Supporting Non-Violence in a Violent Land

For the 9 months I had been working with Peace Brigades International in El Salvador I had been learning from Salvadoreans how to carry forward a non-violent witness.How to put life and faith on the line for what one believes in. So, when on November 20 the National Guard arrived at the doors of the Episcopal Church of El Salvador's refugee centre, it seemed simple that the time had come to put these teachings into action.

The previous ten days had been fraught with tension. A civil war had rocked El Salvador for 10 years, leaving over 72,000 dead, much of that due to severe government repression. On November 11, the FMLN rebels brought the fighting to the streets of the capital city San Salvador, to the very back yards of the powerful apparently in an attempt to pressure the government to truly negotiate.From the start the combat was intense, especially in the neighborhood's of the impoverished. Civilians were being injured, killed, driven from their homes. But the worst devastation didn't begin until the government chose to aerial bombard. These bombardments were inflicted only upon the poorest neighborhoods, not the wealthier areas. Little shacks of black plastic, cardboard and plywood which don't stand up to the country's heavy rains, were completely blown apart by bombs of up to 500 lb and bombs rumored to be of napalm. The destruction was enormous, and resulted in streams of refugees, some 15,000 within the first five days. People literally flowed out of the affected areas, carrying a few belongings in a plastic bag and a white flag, looking for refuge.

The churches, often a voice for Salvador's voiceless,were among those who answered to the need for shelters, with the Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans and Episcopalians all opening their doors. Peace brigades was asked to maintain an International presence in the Episcopalian Church and so we were present when that church, like so many before it became a target for the government's campaign of persecution against the church and against foreigners.

The National Guard entered the compound, searching it and separating foreign church workers from Salvadorean workers and from the refugees. The seven of us foreigners present were taken away first. Later the Salvadoreans were taken, to be imprisoned, tortures and finally released, but only after 6 weeks had passed. Those of us foreigners were fortunate in comparison. We were taken to the headquarters of the National Guard and the four of us (Marcela Rodriquez, Josie Beechee of the U.S. Episcopal Church, myself and a Guatemalean Refugee) were transferred to the Treasury Police. there we were pushed into the back seat of a four door pickup truck and hit about the head if we attempted to look around. Frightened, we asked where they were taking us and they replied that they were taking us to the infamous dump for the bodies of the disappeared. Instead they drove a few circles in the lot before taking us to the jail in the compound. There we were taken inside one by one, handcuffed and blindfolded, hit about the head and further threatened. During our entire stay with the treasury police we were denied food, water use of toilet facilities or a chance to sit down.

After standing for a short while in one of the passageways of the jail, I was taken away to be interrogated. At intervals I could hear Marcela's voice during her interrogations, could hear that as we had anticipated, she was being given a much harder time. I didn't at that time know the extent of it, couldn"t know they threatened to rape and electrocute her and to suffocate her with the "capucha." At intervals I could also hear the sounds of other prisoners, people being tortured and crying out in their anguish, and that was without doubt the most difficult part of the whole experience, to hear those voices and recognize how powerless I was to help them.

After six hours of questioning, time which sped by as I concentrated so completely on staying calm and composed and on trying to search out the "human" in my interrogators, they were suddenly in a great hurry to release me. In their haste, however, as they removed my handcuffs and blindfold they somewhat mistook their way and allowed me a chance to glimpse Marcela. Still alone, vulnerable, facing a wall, she looked dejected, dehumanized like some photograph of "the Prisoner" human beings are freedom and life and energy-bound we become Objectified . And the blindfold, used to disempower prisoners, also serves to remove their faces, further objectifying them in the eyes of their torturers.

Trying to stay with Marcela was not some great courageous action,. It was simply seeing what so clearly was the right thing to be done and trying to do it, trying to put beliefs into action. I began to argue, expecting all the time that with their greater power they would simply force me to leave, perhaps drag me away. But instead, they were so taken aback that anyone would refuse to be freed, that they didn't know what to do with me. Startled, they stammered and discussed and then allowed me to return to the jail. there they began again to blindfold and handcuff me, mocking me for my decision to stay and then shocked momentarily into silence by my words.

"You guys are soldiers," I said, "You understand what comraderie means, now if a co-worker or a colleague is down or in trouble, you don't just leave them there. You don't just leave them there. You wouldn't do that, and neither can I leave Marcela, not now."

Their silence was deep, broken only by a soft "Yes, we do understand." They then took me, almost gently to the hall and after a while put Marcela together, removing our handcuffs enabling us to reach out and hold hands.

From then until we were freed, the most remarkable thing kept happening. A steady stream of people from all over the compound kept coming to see us, in a kind of mixture of respect, admiration, even awe, not because of what we had done but rather, I think, marvelling at the human capacity for love and caring which can surmount even what might seem to be insurmountable barriers. It was a tremendously reaffirming experience, to be reminded that even in a torture centre, in one of the hearts of the world's darkness, there could still be a shared understanding, a moment of life among all of us.

It was a tremendous reaffirmation of the strength of non-violence, of the way in which a non-violent approach can break open violent cycles and by so doing allow new and more peaceful dynamics the space in which to burst force. By "changing the rules," non-violence can actively disarm the powerful, and re-empower the powerless.

We were released shortly thereafter and left the country the next day. as Peace Brigades, having seemed to be the wisest move. Our space for working had been diminished as the people and groups we were working with had needed to go into hiding or leave the country. Moreover it seemed that the time had perhaps come to focus on what has always an aspect of our work- spreading information on what is happening in El Salvador. So we remain, in various ways, working for El Salvador. My last three months and the four to come have been spent in travelling and speaking, being daily re-inspired by seeing the concern of people across the country and being re-inspired by the opportunity to help empower Canadians to respond in some of the following ways. Most deeply, I find myself being daily re-inspired by my own stories and memories of a Salvadorean people who live out their faith that the world is, indeed, a just world, that the structures of injustice will, like Berlin walls, come finally tumbling down, that a so-deserved just peace will finally come, even to El Salvador.

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1990

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1990, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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