MacEoin recently returned to El Salvador to visit friends he
had made in the 1980s when he went to report on refugees
hiding in the mountains on the Honduran side of the border
and in the U.N.-protected Mesa Grande refugee camp. A lawyer
who speaks several languages, MacEoin, 92, is the author of
30 books, including a history of the Second Vatican Council.
His work as a journalist since 1933 has taken him to every
continent and more than a hundred countries.
dominates the early morning landscape. A warm breeze rustles the
leaves of lime and orange trees on the hillsides. Here my
perceived personal needs are modest. I have the luxury of a bed.
That it is springless doesn’t matter. I have the luxury of a
mosquito net. Many of my neighbors have neither. In daylight I
stumble over jagged rocks to reach a latrine. At night, I just
step outside and pray for a cloud to cover the moon. But I am
announces the dawn, his strident voice for a moment blocking out
the gentle sounds of proliferating life, the humming of bees,
the scratching of chickens in search of insects, a fruit
dropping from a tree, the distant bray of a donkey. The wind
carries the voices of a woman and her son weeding the milpa, the
sprouting corn that holds the promise of food.
As I finish my
ablutions, pouring water over head and body, my neighbor arrives
with hot coffee. That is how we live here. We share our poverty
generously. Eloisa is delighted when Yvonne invites her to bathe
in our little cubicle. Her one-room shack has no such luxuries.
These are the
people Ignacio Ellacuría had in mind when he identified the
crucified people stripped of life as the primary sign of the
times. Ellacuría was the Basque Jesuit who had adopted the
Salvadoran people as his own. He paid with his life for his
insistent defense of their rights. He was assassinated with five
other Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter by the
Salvadoran military in 1989. A grateful people has named this
town to ensure his memory will not die.
The people of El
Salvador have been a long time hanging on the cross. The pain
was slightly eased a decade ago with a U.N.-negotiated end to a
stalemated civil war. The assassinations of Archbishop Oscar
Romero as he said Mass and of the four U.S. Catholic churchwomen
had shocked the world. The brutal killing of the six Jesuits at
the Central American University was too much. The U.S. Congress
moved to cut aid. The U.S. administration, whose aircraft,
weapons and training of the Salvadoran military had protracted
the conflict, had to accept a peace agreement that left the
oligarchy in control while giving minority political power to
the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, often known as
FMLN, the political arm of the guerrillas.
That was January
1992. By the late 1980s, U.S. military aid to El Salvador had
exceeded the country’s entire budget.
past is so close
During my visit
to Chalatenango last fall, we shared many memories. The dominant
memories are of U.S. bombs and missiles that showered on the
people as they fled their homes and that killed husbands and
children during the 1980s. The past is very much the present for
Eloisa. She had watched when they killed her husband and son. As
they lifted her husband’s dead body, his eye was hanging by a
thread. El dia de los muertos (the Day of the Dead, Nov.
2) each year is particularly sad for Eloisa. Not knowing the
location of the grave, she is unable to visit it, just as she
was unable to fulfill the rituals of burial. Soldiers and
death-squad members had systematically hacked men and boys to
death, then dumped them in unmarked graves.
Romero’s weekly homilies, his insistence that the people’s
demands for reform of an unjust system were reasonable. People
marching in the streets demanding a piece of land. Soldiers in
tanks and armored cars careening around, shooting at random. In
1980, I picked up a copy of an unbound volume by Leonel Rugama.
It caught my eye because more than 10 years earlier I had found
his “The Earth Is A Moon Satellite” in a student magazine in
Montevideo, Uruguay. The poem’s description of distorted values
that leave people to starve while sending men to the moon was so
vivid that when I translated and published it in NCR, it
was picked up by publications in many languages.
people were organizing and arming. In January 1981 the FMLN
would call for a nationwide insurrection to bring about the
social changes the ruling class had denied for centuries.
Pilate and Herod
were once again cooperating. The United States had begun to
donate $4 billion in armaments, aircraft and training. The army
and its paramilitary helpers compiled lists of trade unionists,
student leaders, journalists and pastoral workers to be hunted
down, tortured and killed. Romero’s warning in a letter to
President Carter was being proved chillingly accurate: “Instead
of favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your
government’s contribution will undoubtedly intensify the
injustice and the repression.”
War was not new
to me. But El Salvador was a war for which I was not prepared.
Returning to my hotel after a day at the university, I told a
friend that never had I seen so much life among so much death.
Life. Yes, life
powerless and voiceless were becoming masters of their own fate.
In his homilies, Sunday after Sunday, Romero had insisted that
the people’s demands were reasonable and their cause just. But
now they were arming. What would Romero say of that? As it
happened, I knew what Romero would say, because he had said it
to me. That was at Puebla in Mexico in 1979 when I was
interviewing him for Canadian television. “As a Christian and
especially as a Christian leader I am totally opposed to
violence. I could not countenance violence in any
the donkey ran faster
I said, “Monseñor,
may I ask you the question an indigenous man in the Guatemalan
highlands put to a missionary friend of mine? ‘What would the
Good Samaritan have done if his donkey had run faster?’ ” We
evaluated the question for some moments. Would the Samaritan
have reined in his donkey and waited to see the outcome, not
knowing if the robbers might kill their victim? Or would he take
the stick he had used to make his donkey run faster and wade
into the fight? Nuns were being raped in the Congo just then. We
reflected on that too, and on what a father would do who saw his
child being sexually abused. And we concluded that in some
situations it is not only the right but the duty of the
Christian to use counterviolence against unjust violence.
As I talked with
my neighbors on my visit last fall, it seemed I was back in 1980
El Salvador. Each man and woman has a personal association with
the barbarities of that year. Some were in the thronged square
in front of the cathedral in March when the military opened fire
on the mourners at the funeral Mass for Romero. Others recalled
the massacre of 600 peasants at the Rio Sumpul in May or knew
one or more of the six leaders of a popular movement
assassinated in San Salvador in November, or the four American
churchwomen raped and killed in December. The atrocities came
fast and furious that year.
It was dangerous
to belong to any citizen group. Seven members of the Human
Rights Commission paid with their lives. Two prominent
journalists were picked off in a café. Bodies each morning in
the streets. Similar barbarities in the countryside. Entire
families were fleeing for the safety of the mountains or
trekking east to reach the relative safety of the U.N.-protected
refuge in Honduras.
the offices of the archdiocese following Romero’s assassination
March 24, 1980. Refugees from the countryside were squatting on
the grounds of the adjoining seminary, each with his or her
story. An old man told me how the soldiers had invaded his
village killing people at random. A soldier urged his companion
to kill the children as well because they were bad seed. It was
a story I would hear with variations many times.
Once in Honduras
I was so overcome I could not continue to translate a woman’s
story for representatives of Oxfam, a relief group. A soldier
had hacked open a woman’s womb with a machete, removed the
fetus, and inserted the just-severed head of the woman’s
mentioned Beto Gallagher, the Franciscan priest working in Santa
Rosa de Coban who struggled for months against the crude lies of
the Salvadoran military and the U.S. Embassy until he finally
convinced the world of the massacre at the Rio Lempa in March
1981. As part of his campaign Beto took me down to the river and
joined me in climbing steep mountainsides, often on hands and
knees. There we interviewed survivors who, in places too remote
for the military to hunt them down, were sharing the generous
hospitality of Honduran families as poor as themselves.
Memories of a massacre
Yvonne added her
memories. The day of the massacre she was at a first-aid post
about five miles inland, sterilizing the wounds of children who
had traveled for days on foot with their parents. Using a
forceps, she plucked a worm an inch long out of the putrefying
head wound of one child; she picked shrapnel out of the back of
another. They were hiding among the trees from helicopters that
patrolled the riverbanks and fired at anything that moved. The
stream of patients, which had been incessant since morning,
stopped about 3 p.m.
“Are there no
more?’ she asked. There were still hundreds on the other side of
the river, they told her, but the five men, the only ones who
knew how to swim, were exhausted and had to rest. So Yvonne,
just a few years out of a college in Indiana, went down to the
river, stripped to her underwear and took her turn for several
hours. The younger children, strapped to her back, grabbed her
hair in terror. The older ones almost choked her as they hung
On the Saturday
of my visit, people from all over the department came to Las
Flores to unveil a monument to 117 children captured and killed
by the military in the 1980s. As we drove with Maria Chichilco,
she told us of her adventures on this road in the 1980s as a
regional guerrilla leader. There were military patrols
everywhere. Once she talked her way through a checkpoint as an
itinerant vendor, the pile of tamales in a tray on her head
concealing her pistol. Another time, she posed as a peasant
woman nine months pregnant while carrying 240 thousand
colones to buy arms. Her companion wore a nurse’s uniform.
As Maria groaned and writhed in feigned pain, the nurse begged
the soldiers to hurry and pass them through, shouting that the
pregnant woman’s water had already broken.
At Las Flores,
after prayers in the small church, parents and siblings told
their stories. Sometimes the soldiers killed both children and
parents. At other times they adopted the children or placed them
in an orphanage. Francesca’s was a dramatic story. With her
husband and four children she headed for the mountains. Going
ahead with two children, she got safely through the cordon. Then
she and other women stopped on a hill to rest. As they watched,
the soldiers killed several men, including Francesca’s husband.
Shortly afterwards, helicopters landed and took away 55
Ten years later,
after the war, an organization called Pro Busqueda (searchers)
started to look for the lost children. They found some who had
been adopted and others in orphanages. Many parents, however,
could not identify their children. They knew nothing about DNA
testing. But Francesca was lucky. When Pro Busqueda took
Francesca to an orphanage, her older daughter, now 19,
recognized Francesca and also identified several of her
companions who were from the same village. Pro Busqueda located
other adopted children, some in the United States. For one,
adopted by an army colonel, the discovery of his mother created
complicated and conflicting emotions. Referring to the
helicopters, Francesca said to me: “The people who planned that
were trained in your School of Assassins [the U.S. Army’s School
of the Americas, now operating as the Defense Institute for
Hemispheric Cooperation]. That school has to be closed.”
the other survivors live with death. And with life in spite of
death. Mercedes Sosa sang the “Song of the Cricket”:
As often as
they kill you, so often will
you rise again;
How many nights will you pass in
And at the hour of shipwreck and
Someone will save you so that you go
Singing to the sun like the cricket
After a year beneath the earth,
Like a survivor home from the war
A decade has
passed since the United States walked away, stepping carefully
to avoid the moaning wounded and the rubble in the streets.
Under the new
arrangement, my friends here in Chalatenango are not doing very
well. Government services are all but nonexistent. What help
they get, apart from what family members in the United States
send, comes from international aid agencies, mostly European.
Money sent home
What is true of
Chalatenango is true of the entire country. An area smaller than
New Jersey, El Salvador has experienced massive population
growth without a corresponding growth in productivity. It had
783,000 inhabitants in 1900, a million in 1960, over 6 million
today. Infant mortality is high, 93 per 1,000 births. So is
illiteracy at 86 percent.
What keeps the
economy from total collapse is the steady flow of remittances
from family members in the United States. The amount this year
is $1.9 billion, as much as total income from farming and
livestock. The country lives on the export of bodies and brains.
Only the families who have someone in the United States can show
some small improvements.
For the long
term, however, this income source is far from guaranteed.
representing the oligarchy and pursuing the free market policies
advocated by the United States makes things worse. Recent
privatizations have brought more expensive electricity, higher
phone rates and fewer social services. More and more of the tax
burden is being shifted to middle-class and the poor.
Jesuit Fr. Jon
Sobrino is not optimistic. A professor at the Central American
University and a leading liberation theologian, Sobrino was one
of Romero’s closest advisers and, like him, was convinced of the
justice of the demands of the popular movement for radical
reform of Salvadoran society. Had he not been at a conference in
Thailand on Nov. 16, 1989, he would have been killed with the
other Jesuits at Central American University. He is a survivor
with the self-imposed life task of continuing the fight of his
fellow Jesuits for justice in El Salvador.
says Sobrino, is not of El Salvador but of the world. As long as
the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund continue
their policies -- policies determined by the multinational
corporations and implemented by a handful of rich countries --
the future of El Salvador is dark. “The final word is that life
here is still very desperate.”
somber framework, however, there are elements that keep the hope
of Easter alive. The celebration of the martyrs is important for
Sobrino. People long afraid even to name their own martyrs now
assemble to affirm them. This year 12,000 gathered for the
anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs, great crowds at El Mozote and
at other massacre sites. “So there is a force, a strength, an
energy, maybe not on the surface but in the undercurrents. There
are many undercurrents.”
interested in theology. They meet on Saturdays in 12 schools
spread around the country, about a thousand students in all. The
students come together nationally from time to time. They move
from ignorance to knowledge, from lies to truth. From radio
listeners they have become radio speakers. They talk back.
In the 1980s,
says Jesuit Fr. Dean Brackley, a professor at the Central
American University, a national unity of sentiment and
commitment existed as a result of Romero’s leadership. Brackley,
who previously worked in the South Bronx, was one of the six
chosen from some 50 volunteers to replace the assassinated
Jesuits. The question is whether or not this unity can survive.
Today the median age is 19, and more than half the people live
in cities. This is the first TV generation. Their attitude
toward religion is different. They are not unbelievers but they
social change for which the long struggle was fought was
thwarted by the United States, which opposes any alternative
that would end its control. However, the war ended not in
surrender but in a compromise. The FMLN holds positions of
influence, a major voice in the legislature.
Do people feel
that the benefits are worth all the suffering and deaths?
I’ve asked that
question many times and have received conflicting answers. Every
survivor, I think, believes that those who died did not die in
vain. They are the heroes and the martyrs treasured by Sobrino
and remembered by everyone. An important plus for many is the
freedom to speak one’s mind without fear of being killed. But
many would add that the benefits do not match up to the costs.
The price was too high.
here in Ellacuría, as in all of Chalatenango, fall into both
categories. Many barely survive on the corn and beans they grow
in their small plots of infertile land. Those with a family
member in the United States, one of the 200,000 who fled here in
the 1980s or the countless thousands who have since followed
them “by the river or the fence,” can rise a fraction above the
starvation level and improve their shacks. For the economist
these people are statistics. For me they are friends.
They are the
crucified people hoping for resurrection. Before I say goodbye
to them, I meditate and ask myself what have they taught me, a
citizen of the United States. And I recall something Ellacuría
had said. “Set your mind and your heart on these people who are
suffering so much. Then, in the spirit of the Spiritual
Exercises of St. Ignatius, ask yourself: What have I done to
crucify them? What do I do to uncrucify them? What must I do for
these people to rise again?”
National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002