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