they done to deserve being persecuted, killed, chased off their land?
The group I was with, part of a three week intensive class on the marginalization of Central America, split into two smaller groups so that we could visit two of these repopulated communities, and my group went to Santa Marta. There, we spent our time meeting with a woman’s group (DIGNAS, the Women’s Association of Life and Dignity); a teacher and the principal of Santa Marta’s school; and the governing directive of the community.
The president of the directive told us the history of Santa Marta. In 1976-77, Santa Marta began to organize Christian base communities under the influence of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s powerful homilies. Romero saw the suffering of the people and could not stand idly by (though many in the Catholic church were doing just that). He proclaimed to the people in his weekly homilies broadcast throughout the country that they had dignity, and that it was wrong for their government to suppress and persecute them. He invited the army to mutiny (“Brothers, you are from the same people; you kill your fellow peasant . . . No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God . . . In the name of God then, in the name of this suffering people I ask you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: stop the repression.”)
On March 24, 1980, Romero was assassinated in his own church while giving mass. Anyone who listened to Romero was labelled as a supporter of the guerrilla movement.
On the fifteenth of March, 1981, a strong military action entered the area near Santa Marta. People made plans to flee. They left in one big group and headed toward Honduras. They were chased by machine guns and helicopters as they struggled to cross the river between the border of the two countries. The directive president’s wife had given birth to twins the day before; only one child survived.
Seven thousand people fled to refugee camps in Honduras. But in the refugee camps, they were mistreated by the Honduran military. Sickness was a major problem as well. Sometimes as many as seven people–mostly the very old or very young–would die in a single day.
In the refugee camps, although they were mistreated, the people got a chance to learn skills and trades. They learned how to govern themselves and they learned that they had rights as human beings. As one song used in literacy courses in the refugee camps goes, “Campesino, lift your head up/You are also a human being/Don’t humble yourself!”
For six years they remained in these refugee camps. Children were born there and knew no other childhood. Finally, the people were sick of waiting. They did not want their children to grow up on other people’s charity.
In 1986 they began to pressure the army and the government to let them go home. The UN told them they could either go back in small groups, stay in Honduras and be legalized, or go to another country.
But in the minds of the people, they only had one option: they were going home together, and they were going home now.
On October 10, 1987 the first large group of refugees returned to Santa Marta and two other nearby communities. Of the seven thousand who fled, only 4,500 were left.
They came back to nothing. They had to rebuild their houses, set up a school, replant their crops, find ways to provide electricity and potable water. Housing projects had generated 150 houses, but they still needed 500 more. Teachers are working on getting their high school diplomas, a goal which will be realized in May of this year. They now have a small store and a bakery. Slowly and carefully they are rebuilding, with no help and no apology from the government that took it all away from them.
After meeting with the directive and hearing the history of Santa Marta, it was time to get a night’s rest. Up until this point on the trip, we had stayed at a relatively comfortable hotel in San Salvador, but on this night, we would sleep in the community center in Santa Marta (one of their few concrete buildings). To say that this was out of our comfort zone would be an understatement. Musty mattresses, spiders, mice, scorpions–these were our bedfellows. Our bathroom was an outhouse a few yards away; you had to pick your way through animal excrement to get to it, and the concrete hole which functioned as the toilet was crawling with ants. Inside our windowless building, it was pitch black–you literally could not see two inches in front of your face.
Around three in the morning, I was awoken by what I could only assume (being surrounded by complete darkness and utterly disoriented) were the sounds of hell, or at the very least of mass murder taking place just on the other side of our concrete wall. I had never heard anything like it.
In reality, of course, these were the mundane, everyday sounds of the animals of the village waking up–crooning, howling, braying, screeching in rounds of madding, and seemingly never-ending cacophony. This went on for hours, and all I could do was lay there in the pitch blackness and wonder if anyone else in my group was awake and experiencing the same thing. I didn’t dare get out of bed–our trip leader had casually stomped on a scorpion the night before, and I was not convinced he was without companions. The darkness, and the hellish animal chorus, seemed endless. But finally, morning came, and I walked outside into the deepening light of a new day.
And there was Santa Marta–living, breathing, existing. It seemed so much more real to me then, all of it. The history, the people, the war, all of their sacrifices, the shameful part my own country had played. It wasn’t just a story told in a classroom, or an hour and a half meeting with community members: this was it; this was everything; this was real life. And for one terrifying night and one beautiful morning, it had embraced me, and left me forever changed.