Flying Students and String Hammocks: Images of Four Places in El Salvador

By Graeme MacQueen | 1990-04-01 12:00:00

As we are carrying our luggage into the small hotel about a half hour walk from the University of El Salvador, someone says: "Listen! Don't you hear that?" No, I didn't hear anything.

"It sounded like gunshots!"

"Gunshots," I think, "We've been in the country for three hours and already we're completely paranoid."

They were gunshots. It was the army firing on a student demonstration. We were in El Salvador, five of us from McMaster University, at the invitation of the National University of El Salvador, whose members were worried that the increasing aggression against them was a prelude to a full scale invasion, like the one in 1980 that closed down the campus for four years. They hoped our presence might act as a deterrent.

It was July, 1989. We had come for two weeks, one of many international delegations. We performed a number of academic tasks while we were there-giving lectures, assessing programmes-but few of the images that remain most vividly in my mind are academic in the usual sense. I want to convey some of those images by describing four places I experienced in El Salvador. Much has changed in that country since our visit, but I don't think these images are out of date.

The First Place: A Meeting at the University

Our first day on campus. We have passed through the soldiers at the gate with no difficulty (sometimes they stop you and sometimes they don't) and now we're going to a big meeting hall. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss yesterday's shooting and to decide what to do. It is already in progress. It seems that everybody in the university is there. All seats are taken and there is a thick crowd standing at the door. We ease into the room and sit down in an aisle. On the podium a number of people are seated, representatives of the students, faculty, administration and staff. One after the other they speak, to the applause of the crowd.

After they are finished a microphone with a long cord is passed around the audience so anyone who wants to speak can do so. Many do: old, young, female, male. Some stand up and speak where they are; some come to the front of the room. One member of our group is translating for us, but I'm so caught up in the atmosphere of the room that I don't catch very much. The ridicule of the army, though, came through. "Marvellous," says one speaker, a student. "So students can fly! The army has told the newspapers and radio that it was only firing warning shots in the air, so I guess the students who got hit must have been flying!" The determination of the University not to be intimidated also comes through. The decision is made to hold another demonstration.

The walls of the room, like most others on campus, are covered with murals and graffiti. The murals are huge portraits of assassinated students and human rights workers. On one wall I recognize Oscar Romero, and near him I see some verses. Here they are in English translation:

If you're not here to give
Your heart, your life,
Don't bother coming in.
If you're not here to give
Your heart, your life,
Don't bother coming in.
Because your coming in begins
Your going out.

If you're here looking
For a good time lying around,
Don't bother coming in.
If you're here looking
For a good time lying around,
Don't bother coming in.
Where the most beautiful flower
Is a wound.

This is a place favorable
Only for sacrifice.
This is a place favorable
Only for sacrifice.
Here you have to be the last one to eat .
Here you have to be the last one to have.
Here you have to be the last one to sleep.
And the first one to die.

I think: I know these verses from somewhere. Then I remember reading that this is a song dedicated to the FNLN. Okay, but right here, right now, the verses refer to the room itself. If you aren't a serious person, don't bother coming into this room. To be in this room, and especially to speak up, is dangerous. You are being watched. It occurs to me that if we don't understand this song, if we don't understand sacrifice, we won't understand what is happening in El Salvador.

The Second Place: A Women's Prison

We decide to visit the women's prison in San Salvador. My second place. We load up with soap and towels, which are in short supply in the jail. We've been told we might be allowed to give these to the prisoners. We've also been told that certain kinds of food are allowable, and I'm advised to bring them chicken from a fast food place-sort of the Salvadoran equivalent of Colonel Sanders. So I enter the jail with a box of chicken, and to my surprise, am allowed to bring it in. It's a bit ironic since I'm vegetarian, but never mind. The soap and towels are taken from us. Who knows where they end up?

We find the prisoners sitting outside in an open yard, the political prisoners somewhat apart from the rest. The women we talk to first are from CRIPDES, a Christian refugee resettlement organization. Their office in San Salvador was broken into by police several months previously, and those inside were carted off to jail. Some of them are still here.

One of the CRIPDES women is twenty years old. She tells us how, after her capture, she was stripped, and beaten for hours. "They played loud music when they beat me. They even beat me to the rhythm. It was North American music." She tells us how she was molested, forced to listen to the screams of her friends, subjected to "the hood" (filled with lime and pulled over the head-she lost consciousness repeatedly), and made to sign a confession. They concluded her torture, she says, by hanging her up by her breasts. "I was blindfolded. They tied something, it felt like nylon, around my breasts. They said they were going to cut them off. I could feel the blood. I thought they had cut them off. I wanted to die."

Then someone brings three members of the University over to see us, a secretary and two students. They were abducted on their way to campus a few days before we arrived in El Salvador. They are very quiet. The students, especially, seem to be in shock. They were not politically active, they say. No, they do not know why they were picked up. I ask if they were mistreated during the days they spent with the Treasury Police. They look at each other silently. Yes, the secretary replies, they were badly mistreated. I don't ask what this means. We offer to take their story to the press in Canada, to campaign for their release. No, thank you. They are afraid of recrimination against their families.

When we leave the prison the CRIPDES women hug us. I feel both privileged and unworthy. Another space we First World people have entered at little risk to ourselves. Another chance to be tourists in a place of someone else's sacrifice.

The drive back to the hotel is not easy. Three of us sitting in the backseat, one crying quietly. I am biting hard on my fingers, looking out the window. The Indian women and their children in squalor, the garbage, the exhaust fumes, the men in uniform everywhere.

The Third Place: A Hut

The University of El Salvador has three campuses in addition to the main one in San Salvador. One of these is in San Miguel in the east. We decide to visit this campus.

We see many soldiers on the road to San Miguel, even more than in the capital. Soldiers in trucks, soldiers walking along the side of the road (sometimes in groups of about two dozen) soldiers guarding bridges. Obviously contested territory. In San Vicente and San Miguel, at many street corners and on verandas, are little forts made of piled up green sandbags, with one or two soldiers in each stronghold. The army is on the defensive here.

The campus at San Miguel is far smaller than that in San Salvador, but the buildings carry the same beautiful graffiti. It is extremely hot here and the landscape is dominated by a magnificent, greenly wooded volcano.

We meet with a group of students and faculty members involved in projects with the peasants of the district. All of these projects, they explain, put them in danger with the army. Some of the projects, in nutrition and literacy, are concentrated on a couple of hundred families that were flooded out of their homes the previous year when the river went over its banks. The University took these people in, housed them in classrooms and offices, inoculated the children and was now helping to resettle them. We go off to the countryside in a pickup to see some of these families.

The first thing we see when we get there is a group of children-daughters and sons of peasants-sitting on a fence with little notebooks in their hands. University students are teaching them to write. A woman, carrying on her head a huge plastic jug of water, notices us. She puts down the jug, goes to her hut, comes over to us with a notebook, showing us the letters and words she has written. We express appreciation, and she is pleased.

Next we have a long talk, through a translator, with a man who lives in one of the huts. We ask him about his work, his family. We ask him what they eat.


"What else?"

"Nothing else. We buy a sack of cornmeal, my wife makes tortillas, we eat them, and when the sack is gone we buy another."

A member of our group asks many questions of this man so that we can figure out the economics of his family's existence. They own no land, and he has to work (when he can find work) some distance from home.

One of the man's shoes has a big split down the side, and he has no socks. As he talks, a very thin girl comes up and stands in front of him. He picks her up. She has been playing by the barn, and there is a smear of manure on her cheek. The sun is fiercely hot.

The man invites us to his hut. My third place.

The hut is thatched. It has a storage space, possibly also used for sleeping, and a living space. The living space is a single room twelve feet by twelve feet. ("How many people are there in your family?" "Eight.") The floor is dirt. There is an open wood fire in the hut at which the man's wife is working. She is quite young but has arthritis in one of her arms. I see a bed of sorts about ten inches off the ground, woven of grass and raised on sticks. There is a tiny hammock, made of string, hanging between two poles. Ordinary string, the kind we use for tying parcels.

The Fourth Place: An American Embassy

Taking pictures of the U.S. Embassy is forbidden, so I have to tuck one away in my mind. This is my fourth place.

The embassy compound is very large, one of the most impressive constructions I see in the capital. It takes up a whole block in San Salvador. The outer wall is about 10 feet high, made of concrete, and has a row of sharp, triangular things along the top-I don't know if they are broken glass or metal. There is a concrete turret at each corner of the wall. It is possible to see a big, modern building inside.

At each gate are armed Salvadoran soldiers, and at each turret is a large spotlight, facing outward.

What an interesting looking embassy, I think. It reminds me of the last time I visited someone in Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, so I remark to one of the members of our group: "It looks like a prison."

"Yes," he replies, "but notice that the spotlights are facing out instead of in. It's an inside-out prison."

While we are in San Salvador one of the members of our group speaks to an official from the U.S. Embassy, who comments that the ARENA party (in power) is so far to the right that it "makes Ronald Reagan look like a communist." Since it's no secret that ARENA's ability to govern is dependent on U.S. aid, I find this an interesting admission. We also discover that the embassy has blocked two million dollars from Congress that was supposed to go to the University to help repair the extensive damage caused by the 1986 earthquake. "The University is subversive. It's on the wrong side." I am told the money went to the Nicaraguan Contras instead.

Postscript: A North American's Fantasy

Above the downtown core of San Salvador they come flapping and swooping, a great flock of University students. They have kerchiefs over their faces and they are spray painting helicopters and the windows of tall buildings. A crowd of heavily armed soldiers on the ground is firing desperately at them. An officer, his dark glasses falling to the ground, yells: "Communists, subversives! You know it is forbidden to fly in this country!"

Somewhere in the dark George Bush is lying. It is two a.m. and he's trying to get to sleep. He's agonizing over whether to give two million dollars to a medical clinic or a death squad. "I hate being president and having to make all these hard decisions," he thinks. The sweat is pouring off him and he tosses and turns, his little string hammock swaying gently.

Graeme MacQueen is a professor of religious studies at McMaster University and coordinates the peace studies committee there.

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1990

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1990, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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