Day 5~June 16
I start today’s entry with the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, which I will have the honor of reading at a Mass today in the Crypt where Archbishop Romero is buried. It is optional to attend...as GATE is open to people of all faith traditions, but everyone in our group plans to go.
Prayer of Archbishop Oscar Romero
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is ever beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that should be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundation that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.
I have a few minutes before we leave on our morning’s excursion to the office of the Co-Madres, Mothers of the Disappeared, so I thought I’d share with you some snapshots I’ve saved in my mind’s eye.
- A man, with only one hand, sleeping on the sidewalk as people step over and around him.
- A man sleeping in mud on the side of the road.
- Children, barefoot, sitting on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk.
- Well dressed business women in high heels navigating urban traffic.
- Whole families riding in truck beds...everywhere.
- Two young boys running to grab on to the back of a bus for a free ride.
- Smiling, wonderful, warm people everywhere.
- Young people in trucks shouting, whistling as they drive by.
- Cars with giant speakers tied to the roof, blasting music, advertisements, noise.
- A child standing in the doorway to her home....no door, just a doorway. She is barefoot on the dirt floor.
- A cook stirring jamaica....flowers of the hibiscus plant, boiling them and making a sweet and tangy drink.
- Cows wandering in the middle of the road.
- A young boy pushing a cart filled with goods more than 10 times his size.
- Women carrying jugs of water, miles from the next house.
- Elderly women balancing baskets full of goods on the tops of their heads.
There is so much to see and appreciate here! Yesterday I stuck my head outside the bus window as we sped through the market at Aguilares, the smells of the countryside....cooked chicken....burning wood....fresh, sweet fruit....washing over me. A young child in the truck next to us looked at me and smiled. I waved, she waved back. The air was thick and humid. I realized in that moment that I love this country. I love it. Maybe that sounds odd, after all, there is so much here that is painful to see. Yet, it is the people who make this place whole, who mend the parts that are broken, or imagine how they will be mended in the future. El Salvador is a magical place.
El Salvador is also a place of great sadness and brutality. This morning we went to the office of the Co-Madres, where the three women pictured in my first entry spoke about their experiences. Keep in mind throughout this that the United States government has funded and continues to financially support the government and military of El Salvador. During the civil war, when disappearances and assassinations of the poor people reached their peak, the U.S. was giving a million dollars per day in military aid. The School of the Americas (SOA) trained most of the military personnel who carried out the abductions and tortures. This is your tax money at work.
Ever heard that phrase....If you aren’t outraged, you’re not paying attention?
These women are simple, gentle creatures. To see them walking down the street, they would look like anyone’s mother or grandmother. They work from a tiny, simple office, doors chipped and worn, photos pasted to the bulletin boards, a mural of Oscar Romero watching over them. They look as if they would never hurt anyone. Hidden inside, however, dwell some strong souls with more bravery than you can imagine.
Each of them has lost loved ones, people who were in their lives one day, disappeared the next. That is how they came to the Co-Madres. One woman lost two brothers...one body has been found, the other has not. Another woman lost her 16 year old son, who was tortured and killed by order of the government. When his body was found his face had been peeled off and the bones in his fingers and arms were broken. The same woman´s daughter was captured, tortured, raped, and had her fingernails torn off. Even more horrifying is to hear these women talk about the torture they’ve endured themselves. They are targets simply because they have worked to reunite family members who´ve had family members abducted, or to bring closure to family members who’ve lost loved ones who have been assassinated by the death squads. Their battle has been decades in the making. As a group, they would go in search of the missing, and when they came across bodies, would photograph them as evidence against the government. These are some of the shocking images you see in my first entry, though their photos fill three enormous photo albums.
One of the death squads, the White Gloves, would leave a handprint in white paint on your car or home if you were next to be killed. Imagine the psychological torture. All of this was done to repress the people of El Salvador, to control them.
As individuals, their tales of capture and torture are the most horrifying personal testimonies I’ve ever heard. One woman was captured and tortured for three days, she said, in the usual types of torture. I had no idea what that meant. Then, she was captured and held for three months. They would hang her from her hands, naked, so her feet were barely able to touch the ground. They would beat her, shock her with electricity on the wet spots of her body....the mouth, the eyes, the ears, the vagina. They would stick their rifles inside of her vagina. The beatings continued. They took her to the top of Devil’s Door, a site we visited on our first day, and they threatened to kill her, time and time again. Only through a miracle did she escape. One day, a blindfold over her eyes, she was taken to a room where she could smell blood, and left there. She reached out over the floor, felt dismembered body parts....a finger.... a head. They returned and started up a machine, saying they were going to kill her. All they wanted from her were the names and locations of other Co-Madres, they said. She wouldn’t talk. The machine was started up again, and she kept thinking about the person whose head she had felt on the floor....maybe she would know them, could find their family. Then, someone burst through the door, shouting ¨Stop! They know she is here.¨ They hosed her down, took her to a room with a carpeted floor and gave her some clothing, then they told her none of it had ever happened, that it had just been a dream, forced her to drink a bitter liquid which made her dizzy and set her free. The Co-Madres were standing outside waiting for her. She believes they saved her life.
Another woman, the only living founder of the Co-Madres was captured and tortured as well. The soldiers threatened to rape her daughter, who somehow escaped, running naked out of the house. They beat her, burned her, did the same electric shock tortures to her, stuck their guns inside her, and raped her. Three days later she lost the baby she’d been carrying for five months, but was unable to even help herself. She doesn’t really know how long she was there, but they deposited her on a sidewalk in San Salvador, naked and bloody, to die.
Death threats against the Co-Madres were regularly published in the papers, and the last one was printed in 2003.
Their stories are horrifying. They tell us that it is somewhat like therapy for them to be able to tell them. As you can imagine, the long-term mental health effects related to their suffering can be devastating. Within the past two years they’ve begun a mental health program to help people deal with these memories, the horror of finding a loved one who has been tortured and assassinated, or the torture they’ve endured themselves. The program is largely funded through donations, and they are very grateful.
They continue to work for human rights and resolution to the many disappearances in El Salvador. As I mentioned in my first post, the UN has signed a convention calling for forced disappearances to be made a crime. The U.S. will not sign it, and neither will El Salvador, though more than 50 other countries have. They’ve also worked to build a memorial to the disappeared and assassinated in El Salvador. More than 25,000 names are on the monument, and more are soon to be added, as the investigations continue. They are asking for a recall of the amnesty granted to the military for the torture and murders they committed during the war. They continue to seek out the truth, on behalf of the loved ones they’ve lost and the loved ones of others.
Sadly, they fear that tension is rising once again, and they may again be at risk. There is an apparent increase in death squads’ activity. They say justice does not work in El Salvador, yet they will never stop fighting for it.
Our afternoon Mass was held at the Cathedral where Oscar Romero is buried, at an altar set just beyond his feet. A priest in our group led the Mass. It was a sacred moment and a moving tribute to the Archbishop. We then toured the main part of the Cathedral. Afterward, our driver took us by the homes of the poorest of the poor in El Salvador. They live along the railroad tracks in tin shacks. It’s not safe to linger here, so we photographed it from our van. It’s unbelievable.
If you would like to send a comment, please send email to GATE@fspa.org
"Your El Salvador Blog is terrific, Charish! I'm fascinated by both its descriptive quality, and the almost palpable sense of your growing passion for the lives and suffering of the Salvadoran people you're encountering. With the terrific sensory and emotional load you're experiencing, I'm betting too, from past experience of my own, that your sense of time has probably already become distorted, so that days begin to feel like weeks, weeks like months, etc.
Keep up the great reporting! I definitely feel like I'm right there with you as I read your entries and look at the photos. I'm passing the GATE web address on to a number of friends of mine, all of whom I am pretty sure will also find your experiences inspirational. Be safe and keep learning, Kiddo. I admire the heck out of what you're doing with your life.
[BTW-- Are you familiar with the free, multi-language, translation website "Babel Fish" ( babelfish.altavista.com/tr )? "Genuflect", for example, in Spanish: "hacer una genuflexión, doblar la rodilla" ("to make a genuflexión, to double the knee")]"
Day 6~June 17
Another fascinating day in El Salvador, one of eye-opening experiences, fresh air, and opportunities to understand rural life. Today we had breakfast early....7:15....which consisted of eggs, beans, queso fresco, and fruit. We piled into our van and drove well outside of the city, to the city of Armenia, where the office of FUSANMIDJ (Foundation for the Integral health of Women and Children--tagged with the initials of the four churchwomen who were assassinated here in wartime) is based. There we met three inspirational women who spearhead a number of projects in rural areas related to health, water projects and empowerment of the poor. The group was established in 1995 as a way to begin work with women and children after the war here. Children, they say, were the especially invisible in society here, whether it was the war or the number of natural disasters this area has endured. One of the founders of FUSANMIDJ (pro: foo-sahn-MIDJ) has worked with the Maryknoll Sisters during the war in rural communities, helping with education. Later, she helped with the war orphans. Funding is a problem for them--of course--as it’s easier to find grants to fund projects than it is salaries, so all three of these women volunteer their time to run this organization. It is a tremendous job. They run programs in a number of nearby villages, fight for the right of the people to drill wells, raise funds, and conduct high-profile marches to raise awareness. One recent march was organized to protest gold mining by a Canadian company, which pays the country just 1-2% of the riches they find. In the long term, the ecological damage, including pollution of groundwater, will last thousands of years.
Rural challenges are interesting. While inner city folks make an average of $157, as I’ve written, in the rural areas they make only $68 per month. That’s in part because there are so few jobs in rural areas. Also, the minimum wage in this country is set according to geographical location, as well as occupation. A Japanese company opened an assembly shop and offered to pay people $300 per month, which as you can imagine would boost the quality of life for many people here. But the government cracked down on the company and told them not to pay that much; the people are used to their minimum wage. So, needless to say, that money vaporized.
Another interesting issue is the use of water for power here. There are many, many people who have no water. None. There are others who have access only to polluted water, unfit for human consumption. There are still others who have to walk to two separate villages to get fresh water, then water in which to wash clothes and bathe themselves. But like within the people themselves, there are rich resources beneath the surface of El Salvador. FUSANMIDJ has worked to drill wells in several villages, and some of these projects have benefited from your giving, if you are a donor to the FSPA or GATE Charitable Giving. One well in progress was stopped by the Mayor, who told the group they could not drill. Then, a government official arrived who said they could not drill. Luckily, the drilling had already been completed. Later organizers found out why the government wanted to stop the drilling....the people there are considered ¨leftist¨and the government, the ARENA party, and the mayor, are ¨right.¨ This is not the only way that resources are leveraged to maintain power here.
That said, the well at San Juan and Progresso is now pouring fresh water out for the people, and it is a beautiful sight. You would be overwhelmed by how grateful the people of these villages are for their fresh water. The children of the village of San Juan met us as we drove up--yelling out ¨Welcome!¨to us, in Spanish. They put on an elaborate performance for us, including singing, dancing, and speeches about the difference this well has made in their lives. For families who have less than a dollar a day to live on, not having water is a huge problem. They can’t afford bottled water, and the trucks that used to come and fill their barrels are run by crooked companies which pump water from dirty, polluted rivers then fill the barrels for $1. We witnessed this first-hand. People get terribly ill from this water. So having fresh water is a miracle for them, one they’ve been waiting for 40 years. That’s right. These particular villages have not had drinkable water for 40 years.
The water tank at the village has been painted, and as you can see in the photo, it recognizes GATE of Wisconsin for its role in making this well happen. What an incredible honor!
Then, they handed out small gifts to us...purses they made with elaborate embroidery work. I get choked up just thinking about the generosity of these people.
For less than $30,000, this well provides fresh water for more than 200 families in two villages. I think that is an incredible bargain.
Sadly, there is a move to place the wells into government control and to privatize the fresh water in El Salvador in general. FUSANMIDJ and others fear the ramifications would be terrible.
After our trip to Progresso, we had lunch in a nearby food court which had mainly American-type companies....Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway....which I always think is interesting. The American lifestyle is much coveted here, so locals want to dress like us, eat like us, and look like us. Young men and women seek out tall blondes as dates, but there are few tall blondes here.
After lunch we went to another village near Armenia where we met with a women´s group who had received three sewing machines so they can sew items to sell and help their families make ends meet. They displayed the number of items they’ve made, including embroidered pillow cases, skirts, pants, and shirts. The children of the village followed me everywhere. It is rare for them to have visitors, particularly Americans. Here, we are the exotic.
From there, we went to Lake Coatepeque, a gorgeous lake which we overlooked from a high elevation. Then, we climbed up, up, up a mountain, above the clouds even. The air was crisp and fresh, a much welcome change from the grit of the city. We arrived at Cerro Verde, a national park, with just enough time to give it a quick look, as the park was closing in 25 minutes. It was lush and mossy, and it felt wonderful to breathe clean air for a while!
We then went back to San Salvador and had a great meal at a Chinese restaurant just a block from our hotel.
If you would like to send a comment, please send email to GATE@fspa.org
"I just “caught up” on the El Salvador Blog. What a read! And how heart-rending! What a story! And yes, the FSPAs help these people with ministry grants ---- all three of these stories --- FUSANMIDJ, the Co-Madres, and the Water Project in Chiapas [Mexico] ---- are part of the Ministry Grant story! We are helping all we can and praying, too."
--Betty Shakal, FSPA
"Charish, Saturday we made a meal of corn bread and a mixture of rice, peppers, corn along with spices mixed in . This was our first try of a meal like you might have. Festival foods returned a email that they had "masa harina" in aisle 5. So Sunday we tried your recipe and in our "French Island "way joined you for a meal. I hope you might show the correct way to make it when you get home. Sunday there was a show on TV telling about the gangs and the fighting that is going on in El Salvador. We thought of your safety and pray you have no problems. In about two days you will be on the way home with stories we hope to hear. Again we say your writing makes it sound like we are there with you. Even your feelings can be felt in your words."
--Love, Nancy and Larry
"Children and sky, earth and water. Waking, eating, talking, being, and then more eating. The same and so different. Charish, your voice comes to me shattering distance and time, immersed in your here and now and the power of story. Thank you.... And may Grace surround you like the heat, the smiles, the new feelings you are touching and weaving into your life."
--Peace, Sarah Hennessey
--Hi to Karen too!!!