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on a hill, there stands a cross above a graveyard

1986
El Salvador


(noel  paul  stookey's  journal, written  during  the group's visit to El Salvador and Nicaragua...
 june 23 through july 2,1986)

foreword.

this log of a 10 day visit to el salvador and nicaragua is an ultra-personal one-person view. some of the facts may be missing...some of the names misspelled...but most of the recall at least benefits from the immediate experience of 'being there'.

my apologies to those who will wish these writings were less/more political and to those who perhaps would complain that the emotion is outweighing the 'larger picture'.

peter, mary and i were blessed to have the unique and particular leadership and general support of janet shenk, marge tabankin, and bob stark. marguarita and kay were indespensible and inspiring as translators of both the mind and the heart of the nicaraguan people. the film crew became less crew and more zack, foster, sherry, and hugh. ethan and dinah were many times anchors in the soulful storms that erupted within and about us.

finally, there is a short hand here that may leave some readers in the dark...but unless some things had been taken for granted this writing would have bogged down in detail and never finished. better imperfect and available than pristine and only in my memory...no?

this is the second and probably 'finished' draft - mostly as it came from the epson px8 with comments, additions and corrections of outrageous mistakes by janet shenk...

-860722/nps-

fact sheet:

El Salvador

area: 8260 square miles (size of Massachusetts) population: 4,685.000 capital: san salvador (appx 800,000) geography: flat coastal plains and inland valleys (sugar, cotton, beef), giving way to hills (coffee) that lead to arid mountains in northern part along Honduran border; volcanoes and volcanic soil, no jungles.

Economy

chief export crops: coffee, cotton, sugar, beef, shrimp. chief customers: u.s. (43.3%); eec (24.8%); latin america (22.2%). gross domestic product: $3.3 billion. government expenditures: $680 million. foreign debt (1982): $2.3 billion (public and private). u.s. aid (1984): military $196.55 million economic $47.7 million

Demographic and Social Indicators

per capita income: $680. population density: 225 inhabitants/sq. km. life expectancy: 56 years infant mortality: 78.7/1000 live births. adult literacy rate: 62%

the military have ruled El Salvador for over fifty years with only two brief episodes of civilian rule, totalling less than a year. A military coup in October 1979 ostensibly ushered in a reform government, which in fact became very repressive. There were several shifts in the junta formula until nominally civilian rule was established by the election of March 1982 for a constituent assembly. Presidental elections in march-may 1984 made christian democrfat Jose Napoleon Duarte president, but decisive power has remained in the hands of the military.

day one / el salvador

it's a hotel room like you'd expect in Des Moines. it's a westin hotel. twin-bedded. i'm unpacking slowly trying to put together the fact that twelve hours ago in new york city i was pulling a suitcase behind me on my way to meet ethan and mary at her apartment to fly to (and now here i am in) san salvador. this is the el salvador that appears 'normal' to the western eye i think. i suspect that janet shenk and marge tabankin will introduce us to a peoples who truly make up the country and not just provide the props that lull the transient into thinking that the reports of unrest here are exaggerations.

the trip down was long but endurable. there were the few zanies like marge's ticket from miami to el salvador being pulled along with her nyc-miami ticket by an over-zealous first-day-on-the-job attendant at laguardia. she bought another one...it'll turn up. then there was the absent peter yarrow who somehow missed all the signals, pages, and searches and ended up waiting for two hours for some familiar face at the gate in miami...

now we are all on the 6th floor here at the Camino Real having driven the approximately 50 km from the airport past the checkpoint where the 4 maryknoll nuns were 'spotted' and followed to their arrest and deaths. from the air el salvador is a series of little hills with lush foliage and checkerboard of obvious planting...horses wander the highway close to the airport and the occasional herd of cattle grazes to the side. i see no dogs. two children stop me at the airport and hold out their hands and then make the motion of eating. i give them each a quarter hoping that it is worth something in el salvador.

it is 7:45 pm and we are collecting briefly in room 610 before having dinner with some correspondents...

and now 12:50 a.m. and back from spending story time with Chris and Nancy he's a freelance stringer and she's a photographer for Reuters. after a few beers she tells the table about a recent crossing of a river on her way to see "the boys" (as the press evidently refers to the guerillas) when firing begins far away and comes closer... eventually a mortar hits very close and she and her friends are advised that even though their car is in the shallow river partway between the north side (where the boys are) and the south side (from whence the firing cometh), they best be found on the south side when the government troops arrive. she is slipping and sliding...there is firing from the soldiers and her camera case is filling with water...she is scrambling...doing the side stroke in shallow water when one of her friends splashes in to grab the deadweight case and haul her back to safety. they are arrested and in the ensuing discussion the press spokesman for the armed services will say something to the effect that she should not have been where she was and he and the troops should not have tried to kill her...ok? like even stephen?

chris tells us of a group of 100 displaced el salvadorians 'rescued' from their village in an army sweep who, not having received any reassurance from the government that they would return to their 'places of origin', take it upon themselves to rent six busses and embark on a surprisingly successful trip albeit replete with mired busses and an encore encounter with the 'mad' colonel who originally removed them from their homes and who, knowing full well that there are orders to allow these people to pass, because there is a television crew taping, does a full number (dressed in jogging outfit just like a regular guy...see?) on how he is their protectorate! the concensus is that there is a lot of posturing and personal pride at stake here among the military and that if the right buttons are pushed (or the right strokes applied) almost anything can happen...and if not well almost anything can happen!

dinner was barbequed shrimp steak and sausage with lots of salvadorian beer called pilsner lager (they make a suprema but we've been advised against it). there was a guitarist/singer lurking in the shadows of the outdoor table for 12 at which we sat...he would occasionally venture into the immediate area strum a bit and when we didn't respond he would slide back into the shadows until dinah (foster wylie the cameraman's wife) and i made a point of going over to where he was and he sang 2 songs, i borrowed the guitar and sang the lady says she don't like jazz - thought he might like the culture shock - and then he finished with besame mucho - the english lyrics i knew of from the old bing crosby records my parents used to collect. gave him $2 and caught a cab back to the hotel. the local dollar is 5-1 here so i think i gave him a handsome tip but either he was a little tipsy or it was too little anyway he barely mumbled out a thankyou and dinah and foster sherry and i came back to the hotel where it is practically 1 a.m. so good night for goodness sake...

and thank you Lord for this day and now this peace...

day two / el salvador

new file. new day. begins in a banquet room with jemera rone (a focused female wall street lawyer cum human rights watch spokesperson). she has written and we shall digest (either by reading or observing the living participants) a condemnation of the 'improvement' to human rights since Duarte's election.

there is fruit on the table. some of us nibble. there is orange juice. only peter drinks his full glass. i wonder about the tradeoff between vitamin C and dysntary. there is toast and croissants. most of us have coffee. and listen.

jemera speaks of the inappropriateness of many of the US embassy's responses to the human rights abuses and the frustration at the judicial system that never brings to restitution the military carte blanche...in short there is no repeat NO way in this country to force the military to be morally responsible for its actions. get that? no way. they are in power. granted they must handle the position cleverly - manage and negotiate the power so that it is not seen as manipulative or abusive (which of course it is) - and to that end according to jemera they have become more public relations oriented. candies and toys for the children - speeches for the 'rescued' (displaced) and they point to the greatly reduced numbers of reported 'disappeareds', assinated, etc. tutela legal helps to keep an eye on actual casualties...and while the numbers are reduced from the 1980-83 levels they are tandemount % wise to a civil war in the streets of new york city! el salvador has a population of about 5 million people and the USA puts in 500 million dollars in military aid. there is a false economy here. i ask jemera if there is a renegade military man... some one who respects human dignity and rights and will fly in the face of the s.o.p. but she says no they are all obeying orders and the military has gone from 4000 people in 79 to 40000 in 86. never mind the forced inductions (entire busload of young men returning from a christian meeting taken off the the bus in front of the garrison and all inducted on the spot!)...for others hey it's where the money is it's where the careers are (be all that you can be) it's where the only politically acceptable future seems to be.

i begin to suspect that of the three way tug of war (military, peasants, and the landowners) the one group who could lead el salvador out of its civil war would be the land owners...i am pressing janet shenk to try to line up an interview...or at least a conference with the least un-enlightened (what that means is that none of them could be called altruistic in the least (though i have heard of a dinner conversation where one of the oligarchy volunteered the information that he was thinking of aiding the situation by building a dog food factory) but that some of them have the possibility of sympathy. i'm of a persuasion (oh you pollyanna you) that just as the administration believes in the private initiative/capitalistic system so the first landowner with a resettlement (hey even call it subdivision if you want) plan to make the first move could become the popular 'hero' of the grande el salvadore peace.

anyway enough philowaxing...we first went to the slums...built against the banks of the river in the city...upper and middleclass houses show their back to this river and now erect fences so that the displaced or unemployed who make their impromptu dwellings here will be contained. we talk to a woman who does some seamstressing she paid $100 for this mud and mortar tin roofed building. she is remarkably content. she was brought up in another slum and decided finally to 'have a place of her own'. there are flowers here. some of them grow in an old suitcase. everything is useful here. cardboard hides many holes...

the newer arrivals go even further up the river...we walk back to the old slum...the smell begins...the water is gray...there is a well...several women are gathered around with their pots - though it will rain later in the day there are few dedicated cisterns at the houses; the women come here to get the water for the day. we're told it's ok to drink. we don't check it out. we walk down a trail of garbage...we pass several pigs (all but one of them is alive)...and the trail of gray water begins here and will run down to the river. there are even stores here amongst the oldest squatters. this is land of the municipality. and these are squatters. the trail leads down. i find a coin. at least i think it is. i get out the swiss army knife and begin scraping at the rusted surface. we continue down the trail into a cluster of 20-30 one room houses in line. the children gather round. i pull out a capo for the guitar and ask in pigeon spanish if they know what it is. they do not so i do an improvised sound effect of a guitar playing some spanish-like piece. they laugh. i then act as though i am putting the capo on my make-believe guitar. they laugh more. i show them where i have scraped the words '2 centavos' clean on my little piece of metal. one of the children runs and gets a handful of change. 6 three centavo pieces and two little 1 centavo pieces. i ask them what's this on the coin pointing to a face...they answer in spanish and gene translates for me. it's a face they say. i forgot children are the most literal creatures in the world. we are invited in one of the houses. Julio our guide through this section of dis- placed and unemployed has asked if it might be filmed. the owner agrees. the crew in place, we enter. it is dark. there is only one window and the door we entered. the children are filling the door and more arriving as we ask the questions. 'why are you here?' she tells us that she and her family were working on a hacienda for one of the landowners and the government bought out the property to install a hydro-electric dam and flood the area. although the hacienda owner was paid by the government to recompense him for the loss of his land, the peasants were just turned loose to fend for themselves. i ask how many people live here. she tells me eight. this one room house is about the size of my older daughter's bedroom. mary asks how much it costs to live here and she answers that she can feed everyone (just) on about 10-15 colones a day ($3 american) but that sometimes she has to do with 1 colona. she sometimes sell tortillas or cut fruit on the streets. i tell her that i think she is very brave and ask her if she thinks she is...she has a face with such strength...and she says she knows she has the courage but you can't eat courage! she shows us her identification pass. she is among the fortunate. many of the displaced or 'rescued' had their passes removed and travelling about the city or countryside is too dangerous without one. when asked if she has ever thought of relocating to the country with some of her former friends she responds 'friends are where you live'.

it is getting late we must make the 30 minute ride to calle real (the displaced person's camp from which the brave busload left that chris spoke of last night) and our first singing engagement. annabelle is meeting us there. she is blond english and vibrant with purpose and encouragement. she shows us the school and introduces us to the teachers. some of the teachers are 9 and 10 years old - just 3 years older than the children they are teaching. this will be the nicest displaced camp we will see in el salvador. it is run by the arch-diocese. the children are drawing pictures for us when we arrive. they present them to us. they are sometimes colorful pictures of the life that they have left or been forced to leave by the military. most of the pictures are stick-figure people with some butterflies and trees and houses and horses and helicopters and military planes. there are dotted lines coming from the planes. some of them go through the stick people. one picture drawn by a sweet young girl named Christo shows the dotted line stopping in a smiling person's leg. i ask who is this person. she says a nino (a child). i don't ask which one.

there is an invisible line of social protocol that one crosses over when the information desired outweighs the potential embarrassment of asking the wrong question. still, peter asks annabelle if it's proper to make the children in a sense face the pain from which they are escaping. she says absolutely. they know, she continues, that telling us is the only chance that the killing might stop. even the children are aware that the more information that gets back to the united states the more likely the funding of the ruling military-oligarchy will stop. we are sobered by the sophisitication that these children have attained before 10 years of age! we are introduced to a young boy (he is 11). he tells us the story of his coming to this camp. he was in the maize fields with his father when the army came. run said his father he hid in a ditch. the army arrested his father. the boy ran to find his mother. the last he could see of his mother was her crawling over a fence to avoid capture. he could not get to her. he hid in a field. soldiers passed within 2 inches of him with their 'blades'...he was not seen.

(point of information: there are several reasons for the persecution of the peoples of el salvador by the miliarchy. the church is particulary persecuted because it is preaching Christ alive and therefore calling the faithful to be responsible for their actions and to know who they are in the Body and what they deserve as those made in God's image...this is liberation theology...the sense that God loves you uniquely and does not wish poverty upon his children this is dangerous of course to a structure that is highly motivated to keep the profit-making status quo by keeping the peasant ignorant of the fact that his condition might be bettered. most of the campasinos (peasants) in this camp however are 'guilty' merely because they live in a zone not controlled by the army. that by the army's reasoning makes them sympathisers to the guerillas. therefore, the logic goes, the growing of food that will potentially become guerilla supplies must be destroyed and the farmer interrogated - and often killed or tortured (part of this process attributable to 'kicks'...as mutilated bodies later bear witness).

the boy's tale continues. he finds a bombed out house. there are dead children here. there is no food. several weeks pass and he moves by night and hides during the day. he eats berries, fruits from trees he does not recognize. he perpetually lives in fear. he stumbles into a clearing and discovered by a friend of the family who at first runs away from the 'ghost' until he is convinced that the boy is alive. he is mostly bones. he has been running for 40 days. miracle of miracles he is reunited with his mother and sisters at this camp...he knows his father is alive in mariona men's prison...we will visit that prison on thursday. how stupid of me not to have recorded the father's name...perhaps a 'coincidence' might have happened.

a band of guitars, one fiddle and one guitarrone mount the picnic table stage as the first group to sing (we will be the second) begins...the instruments are out of tune. a lot. it really doesn't matter. it speaks volumes that they can sing still. we are introduced and we sing if i had a hammer. we are standing on the same picnic table. maybe we've been put up too high. maybe the language barrier is too great. maybe the spirit of the people here is not one of togetherness but of separate pains and strength assembled by circum- stance. they applaud but do not sing. we do marvelous toy dedicated to los ninos...we teach them the sounds...but they do not really participate... we are being translated by janet shenk...they understand the words but there is something missing here...and though there are thank you's spoken by the children over the pa system as they award us hand woven bracelets and small fruits, the only real contact seems to be the conversation over the bean, rice and cabbage soup that celebrates the mutual respect and affection for charlie clements and we suggest that we will take back a message to him.

(we discover later that TV cameras from the Armed Forces station were in the camp filming the concert. people were terrified. After we left, the refugees held a meeting to try and determine who had let them in.)

there are two men here that talk to us. One of them is named Luis. we ask for their 'testimony' which is the what these super-personal stories are called. both of the men have lost family and as the other man recounts his losses with a small child seated on his knee staring at the three of us i notice that Luis is beginning to relive what he later tells us was the death of his two brothers at the hands of the army. his bottom lip is begin- ning to tremble. his nostrils are flaring. i am being more affected by his losing it than the story...i am stunned at the cold dispatching of life by the military...i am hearing stories of children gunned down...no one is safe from the madness.

we load into the vans for the next camp, a refugee camp called domus maria, where we are to meet father jon cortina an engineering professor at the catholic university and joe berra a jesuit seminarian from saint louis. as we leave, peter is bequeathing his prized kazoo to the 40 day wanderer who is immediately called into administrative responsibility by his peers... from the back window of the van i can see him surrounded by a circle of boys his own age and younger all clamboring for a chance at the new noisemaker.

there's a 15 minute stop back at the hotel and while most people take quick showers and change clothes, i am pounding away at the keyboard of the geneva trying to remember as much as i can as fast as i can. i am forgetting much of the intimate details and because i'm not a creator of prose by trade i cannot judge whether the detail spells out the general and/or when to employ that device. ah well this is just a journal and better i just keep going rather than reflect on its literary merits.

we meet in the lobby...all of us are there...pretty unusual focus of on- time energy (catch us some day trying to get to a nyc rehearsal)...and we are off to the refugee camp. we meet jon and joe - they are waiting at the gate to the camp. we spend a few minutes rectifying a stiff situation regarding the exclusion of marge tabankin and ethan robbins from our filmed midst...there is an understanding reached...not surprising considering the fact that we are slowly being bonded into a 'family' by these mutual observations and it is obvious that we are all in this together...still, sherry has a film to make and there probably will still arise moments of exclusive peter paul and mary-ing for the camera. jon speaks to the people at the gate and it opens for us. we enter a settlement of what seems like 100-200 people (over half of them children) and slowly a plan evolves to bring out of one of the buildings three school-type benches and to sit with three particular men who have testimony for us. they tell of operation phoenix.

the army arrived at their village and they ran for the ditches (this is a commonly reported occurance - there is no desire to have any interaction with the military. experience has proven to these folks that hiding or running is far preferable to being 'rescued' or captured since it inevitably means torture and imprisonment for 'aiding' the guerillas). 150 of them hide in one ditch. there is more firing. they hide in the ditch for a long time. some leave and are captured. 50 of them finally make it to the caves near the volcano...most of them are children. after 14 days the children are incapable of being silent. the hunger causes them to cry and the soldiers hear the cries. group by group the army catches them. one old woman is found and told to come out of her cave. but she is too old and after two weeks of no food she is too weak to comply. she is killed and her body left in the cave.

(point of reference: the military has 'swept' this area near the volcano many times but generally after 2 weeks they are gone and the villagers can return to what is left of homes and lands and begin again...some of them have even taken 15 days of supplies with them planning on waiting out the military... but this is operation phoenix and it has been three weeks and now they are without food and the army still patrols the area...

several groups still manage to avoid the soldiers and strike out north for el carrizal. by the time they reach the southern bank of the lake separating them from their destination the numbers have swelled to 100 (again, mostly children) and the swimmers in the group begin to make rafts out of bamboo and any floating timbers or logs...slowly they make their way across the lake reach carralanga* and are given sanctuary by the two foreign priests who are pastoring there. soon over 300 are being protected by the church. it is to this church and village that the mad colonel caceres delivers his 'we are protecting you' speech and removes them all to the domus maria camp in which we now hear these stories. there has been a banana shipment recently and everyone is peeling or eating. the testimonies are abbreviated a bit toward the end as our impending visit to a christian base community church is due to happen in just 30 minutes. we sing hammer and almost immediately sense a sympatico...a young man in front says that peter and i remind him of simon and garfunkle...i think he likes american pop music and knows his guitar styles...there is applause and we begin el salvador...we sing the first verse...janet translates pretty directly the lyric content and they applaud! yes it seems they are saying...that is a correct description. we sing the second verse and janet translates and they applaud again! we sing the third verse and following janet's words there is such a strong bond of confirmation...we then sing where have all the flowers gone...it is sweet but perhaps too poetic for even janet's brief synopsis to support...mary suggests we leave them with a little more energy and a little less reflection so we sing weave me the sunshine and they clap in time...well they mean to clap in time and we know that we are of one heart... the sky is beginning to darken and we are packing up our guitars for the short ride to the church. an old man picks up my guitar and carries it to the van...it's his gift for us... the busses that left a week ago and successfully returned to their village has given great hope to all here and many of these people will try soon as well. can you imagine? two or three months running from the army that sweeps through your home and now to return even though there are no guarantees that it will not happen again?! there is great determination here.

standing in the courtyard of the community church, peter and i stand with our arms outstretched in the light sprinkle of rain that has begun. the day has been hot and dusty and the shower is almost worth giggling for. while the film crew sets up the lights on the second floor, we enter the santuary of the church. there is a confessional here. there are paintings placed around the church of the 14 steps of the cross. there is also a blackboard with the names of the martyrs of the church that have been killed or disappeared by the army. jean donovan's name (one of the 4 maryknoll nuns) is here. there is a photograph of bishop romero near the entrance door. it is like seeing a picture of martin luther king junior in a black baptist church...you know that there is a most profound connection here. i ask about the romero assasination. i am told he was delivering mass in a middle class church upon the death by cancer of a friend of his and he had just reached the part where the bread is presented as the body-to-be and the congregation agrees when the solitary marksman killed him.

as we assemble in the small rectangular corrugated tin-roofed 2nd floor room, there is some shuffling around as the elder of the group requests that for the safety of the testifiers their faces not be seen on camera. foster wylie (the camera-man) sets up his camera behind marisa, marguarita, a young girl, two young men, and marguarita's husband. we are sitting at a long dinner table across from each other. there is an awkward moment and janet says would you like to start. and i find myself saying i'd like to start with a prayer. mary seconds the emotion and we all stand holding hands. i thank God for this family and ask for his peace within and ultimately throughout. it's translated into spanish and then the husband of marguarita calls for God's strength to endure and to bring an end to the suffering of his people... we sit.

marguarita speaks first and describes the situation so well that the questions and answers begin immediately following her talk. the wind is picking up and we must speak loudly so that Zack (the sound man) can get enough separation of the voices from the background noises. i am once again surprised by the eloquence and focus of what i had chauvinistically presumed to be uneducated persons. the rain begins as marguarita's husband describes the 12 deaths that caused them to not return home (only to discover from neighbors later that in fact the death squads had come for them and if they had been at home they surely would have been killed). the thunder and lightening have become an Orchestrated background to this man speaking louder and louder of the need for us to tell the American people to stop killing the people of El Salvador. we are guilty and we know it. now for the finale each of the testifiers tells how the oppression has touched them personally. i am directly across from one of the young men. he says that although it is painful and that he doesn't like to remember he will speak of the death squad killings of his family...with each step of the painful recollection he becomes noticeably more emotional. i can feel the corners of my eyes fill. he says his father's death was the last and hurt the most. he was at home. his father was outside the front of the house when the white unmarked cars pulled up. four men with machine guns got out and began shooting immediately. then they drove away. that's all. his chin is trembling and i wipe the tears from my cheeks. marguarita concludes, we know that these deaths are the result of yankee imperialism but we also know that not all the american people are bad. and we know that you will do what you can to stop the killing.

i am ashamed i've waited so long...

there is embracing and comforting and crying and walking in the rain and then a dinner back at the hotel at 8:30. Joe and Jon are both there along with Terry, a third order franciscan sister who is leaving for new mexico tomorrow. there is grace spoken by Jon in spanish and translated by Joe into english...'we ask justice for those who are hungry and hunger for justice for those who are not'...and a 'typical salvadoran dinner' consisting of thin steak, a tomato/pepper sauce, a thin slice of goats cheese, a mound of rice and beans and a fried plantain. i wipe my plate with a second roll...clearly the starvation of the children in china is legitimatized. in the after dinner moments Jon describes to us the visit with the archbishop rivera to an area of guerilla control to celebrate mass. it is his testimony to the masas bravery and solidarity and he speaks humbly of the el salvadoran people who have taught him who God is. it is almost 11pm and since morning always comes at the same time for us now (about 7 a.m.) we are off to our rooms. but here i sit at 2:30 just finishing the typing of yesterday...

peter suggested taking the geneva on tomorrow's trip with us since it would be a long journey and i could keep up with the experiences better. i think i will. we are going to tenancingo...the first try by the salvadoran people at a neutral city in the middle of this mad war.

day three / el salvador

late start for me...couldn't make up my mind what shoes to wear...finally opted for sneakers when i found out that tenancingo would not be riverbed wading type visiting. quick cup of coffee at the buffet and then off we go to Fundesal.

Fundesal we discover unless we already read the briefing material for the day is a privately funded (europe mostly) self help organization that is not only more effective than the government in creating low income housing (which does not make them very popular with Duarte since the army is quick to point out his failures), but has broadbase support even in the oligarchy. they have an annual banquet at which time they honor the leading benefactors of the organization. the event and the awards are notable. Fundesal is the most popular of the charitable organizations. we are told that sometimes they are given funding just because they are less objectionable as a choice than government taxes. i press for some insight into the motives of these 'generous' landowners...looking for the local hero who could single handedly begin a pragmatic land reform...yes Sevilla admits there are a few better intentioned supporters... i still see a possibility for some positive action from out of this private sector that doesn't seem like it's been explored... mary sees me tying my little pieces of information together and is impatient with my naivete... she says power will not give up of itself and i'm maintaining that while in most instances that is true, it's like a kind of energy; neither created or destroyed but able to be changed in shape - monetary power supplanted sometimes with titular power which can be supplanted sometimes with manipulative power and the list goes on...i'm of a curiously narrow focus here...i sense a positive step available...i will find out a little more later.

we have met david here. he is a priest and functioning under sevilla for fundesal in the setup and continuing operation of tenancingo...let me tell you about tenancingo. tenancingo was bombed by the salvadoran air force on september 25, 1983 in an attempt to retake the town from the FMLN which had temporarily occupied it. about 100 civilians died in that bombing raid. everyone else fled, abandoning the town, and it was not occupied by either side to the conflict, although both passed through. between the ravages of the bombing and the passage of time, about forty percent of the housing was totally or partially destroyed. on july 25, 1985 over 1000 people, the large majority former residents of tenancingo walked or drove the overgrown and muddy fourteen kilometer road from santa cruz michapa. many had not seen tenancingo for almost two years. at the mass held on the steps of the partially destroyed church, it was announced that as a result of many hours of 'very separate' dialogue between the church and the FMLN and the church and the army to respect the rebirth of tenancingo. apparently both sides had given their word to the archbishop that they would not establish a military base in the town. this unique understanding which comes close to creating a demilitarized zone in the heart of a conflict area, holds out the hope that peace can be achieved if only on a local level in a country that has suffered more than six years of civil war.

david joins us in the van and we begin the hour drive to tenancingo. on the way he speaks of Duarte and and a recent award by notre dame of which Duarte was a graduate. in a long letter to that university, david, also a graduate, tells us that he had listed a myriad of reasons why the award should not be made to Duarte based on the number of human rights abuses made under his presidency...once again we hear that Duarte has no control over the military and is now losing his support from the labor unions and the middle class. the film crew passes us on the road and gets considerably ahead...we are concerned...we've been told not to separate when entering the army checkpoints. as we pull over the crest of a hill we see foster and support mechanism filming us drive by...you know a cutaway...we are relieved and almost spoil the shot by pulling over.

now we are together again and approaching the checkpoint. there are three army guards. they are young. they smile a lot. they have bad teeth. everyone in el salvador seems to have bad teeth. they accept a cigarette from david. they look at our papers. they wave us through. in about 20 minutes we see the film van which has gone on ahead pulled to the side of the road and talking to what looks like "the boys". it appears as though we're going to meet them...as we approach we hear the sound of a prop plane in the distance. 'reconaissance' one of them says...he steps away to search the sky while we meet their leader. he is 38 years old and a former university student. we will film him from the back so that his face will not be seen. the sound of the airplane is closer. i remark that he has a gentleness to his face unlike a professional soldier and ask him why he has become a guerilla. he answers softspoken that there comes a time to each person when they must make a decision about their life and his came because of the government repression and cruelty. the airplane sounds louder. one of the men steps away and checks the sky again. peter asks if his weapons are russian or from nicaragua...the leader laughs...he says he gets his weapons from ronald reagan. he shows us where on the M-16 "MADE IN THE USA" is stamped.

suddenly janet says 'in the vans - now!' and do we move! it's not the plane. it has gone farther away...but a couple of quick handshakes, some adios' over our shoulders and we are in the van and moving...perhaps it's important that we get to tenincingo more or less when we were expected...otherwise the deduction by the army will be that we stopped for some reason worth investigating? i forget to ask janet. maybe it's just that the village is waiting and we are a half hour late.

the image of the guerilla leader is still in my mind as we bend left past the newly painted white walls of the 'reborn' city. there are white flags flying from many posts...we even have a towel attached by gaffer tape to a pole...just in case.

there is music playing over a p.a. system and we pull into the square of Tenancingo. there is a crowd of 100+ here and 60 of that must be children. most of these children have lost at least one parent and many have been taken in to other families because they have had both parents killed or captured. there is a stage here and a man is announcing the beginning of a sack race for three of the children (must be the championships?). we hear the spanish version of get set and then 'uno, dos, tres' and they're off...a winner and on to the banana peeling and eating contest...someone suggests i partipate... it would be a cute piece of film...but i don't...and as the winner stuffs the last piece of banana in his mouth peter and i go to the van to get the guitars these games, we discover, have been invented to keep the children occupied until we arrived...

on stage in front of some microphones taped to a cross piece, we sing weave me the sunshine with a little tempo help from the more eager of the crowd. by the time we finish the song we know that the microphone is totally un- important...we step to the front of the little stage and begin el salvador and once again there is applause after the translation of each verse...we sing hammer...and then during blowing in the wind we climb down from the stage and encourage the singing of la, la, la during the chorus...we finish and mary gets the satchel with the candy, crayons, and coloring books...the teachers come forward to accept the gifts. there is more applause and david speaks a benediction of sorts...words of encouragement to these people who, by clearing away the rubble and accepting the risk of being in the middle of war, are trying to be an area of neutrality and hope. he says that the eyes of the world are on them...it is an allowable exaggeration. we return the guitars to the cases and walk through the village to a room where we will talk to four farmers about their lives here. there is a large tractor parked by the side of the meeting building and i am told by one of the the fundesal people that it has been rented from one of the hacienda owners...

one of the farmers has a list. i'm sure they have an agenda but there is so little time...a half hour at the most...we sit on benches facing each other they ask that we help them get more supplies through the checkpoint. we ask them about the guerillas...no they say there is no problem...what about the army...no problem...what about february 16th when the army came in while the guerrillas were here and a civilian was shot? they seem nervous...maybe it's the camera...but soon the meeting unsatisfying as it was is over...not much new information here but then these are the campesinos who would rather just have their lands back and let others do the politics. just before we leave for box lunches in the van we meet with one of the school teachers who tells us of the pyschological problems of the children and how that surfaces in a day to day school situation. he says of course all the drawings show the war and even the games they play are variations of war... he says and david translates that there will be some very deep emotional scars here that will affect these children as they become adults. i think about the fact that u.s. aid is on the side of the slaughter power in this tiny country...

it's time to go. we think we can talk to colonel carranza but we must leave right away and drive for about 20 minutes to make a phone call to confirm the appointment. we do and it's on. he is allowing us to film in his office. he has only 20 minutes or so and then he is leaving for a meeting with the governor. he is wearing a blue sportshirt and pinstripe trousers. the door to a bedroom is slightly ajar and there is a king-size bed with a lot of glitz and fru-fru...quite a contrast to the office where peter opens with the conversational gambit, "how's the war going..." Carranza speaks of operation phoenix and the masas being 'rescued' from the guerillas...and here are the latest reports and international press has noted that this has been the most successful of our sweeps and...what about the children i ask...he says he doesn't know of any children being killed except perhaps maybe a few caught in crossfire...i ask him how his troops are trained to discern between combatant and non-combatant and his paranoia trips him into an immediate defence of his human rights record and how he has just court-martialled one of his men for rape...there is either lying or concealing going on here because we know from our interviews with the displaced and children that atrocities are still being committed and relocations to places of origin are not being allowed... his left leg is beginning to twitch and now his right and now both.

and there is a soldier in the room with his left arm in a cast. many of the questions we ask are answered by the colonel blanketly "i do not know about that i only was assigned here May 1st."

we leave the garrison for the United States Embassy. a quick stop at the hotel - a shower - a change of clothes - and we are dropped off in front of what appears more like a fortress than an embassy...but hey i figure...ever since lebanon these have to be hard times for u.s. embassies. ethan must leave his camera. noel must leave his dictation recorder. noel must leave his swiss army knife. noel has already left his passport back at the hotel so we must slip a cassette to the marine and point to my face. he's a little tough but cracks "we're gonna have to confiscate this identification sir" and gives us a big smile...we joke a bit and then an aide by the name of Gatto comes to lead us to our meeting.

well.

it is true that there are more of us than just peter, paul and mary...there's ethan, janet and marjorie as well, but am i surprised when we walk into the meeting room to find four aides, two assistants, a colonel dressed in fatiques, and a map of el salvador pulled down over a chalkboard! Gatto introduces us a bit and remains in the room himself. there are eight embassy people in this room now and in walks number nine...ambassador coor. he is surprisingly short but seems like a no-nonsense kind of guy (personal prejudice: i am surprised at how eager i seem to be to talk english. there's a kind of giddiness to hear the american accent after a day and a half with interpreters in a spanish speaking town). anyway he's in tie and jacket (we're much more casual) and when he is seated there is the social lull that occurs in a roomfull of strangers waiting to get to the point. so i say (you know i can't stand moments like that) that i have always thought of the embassies of the united states as outposts to interface the u.s. citizen with the rest of the world but that in the past several years i've begun to recognize them as the eyes and ears of the administration and the chief manipulator of the enormous funds available as american aid. especially in this country. i go on to state the obvious (i'm very good at this) fact that this is a great respons- ibility and then struck by the audacity of what i'm doing (you know, who am i to tell the ambassador of el salvador that he has a great responsiblity), i begin to stumble over the first question i want to ask about the deployment of this aid and it comes out "all of the money is not being spent on military" to which the ambassador responds "really. where is it going?" i am tounge tied, stammer out, "...you tell me..." and then the conversation goes elsewhere to our concern with the human rights abuses of the military. he begins a long statement (which goes on and on) about how things are improving, i remember the point of my first question and at the appropriate time apologize for my stumble and speak of the fact that the aid coming in according to many reports finds its way back to the usa as 'capital flight' (money invested in the usa by high ranking el salvador officials who have skimmed off the top of their allowances) one of the aides immediately converts that issue into the black- market food issue and takes entirely too long to explain a process whereby inventories are periodically checked and if there's too much out on the market then they know they should cut back on food aid and on and on...

janet and marjorie are in the conversation too. and they are ringers. they so obviously have great factual information that the ambassador is more on the defensive when they speak. he makes some allusion to the typical el salvadorian male as waking up in the morning, knocking his woman around a bit and not coming back home until 2 or 3 in the morning...we are shocked by this cultural insensitivity. this is 1986 isn't it? obviously this man does not want his actions perceived as a 'bleeding heart' for el salvador. i get cranked up again and cite the killing of children by a repressive regime as hardly the best united states investment in the future...and that as the years play out instead of the role of the white knight we will be remembered for our part as the evil co-oppressor.

he asks, "have you spoken to the people in domus maria*". we answer yes. "did you see a radio?" what? "did you see a radio?" uh, no... "did you see a television?" why are you asking us this? "just answer my question did you see a televison?" well ok, no...so what? "well the people who told you the stories of the recent human rights abuses couldn't possibly know because they don't have communication with the outside!" he seemed to be pleased with his logic. well except, i pointed out, for the new arrivals who bring stories of the new atrocities...

"yes well i visited them you too you know..."he confides. posing as a minister advises margie. he looks embarrassed. "i told them i was from a church in oklahoma" (a ring of truth - i think he is from perry oklahoma). now that he mentions it he does look a little like jimmy swaggert. "and while i was talk- ing to some new arrivals they seemed to be pretty nervous to me...they kept looking at the university kind of fellow that had brought them over to me..." but still...what they said i offer. "now, you don't know if they're telling the truth or not he says...some of them are supporters of the FMLN or masas". what i don't think you understand says one of the aides is how you are being manipulated. oh we've been around manipulation before i says...we're in show biz! (first time i ever credited the experience) no continues the aide...when we began operation phoenix only two hours had gone by before we started receiving wires and phone calls from the states and around the world condemning our action...there's no way that information could be known unless the FMLN had sent it to the different support groups they have!

well i thought that probably was true...but we're here to talk about human rights abuses not media strategy...

"besides, "says the ambassador", i think i feel i will be more helpful in the human rights issues of this country if i keep a low profile." does that mean not speaking out?! asks peter incredulously. "sometimes", says the ambassador. "you take a look at the improvement in human rights abuses in the past 10 years he says. marjories speaks up. a large part of that reason is because your predecessors, pickering, hinton and white were willing to take very public stands...

"are you saying i'm not doing my job?!" he interrupts. where did that come from i ask my self...everyone at the table is a little taken aback. "i'm not going to sit here and listen to someone..." and he launches into a brief paranoic response to an incompleted thought by marjorie...stands while she tries to complete her encouragement for him to consider changing his low profile in the interest of human rights, puts on his jacket, and actually tries to leave the room. fortunately the door swings in and it's stuck so he has to turn when i say, "look we want to thank you for taking time to see us, for being willing to speak so candidly, and to know that we're here to encourage you, you..." doesn't phase him...one of his aides is now attempting to open the jammed door "you old phony minister, you", i finish lightly just before he is gone.

the moment he leaves all of the aides begin talking to us at once...it is such chaos that peter, mary, marjorie, janet and i crack up...apparently we weren't the only frustrated ones in the room. it is jim steele, the colonel that presents the strongest case for the actions of the military. he is honest and straightforward about the operation phoenix and corroborates the stories of the displaced and the people in the caves being out of food after 15 days...

according the geneva accords non-combatants are not be fired upon or forced to move even if they choose to live in a combat zone and are sympathetic to the enemy forces. so. that is what it is and at least everyone's declared... another one of the aides is angry about what he interprets as a slight against the job that coor has done in el salvador. i point out to him that we were not comparing anyone's performance (that was his problem) but rather trying to draw a correlation between being outspoken about human rights and what appeared to be the subsequent improvement of them. well the aide seems mollified and as we load into the elevator i ask him if there are further discussions about this evening that he pass on my interpretation of marjorie's remarks. he nods but i doubt seriously this meeting will even surface as a memory tomorrow morning. would that i was wrong.

we get back our goodies (p.s. ethan was allowed to bring his camera inside) and walk outside to catch our van and go to the last event of this early evening - the interview with marco tulio lima, the labor leader of the UNTS. the film crew has been interviewing annabelle from calle real at the union offices and we are ready to roll when we arrive. the union leader has an appointment very shortly but since he came out publicly for a negotiated peace with the FMLN, we decide to sing him el salvador. he nods assent continually through the song and translations. and then speaks of the need for a strong labor union in order to do what neither the army or the government has been able to do...which is be the true voice of the working people... he speaks for about 10 minutes...we ask some questions...he leaves...we leave...maybe i'm tired but that's all i remember...except the van back to the hotel...the bar...a beer and a rum punch for sherry...climb up the stairs and after pounding a little at the keyboard it's nighty-night...

day four / el salvador

i was up at 5 am (with a little friendly help from my calculator-alarm) and trying to reclaim the memory cells of yesterday. i typed for about 30 minutes and then had to go back to sleep. unfortunately today was the one day that there was no wakeup call and so i panicked when i discovered upon re-awakening that it was 7:55 and i had to be in a breakfast meeting at 8 a.m. gads...i hate this...threw everything together...no shower...quick shave...and into the room at 8:20 to hear the wise overview of Father Ellacuria, rector of the catholic university. he is lucid, kind, and in response to mary's question of america's involvement in el salvador, presented a 23 page report!

then it's time to leave and meet with the madres (the mothers of the dis- appeared)...we take a detour around a protest march by the university (for peace and for the university budget). the film crew sets up a small upstairs meeting room and the mothers collect in a circle amongst us. peter speaks of his first meeting with them and introduces us and we begin the singing of el salvador. there are tears and each line seems so painful to sing to them. i mean they know all this why am i bringing back such memories...i pray that there is an ultimate reason for all this. the first woman speaks. she wipes her eyes. several times. i apologize for bringing up old pain and ask that for the purposes of the film and getting the message to the us people that they speak of most recent actions against the madres. they speak of an arrest two weeks ago, the torture, the cutting of the stomach with a knife, the dump- ing out into a park, the begging for money to take a cab to the hospital... the return to the madres office, the subsequent re-arrest, and the fingering of the madres by the ex-human rights commission worker turned stool pigeon...

there are also the prepared speeches, but we leave after singing if i had a hammer, knowing that these are another example of the el salvador bravery born out of despair and conviction that they must ask for these simple rights and answers.

to the van and to rey prendes, the minister of communication and infor- mation. his office is in the palace. they had a little leak last night and there are papers in the corner but it seems to make him and his office more human. we are allowed to film this and while the crew sets up we discover that he was educated at Tulane in louisiana and we move into what has become the usual line...same questions...comparing the answers. i think each of us is unofficially assembling / editing this movie as we go...peter asks about human rights abuses. he tells us that they are lies. can you believe that? why would he blanketly deny what everyone so blanketly knows?!!

i present the fact that there is a three-way tug of war; the government, the military and the people (neglecting the fact that the fourth and very prominent part of this tug of war is the private sector; the oligarchy). since the government is the supposed popular voice of the people could it exist without military aid? he avoids the question. i interrupt, apologize, and ask the question again. he avoids the question again. he explains the history of the christian democrats...he categorizes ruben zamora as a lenin-marxist intellectual with no popular support. we are about to say goodbye and i rephrase the question "is the government of el salvador dependant upon the protection of the military". he answers "of course". is it improper to conclude then that without the military, public support for the christian democrats would collapse? i don't get a chance to ask him that. we are out the door and on the way to the hotel/a men's prison/the airport.

a quick lunch at the hotel buffet, a kiss goodbye to our luggage (gene palumbo will take the tickets, passport, and luggage ahead of us) and we're off to the prison. the guards check our luggage our bodies but allow us to pass through with several books that we will give to the prisoners. we meet in an office given by the prison to the political prisoners. how ironic that the government should give an office and credence to an organization in prison that they do not in the regular political process!? we leave the books here and hear stories of arrests of international human rights commission workers and they speak of the torture and the detention incommunicado for 15 days. eventually everyone signs the confession to being a terrorist...the alternative is too painful. some are paraded in front of television with voice overs talking about the terrorists. others who comply more readily (like jeanette whatser face), we are told, receive monies, government protection, and other perqs. we ask how they know this is true. they smile knowlingly at one another... "because we were offered the same", they say.

now we talk to the most recent arrival. he has been in the political section of the prison for 2 weeks. he was tied by nylon cord around the wrists and legs and hung up for two hours. he had a stick shoved up his anus. he signed the confession. the marks show on his legs and arms.

janet interrupts and says we have 15 minutes before we have to leave for the airport and we decide that it would be good to sing for all the political prisoners (you understand...there are no guerillas here. these are the masas, the collaborators, the campesinos who are guilty merely because they protest the conditions or the repression). we go to a courtyard and there are maybe 15 people looking at us curiously... this is visiting day there are wives and children as well. we sing if i had a hammer. when we finish there must be almost 200 people crowded into the trees and shrubbery. they shout "viva music of the people!" we sing el salvador. there is applause after the first verse. they shout "viva the rights of the people". there are guards walking along the roofs around the courtyard. marge tabankin leans into my line of sight and signals to be quieter. there is a bullhorn speaking to the prisoners in spanish. i think gads what are they gonna do...come in here with water hoses and break up this political rally? we finish the song to great applause and they shout "viva the revolution!". the guards are no longer on the roof. we decide we cannot leave these people without something uplifting. we sing weave me the sunshine and encourage them to clap in time. they do. we are singing with smiles and a feeling of great family. the children are smiling. there is great hope here...and then it is adios. adios to the prison. and adios to el salvador.

but first a flat tire on the way to the airport. uno, dos, tres - ethan, peter and i supplement the jack by lifting the van high enough off the ground for mauricio to slide the spare tire on. we arrive at the airport a little late but thanks to gene with many of the check-on requirements taken care of. there is time for a little gift shopping (sherry buys a t-shirt with the words el salvador on the back and "thank you america for helping us fight communism" on the front). we take a few minutes of filming in the bar/restaurant and peter finally gets a chance to act out his frustration by pretending he is screaming at the cool dismissals of the previous rey prendes meeting... we crack up...i think we all felt a socially imposed frustration...janet says it's time for the airplane and we hoist our hand luggage and troop through the passport control, the metal detectors and i even have to sign over my swiss army knife before we finally are on the plane to nicaragua.

Next page: Nicaragua  

 1997 noel paul stookey


 

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