We’ve done so much today!! The day started around 6:30 when I dragged myself out of bed. Most everyone else was awake and ready for the day. I needed a little more time to wake up. Around 8am Juanita showed up. Juanita was going with us today to the town of La Quesera to tell us about the massacre that happened there in 1981. She was in the area when the massacre took place and was a cook for the guerillas (the people fighting against the government). We took off for La Quesera around 8:15.
It was a long ride in the back of the truck; a little over an hour. In the rainy season the roads are full of water and sometimes impassable. During the dry season, which is what we’re in now, it is incredibly dusty. It is so dusty riding in the back of the truck that Scott and William were trying to “wash me” on my arm. The dust gets everywhere: in your nose, mouth, hair, clothes, skin, etc. That’s a part of life in the cantons. We all needed a good bath after that ride.
When we arrived at the massacre site Juanita sat down to tell her story. I had asked if I could record her. She gave me permission and I flipped on the recorder. But because I recorded her I took no notes and I don’t have enough time tonight to transcribe the 1 ½ hours we spent listening to her and talking. So that will have to wait until another day. But I do want to include her story here for people to read. When I was here last year I had the opportunity to go to La Quesera to hear her daughter’s testimony. That is what I’ll be including in this blog along with our conversation after she told us about the war. It was hard to hear both Juanita and her daughter, Marta, tell us their story. But it is a story that needs to be told. We must remember what happened in the past so that we may learn and prevent mistakes in the future.
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.
Marta and her mother, Juanita, 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 to work. The movement for justice began because no one had any land. Remember, no land means little crops, little food, 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 sisters. 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).
Marta: 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 is 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
The memorial site where the massacre took place
The mural on the wall
This part represents a time of war
Listening to Juanita's testimony
I sat next to her to record what she was saying
It was powerful testimony
It was a difficult story to hear
But it is a story that needs to be remembered
Back to today: After her testimony, we had some time for questions and reflections. These will also be included in my future blog. Hearing and reading about the massacre is a lot to take in. It hurts, sometimes physically, to listen to the words of someone who has suffered so much. So for now I will move on.
We headed to the river next to have lunch. Right now the river isn’t that big or deep. It’s more like a stream. But in the rainy season there is much more water. We spent a little time wading in the water while the ladies prepared lunch. Kathy found a couple conacaste seeds and so we all went in search of them. I actually went back to where we were “camped” to get a bag so I could collect a lot. They’re beautiful seeds and I always see them in jewelry here. I had a couple necklaces made with conacaste seeds.
Around noon we were called back to solid ground for lunch. We dined on sandwiches, apples, bananas, watermelon, and cookies. It all tasted wonderful! The ladies had built a small fire and toasted some tortillas for themselves which was fun to watch. Kathy said it reminded her of people toasting marshmallows. After we’d filled our bellies it was back to the water. For a while, we were trying to catch a fish to take home to Cecilia. We had a cup, bag, and towel in the water to catch one but to no avail. I soon gave up because I wanted to get a few more seeds. I was very excited to find the seeds because last time I was at the river I didn’t find any (it was the rainy season). It’s the little things in life that often makes me the happiest.
I found myself behind a little rock “dam” where Idalia, Blanca, and Aminta were attempting to catch fish. I watched them try to catch fish for a while. Soon they were all sitting down in the water and sort of bathing. A lot of people go to the river to bathe. When Juanita and her daughter lived in La Quesera this was the river they came to when they washed clothes and bathed. Kathy, Paige, and William came over to join us. Initially, I only put water on my arms and shoulders to wash off the dust. Somehow, our playing in the water led to an all out splashing contest. Everyone was getting each other wet. Blanca was pouring water on Aminta and Idalia with the cup meant to catch fish. Eventually, we were all completely soaked and laughing hysterically.
Since there was no point in staying dry Kathy, Paige, and I decided to sit down in the water with the other ladies for a swim/bath. Of course, we all had our clothes on, but it was still very refreshing. We floated around in the water and chatted about silly things. Blanca told me I was “La Sirena” (the mermaid or siren). So I started to sing to see if I could capture anyone. But no one took the bait. They were all too smart. Around 1:15 the rest of the group was getting antsy so we enjoyed the water for a few more minutes and then got out. We readied ourselves for the dusty ride home and hopped into the back of the truck.
Sitting down for lunch
Lunch was delicious!
Lots of tasty food
Yum, yum, yum
Passing around the bowl of watermelon
Done with lunch
The cow is thirsty
Wade in the water
Hunting for conacaste seeds
No wet shoes for Martie
I found one!
Walking on the stones
The water was very refreshing
What are they doing?
Soon to be splash time!
Paige came out to join us
Time to get out
The horses need a drink too
The ride back to Berlín seemed to go faster than the ride to La Quesera. That’s usually the case. I don’t know it if just feels that way or if Kathy is driving faster. I also didn’t get as dusty as I did on the way out. As soon as we got home I immediately went to the shower. Well, it was a dump shower but still incredibly refreshing. It felt good to be clean and into dry clothes. Shortly after my shower someone mentioned ice cream. Not being a person to ever turn down an opportunity for ice cream I decided to go along as well. The ice cream lady (I need to ask her name sometime) was very happy to see all of us. I explained what flavors there were to everyone, and then I ended up with a scoop of mango and a scoop of blackberry. Yum!!
We went to the town center to eat our ice cream and people watch. Well, we people-watched and everyone else probably gringo-watched. Soon, a familiar face came walking by. It was Otilia!! Yay! She doesn’t really work with the Pastoral Team anymore because she works full time at a clinic here in Berlín. We went on a lengthy expedition to find the keys to the clinic and to see the clinic. I got to act as interpreter since I was the sole Spanish speaker. I don’t think I did too badly, and I understood most of what she was saying. We got to walk through a part of Berlín that I had never been to before which was a lot of fun. And, as always, we met several people along the way that we talked to. I really enjoyed talking with Otilia. It was good to catch up and hear about how her family was doing.
A young girl joined us at one point during the walk. She was the granddaughter of Otilia’s godmother. She is in eighth grade and wants to go to high school next year. After that she wants to go to college to become a vet!! How amazing! I told her I was excited for her and hoped she was able to follow her dreams. We eventually got to the person’s house/store where the keys were kept. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the keys; the nurse did. But we wanted to walk up to the clinic anyways to see what it was like. It’s a small space but there’s a lot of love there. They help anyone in the community who needs some medical attention. Next time, Otilia said, we’d be able to go inside. We walked around the area a little more and then headed back to the Pastoral House. We hugged Otilia goodbye and she wished everyone luck on the rest of the trip.
We got back at 5:30pm, just enough time for a brief rest before dinner. The enchiladas and plantains with cheese were delicious. We ate and chatted for about an hour. Next, the delegation had an informal meeting with Blanca and Cecilia about the community they partner with and the upcoming week. That lasted about an hour and next came reflections. Before we got started Cecilia called me up to Alejandro’s room to lend a hand with his English homework. He’s in his second year of college right now. He wanted to make sure he was spelling things correctly and understanding the assignments because they’re all in English. Some of the words were difficult and the parts where he was to translate a word were tricky. The instructions themselves weren’t that good either. I had a hard time reading some of the instructions that were in English because they were so grammatically incorrect. I’ll leave you with one little gem I especially liked: “Try to guess by your own meaning of each questions and provide examples.” What?!?!
P.S. I totally felt a small earthquake at 11:45pm!!
Walking with Otilia
A building in town
Can you carry a TV on your head?
Lots of cute kids
Street in Berlin
A typical building
Not sure what they were doing with the tire
Otilia in front of the clinic
Picture with the other Otilia
Nearby soccer field
Atop the goal post
They have a ball!
Two more tires this time!