When I went to bed last night I heard a strange sound. At first I thought it was some loud bass music that was vibrating the floor. But I soon came to realize that it was Lynn snoring. That’s right. She was snoring so loud I thought the room was vibrating. I tried making some coughing sounds and gently poking the mattress to see if it helped. It did, thank goodness. I’m probably going to get in trouble for writing this.
Breakfast this morning was pancakes. I know this because I heard Lynn squealing with joy in the kitchen and then she came bounding into the bedroom to tell me we were having pancakes. Thankfully I hadn’t started changing yet so no one saw anything they didn’t need to see. As payback I hid the syrup Lynn bought yesterday for the pancakes. I told Kathy, Blanca, and Cecilia what I’d done. They warned Lynn that I did something bad. ‘Muy mala’ Ceci said about me. Lynn eventually went to get the syrup and found it was missing. She may or may not have said a naughty word. So I quickly retrieved the syrup from its hiding place. Cecilia got the devil horns hanging on the bulletin board in the house and put them on me. We got a picture of Lynn and me with her holding the syrup.
Around 8:15am we left for La Quesera, one of the massacre sites in the Berlín municipality. The trip there wasn’t too bad. Lynn and I stood in the back of the pickup truck with Miguel, Blanca, Cecilia, and Otilia. Kathy drove and inside was Marta, who is an ex-combatant (she was a guerilla during the war). I had never been to La Quesera before so I was pretty excited. At one point we came close to running over a pig that didn’t want to move out of the road. But it finally moved. We also passed some sugar cane fields, flowers that looked like cannas, and a giant vulture.
Then we came upon several giant ‘puddles’ in the road, which were more like small ponds. If the ponds or rivers/streams that we had to cross further up the road were too big we would have to turn around and go back. The puddles were huge and I wasn’t sure if the truck could handle them. But Kathy got us through. When we came upon the first river/stream we had to cross Lynn said, “We’re not going through there,” to which I replied, “Oh yes we are!” I remembered crossing those rivers in the truck when I was there earlier in the year. And the water was flowing now too. We could just see the headlines: “Westminster delegation swept away in river.” That would make for an awesome promotion of the Our Sister Parish organization. Lynn had me tell Miguel that if we got stuck he’d have to get out and push us. But, of course, we weren’t swept away. Kathy and the ladies at the house know the roads and the conditions of them. They knew whether or not we’d be able to make it across, which we did. We made it across the second one as well.
By about 10:45 we’d reached La Quesera. We drove to the place where one of massacres occurred and the bodies were buried. Here is a little bit of background before I write about Marta’s testimony. The La Quesera Massacre, which took place between October 20-24 1981, was part of the Salvadoran government’s Tierra Arrasada (Scorched Earth) policy. Besides committing widespread acts of rape and torture, the army burned everything to the ground: crops, homes, animals, and people. The government initiated the policy, inspired by their US sponsors, as a means to uproot popular dissent. The army strategy was to “quitarle el agua al pez” or “drain water away from the fish”. Under “Scorched Earth,” villages were systematically wiped out for harboring potential “guerilla sympathizers”. Children were specifically targeted to eliminate the risk of becoming future guerillas. In the process, 75,000 (or even more) civilians were killed between 1980 and 1992. A United Nations sponsored Truth Commission found that the Salvadoran Armed Forces were responsible for 95% of humans rights violations during that period.
Then Marta began to tell her story. She and her mother were guerillas during the war.
Marta’s testimony: To begin, Marta is not her real name. Guerillas changed their names during the war. Her real name is Maria Marcos Alfaro. Her mother’s name is Juana Alfaro. Marta was born on April 25, 1969. Her mother was a single mom. She and her mother moved to La Quesera when she was 2. She only went to school up to second grade because the people in the area began to organize and they shut down the school. Her mother joined the popular revolution, working as a cook and secretary. The meetings of the group were held at night. At the time, no one had land work. The movement for justice began because no one had any land. Remember, no land means little crops and little money. This is why the war started. Because of the injustices.
Marta was 11 when the war began in 1980. The National Guard came to take people away so people hid in the woods. The guards took many of the women away to another place. Eventually, a group of people who would become guerillas learned to signal each other when they saw troops coming. One person was a lookout and would set off a noisemaker to signal others. If you heard it, you left. It didn’t matter where you were, you had to leave or you’d be killed. If you stayed in your house the army would kill you. After killing people the army would burn down their house, their corn, their animals. Most people lost their homes. Marta, her mother, and her mother’s compañero (like a common law husband) moved to a guerilla encampment. No one had any weapons, but they learned how to defend themselves.
In October of 1981 the Armed Forces, Atlacatl Battalion, and La Guardia (3 groups of government troops) devised an operation to drop bombs on La Quesera and surrounding area. They used 37 airplanes from the United States. Marta and her mother briefly left the guerilla encampment for La Montaña. There they lived in a ravine for 8 days to protect themselves. They stayed hidden, but it was a big government operative. When the three groups of government troops found people they killed them. After it was all over the guerillas returned to one area in La Quesera. There they found 50 people dead, murdered. Mostly children, women, and older people. They wanted to find the people they knew. They wanted to record who had been slaughtered. But it was hard. The odor was powerful. Many bodies were so badly disfigured that they were only recognizable by their hair or clothes. Several bodies had been either partially eaten or dragged away by animals. So they dug a hole and put some of the remains in there.
Then there was another massacre on October 22 along the road to the cemetery. Marta’s cousin was there with his mother and his younger sister. They went to hide in the ravines, but the soldiers had machines guns and fired them into the ravine. His mother was killed. He was 12 years old. His sisters were 7 and 5 years old. They prayed to God for strength. They badly wanted to leave the ravine, but prayed for the strength to stay. If they left, they would be killed. They had no food and no water. When his youngest sister was thirsty he put his shirt on the plants above him to absorb water. Then he’d squeeze the water from his shirt into her mouth. This kept them alive for 15 days.
They saw a helicopter come to take the soldiers away. The next day he and his sisters were able to leave the ravine. Along the way to a canton they found people dead along the river. Many had been decapitated and their heads put on stakes. The air was filled with a horrible smell because the river was full of bodies.
The massacre impacted many people. They weren’t able to leave the area without being killed. So Marta and her mother always stayed with the guerilla encampment. Probably one of the reasons they survived was because they stayed with the encampment. The place where we were at, where Marta was telling us this story, was a legally recognized massacre site. A local priest in the area has the names of everyone who is buried there. Every year on December 28 people gather at that spot to have a mass, hear testimony, and remember what happened.
But many people don’t want to remember. Marta’s brother, who grew up with her father, was in the Armed Forces. He was a pilot on the planes the dropped bombs. It is possible that he was dropping bombs near the area where she and her mother were hiding. Marta was able to meet her brother after the war was over. But he has different ideologies. Marta, as well as Blanca, explained to us that many Salvadorans don’t understand the struggle of the guerillas.
For example, the mayor of Berlín is FMLN and has ideologies consistent with the FMLN, but since he was not a guerilla during the war, he doesn’t quite understand the struggles of the guerillas and the people.
Note about the FMLN: The FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional; Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) was formed as an umbrella group on October 10, 1980 from the left wing guerilla organizations: the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación Farabundo Martí (FPL), Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP), the Resistencia Nacional (RN), the Partido Comunista Salvadoreño (PCS) and the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos (PRTC). After the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, all armed FMLN units were demobilized and their organization became a legal political party. The FMLN is now one of the two major political parties in El Salvador (the other being ARENA).
Similar to the mayor of Berlín is the president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, who is also FMLN. The FMLN and many others worked very hard to get him elected, but he’s been a disappointment. He doesn’t have the same vision as the Front (the Front is former guerillas, people who truly struggle to change their world, other FMLN, etc). He seems to be working more for the right wing now.
Many people don’t know the stories of what life was like for the guerillas. Or they didn’t believe the stories they heard. Others are afraid to tell the story that they lived. The guerillas struggled for their convictions, for all to have an opportunity to live a better life.
They wanted a better future. Before the war, people had no homes, no land, no work, and no money. Unfortunately, not too much has changed. In accordance with the 1992 Peace Accords many people were given land of their own. But others still do not have land. Even the people who have land may not be doing well. People may have an education and they may have land, but if there is no work then having an education doesn’t really help. If they have land but can’t afford the seeds or fertilizer then having the land is useless.
The guerillas and others who worked with groups and people to better life before the war were very poor. Many of them are still very poor. They badly want to improve life here in El Salvador, but they don’t want another war. So they will continue to struggle to better the lives of others instead of making life all about themselves. “Sometimes we have the opportunity to help, but because of our own selfishness, we don’t,” Marta told us.
Marta then explained the mural that was behind us. On the left were skeletons, bombs, helicopters, shallow graves, and the underworld. This represents the time of war. It is the Kingdom of Death created by selfishness. In the middle is Monsignor Oscar Romero, El Salvador’s most famous and most loved martyr who was assassinated during the war. He represents the voice of the people without a voice. The rainbow by him represents the hope of the people for a just life. On the right was a sun, a new community, and a river with fish. This is the Kingdom of God. The dove-shaped roof above the mural represents peace for all.
There were at least 6 massacres in the La Quesera area and others not far from there. 617 people died in those massacres; mostly women and children. There are probably others that no one knows about.
“God is calling us to continue struggling to better the lives of the people with greater needs”- Blanca
On a lighter note, when we’d finished listening to Marta’s testimony we headed to a small nearby river for lunch. We stopped along the way to pick up some pan dulce (sweet bread) from a pickup stopped on the side of the road. When we reached the river everyone piled out of the truck. We looked around a little bit and then had some lunch. We had cheese sandwiches with some dressing on them, bananas, bread with beans, and some wafer snacks. It was all very tasty.
After lunch Cecilia, Blanca, Otilia, Marta, Kathy, and I went walking around barefoot in the river. We were looking for Conacaste seeds (from a tree) but there aren’t any this time of year. We squished around in the mud and sand looking at rocks. They ladies found several rocks to take back to the house with them. There was also a big group of butterflies on a little sandbank area. Yellow and oranges ones flew around in the little area. When someone walked by they danced all around. I took lots of pictures. They were quite beautiful.
At one point Otilia was holding onto a vine. I made a Tarzan noise and took a picture of her hanging onto the vine. Kathy sang a bit of George of the Jungle for us. Good times. But when Otilia let go of the vine it swung back and waped me in the pants. Ahhh, lovely. Oh well. It’s all good. Blanca helped me wash the mud off with the river water. I figured I could dry out on the way home. After a while we hopped back into the truck and headed back for Berlín, going a different route than we had taken there.
All was going pretty well. There were a ton of bumps and holes and ruts in the road, which is common. But it’s tricky during the rainy season because of all the rain and mud. And guess what happened next. That’s right. We got stuck. Kathy tried rocking the truck back and forth but to no avail. Blanca, Miguel, Otilia, and Cecilia hopped out of the truck. They found some pieces of wood to put under the truck wheels for traction to get us get unstuck. After a few minutes of spinning the wheels I decided to take off my shoes and get out of the truck. I wanted to at least have less weight in the truck. We tried putting more bark under the tires but it didn’t work. Lynn and Martha then got out of the truck. The truck was in pretty deep. We’re talking more than ankle deep mud. When I stepped into it, it was almost halfway up my calf.
Then Miguel, Cecilia, Otilia, Blanca, and I got behind in the truck and began pushing it while Kathy stepped on the accelerator. Amazingly, we managed to push the car about 20 feet to get it out of the mud. We all cheered hooray! We were pretty covered in mud. All of our clothes needed washing. Miguel’s white shoes were now mud-colored. Otilia, Cecilia, and I were barefoot and had mud up to our calves. We tried to wash our feet to get the mud off but it just didn’t work. So we hopped into the back of the car barefoot for the ride home. Lynn got some good shots of us pushing the truck. I can’t wait to get those pictures up on my blog. They are amazing!!!
Thankfully, we didn’t get stuck again on the way home. Though there were a few spots we were a little worried about. At one point Miguel cried out that there was a turtle on the side of the road. We all yelled for Kathy to stop so we could get her and she could be a friend of the other turtle. Probably not the best idea to stop in the mud. Sorry Kathy! She was pretty tiny. Otilia was holding her but then her head came out of the shell and Otilia let out a little yelp and dropped her. So I picked her up and held onto her the rest of the way home. We also picked up three little boys, who looked about 8 years old, on our way back. They all had machetes with them. Not an uncommon site. Children that young often help their families with the crops. Many people use the machetes to get through the plants growing in the forest.
It was time for a break when we got back. We all washed off our feet and had a cool beverage. My beverage of choice was a Suprema, Salvadoran beer. And it tasted wonderful. The rest of the day was spent talking, working on making gift packages, resting, washing our clothes, eating pan dulce, and learning to de-kernal the corn that Lynn shucked yesterday. It has been another long, educational, exhausting, somewhat sad, and also wonderful day. I am so happy to be here!