This afternoon we had the opportunity to listen two people who lived through the Civil War in El Salvador that lasted from 1980 to 1992. One of the people was a woman named Perfecta. She lives in the canton of Corozal. The other person was Father Candido who is one of the priests at the Catholic Church here in Berlín. I was excited to hear them as I had never heard their testimonies before. We all gathered in the chapel to listen to their stories.
Perfecta telling us her story
Perfecta is 65 years old now so she was 34 years old when the war started in 1980. She said that the suffering began in the 1970s. The armed forces began to repress organizations that were trying to better the lives of the poor. The armed forces came to harass her as well, holding a knife to her throat. In 1980 she lost her husband; he died in combat. At that time she had 7 kids, the oldest was 14 years old and the youngest was 6 months. After that her house was bombed. In 1983 she lost a son in combat and in 1987 another son was killed by a bomb.
She said that people suffered a lot during the war. People were wandering around in the mountains hungry, without sleeping, and without much clothing. People would sleep on the ground and get very sick. Because it wasn’t safe to walk during the day they would often walk only at night. They also moved around a lot because it wasn’t safe to stay in one place too long. She spoke of a certain period of time when they moved around a lot. There was one place where the guerillas moved all the civilians. But the armed forces discovered them and many people died, including children.
During this time it was hard to make food. They got some corn from the guerilla camps and when they were lucky they got to eat twice a day. Perfecta was a cook for the guerillas. Each day they would have 2 cooks and each cook would make 80 tortillas a day. The guerillas were people young and old, male and female. With the guerillas were babies, children, youth, adults, and older adults. Perfecta’s children were also combatants during the war, including her daughters. One of her daughters took up arms at the age of 10.
Lastly, she talked about her family. The early 1980s were the hardest for her because her children were still growing and she lost her husband. During the war Perfecta would carry her smallest child, 16 months old, through the forest. She saw relatives, along with their entire family, killed. People were killed and their bodies left in caves. They were very hard time. She ended by telling us that she has 5 living children.
Perfecta by the garden at the house
Blanca shared just a short snippet of information with us to help explain the conditions prior to the war. Blanca said that every Salvadoran has their own story of what happened during the war. She says she believes the war began because of injustices. Things started heating up in 1932 during a massacre of several thousand peasants called La Matanza. In the late 1970s people started organizing themselves to try to better their lives. At that time there was almost no work, no good health care, and the owners of the land people worked were bad. Blanca’s father has talked to her a lot about the war. He worked on a finca (coffee farm) during the week from 6am to 6pm earning $5.75 a week.
One family was the owner of most of the land in Berlín, and they would threaten the peasants that worked the land, just like in the rest of El Salvador. The few people who owned a small chunk of land often had to sell it. Thankfully, Blanca’s family still owns the land they had during the war. That’s why people organized in the 1970s and the war began in 1980, she said. People were looking for a just life where everyone could share: land, food, life, and love; which is what Jesus wants.
Listening to testimony
Father Candido inside the chapel
Father Candido grew up José Candido Ramirez. He lived with his parents and 7 older brothers in extreme poverty. He was the only one of his brother that got to go to school. In 1968 he entered university to go into seminary. At this time there were some problems and tension was mounting which eventually led up to the Civil War. Many organizations were forming and movements started growing in the universities. He was the seminary in San José when the school was forced to close because of “ideological problems.” So everyone who was in seminary there was sent abroad. Father Candido was sent to a city call Morelia in the state of Michoacán in Mexico from 1974 to 1975. (At this point I got excited and interjected because I had been to Morelia a few years ago and several other cities in Michoacán). By 1976 they reopened the seminary in San José and he returned to finish in theology.
Father Candido was in his fourth year of seminary on March 24, 1980 when Oscar Romero was shot. Romero was to be buried on Palm Sunday. Shortly before this happened a bishop had called Father Candido (who was a deacon at the time) and told him it was urgent he become a priest. A mere five days before Romero was buried Father Candido was ordained as a priest. He couldn’t tell anyone that he was being ordained that day. After his ordination he spent April through August 1980 in seminary (Monday to Friday) and in a parish (Saturdays and Sundays).
At this time in Ciudad Barrios there were 5 priests being harassed (by soldiers). As a result of the harassment the priests left Ciudad Barrios and Father Candido went to take over. There was another priest there but he talked too much about the war and verbally attacked the army and government so the Bishop moved him. But Father Candido remained there with the Carmelite nuns.
For two years he took care of five pueblos (little towns) in that area. It took one hour to walk to one of the places so the bishop gave Father Candido his jeep to use. Then another priest that was in a nearby area had to be moved because he was being harassed (by the soldiers) so Father Candido had a sixth pueblo to take care of.
In 1981 and1982 the war really got started. The guerillas were hiding out in different places and the armed forces were going town to town ending in Ciudad Barrios. There was a 1-day combat where some of the soldiers dressed as women to escape being detected by the guerillas. Many of the soldiers were captured. But the guerillas wore the army uniforms they’d stolen so it was hard for Father Candido to tell who was who. Then the area was a free zone for a while. The Salvadoran army began to get better trained. The Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion was formed. The army would go from town to town robbing things and when they were gone there was nothing left.
When the war was in full swing there was almost no transportation in Ciudad Barrios; there were only 3 cars. But people really needed transportation. One time they somehow fit 13 people in and on his jeep. In the rainy season people got soaking wet. But people didn’t want to be walking the streets. If there was a fight between the guerillas and the army then people would wait inside their homes. Father Candido said the jeep he drove made a really loud noise when he drove it so he couldn’t always hear when a fight had started.
Father Candido said that his job was to provide moral support to people during the mass. His duty was to accompany people in their suffering. He said the armed forces would go into people’s houses to demand food and take what they wanted. Most of the suffering came from the armed forces and not from the guerillas.
At this point Father Candido told us about one of his strongest experiences during the war. He was driving his jeep and went through a town where there had just been a battle. He said it was like a ghost town. The guerillas were stopping cars to have them help transport people who were injured. The guerillas ordered him to stop and turn off his car. Unfortunately, his car wasn’t running well and he knew if he shut it off that it wouldn’t start again. They let him leave but one of the guerillas went with Father Candido.
Then they approached a second area with injured people. He was stopped again and three injured people plus a few other guerillas and their 35 pound backpacks were loaded into his jeep. It was too much weight and a tire blew. There was no place to replace the tire so the guerillas left and carried the injured away in hammocks.
The next day the army came by at 6am. The saw Father Candido’s car and the blood in his car and asked who it belonged to. He said it belonged to some people who were injured. They decided to take Father Candido with them and leave the car behind. They walked 2 kilometers to where a helicopter was waiting. They told him this was done for his security. They boarded the helicopter and started to make their way to a base. Along the way one of the people suggested they push him out of the helicopter. They also made a stop to pick up Colonel Domingo Monterrosa (the mastermind of the El Mozote massacre).
They arrived at the army base around 11:30am and the officers began to interrogate him. They asked him who he was, why he was in that area, and who he helped. They wanted the names of people who knew him so they could verify who he was. After 2 hours of questions a new guy came into the room, this time with a recorder, and asked him the exact same questions. That lasted until 6pm.
The army told him that the bishop he knew couldn’t come because there was a fight in the area where the bishop was. They asked if there was anyone else he knew that could verify who he was and pick him up. He told us that his mind went blank and he couldn’t think of anyone. Then he thought of an old priest he knew. At 7:00pm he told them about the priest. He was taken to the luxurious office of a captain where he got food and water. They said someone would be picking him up soon. There they made him sign a paper saying that they had treated him well. He was eventually released from the base camp.
A few days later he was in Ciudad Barrios and saw Domingo Monterrosa again. Father Candido told him that he’d lost things, including his jeep. Monterrosa told him not to worry and that he’d get his things back. When the soldiers gave him his jeep back it had no tires and no battery. The nuns said they’d tell the bishop about it. Shortly after that he had spent 2 years living in Ciudad Barrios as the only priest and they finally sent a second one. And with that Father Candido finished his testimony.
Father Candido at the Pastoral House
It was a wonderful experience hearing their stories. I’ve heard civil war testimony from many other people but, as Blanca said, each one is unique. I’m glad I had the opportunity to hear their testimonies. It gives me a better idea of who they are as people. It’s one thing to know who someone is, share a meal with them, or visit their house. But hearing about their experiences during a brutal civil war gives you amazing insight into their life and their mind.
*Photos taken by TJ