Arcatao has been powerful. I left with mixed emotions of sorrow, anger and happiness.
Travelling on election day was a wonderful experience. Everyone gathered to cheer on their party and there was a wonderful community atmosphere. Although the elections have had to go on to another round, there was still a skip in everyone step. The next day, we learnt more about the civil war and how it affected people. What I learnt impacted me strongly.
Imagine you are a farmer, you work on a plantation, you are working for hours in the scorching heat, you don’t have good working conditions and you aren’t getting paid enough for the work you do. Underpaid undervalued, of course you’d go on strike! You have a family to look after; you can’t support them on those wages.
I have now learnt that the Salvadoran government at the time did not like the way the farmers had organized themselves. They thought it was a communist uprising and so they decided to terminate the “problem”. From what information I’ve gathered about the civil war, this is how it started decades of military repression and then the rise of a rebellion. The repression prompted the church to speak out, this led to the killing of clergymen, including Archbishop Romero and many Jesuits. I was angered to hear the US government supplied millions of dollars to the Salvadoran government, who by then had adopted a scorched earth policy; where they would kill every living thing in the area, and yes, that includes destroying of crops and animals and the slaughter of innocent men, women and children. There were so many massacres and evil unspeakable acts however none of them have been put before a court, school syllabuses skim over the war like it was nothing. In total around 75,000 lives were taken.
The Rio Sumpul Massacre
The military swoops in, setting houses on fire, killing anything they can. People are fleeing for their lives, running as fast as they can, so much fear, with every bullet that misses the hope builds up, I can make it. Running to the river, if I cross the river I’m in Honduras territory and I can get to a refugee camp, it’s such wishful thinking but there’s a chance. The bridge has been destroyed so I have to swim across. No time to think; the soldiers are coming. My fear of the soldiers is so much stronger than my fear of the roaring surging mighty river before me. All around are dead bodies, friends who haven’t made it, family who weren’t fast enough. People drowning, children drowning, I need to try to swim across the river. With all my strength and will to live I swim across the mighty torrent, it pulls me along and I struggle with the currents grasp. Finally I’m free, on Honduras ground now, nearly there. RUN! Honduras soldiers everywhere, they line all us ” survivors ” up and shoot us dead. Goodbye unjust world, I tried. No burial. No respect. 600 dead.
The massacre of Rio Sumpul is Arcatao’s past. Fr Jon Cortina said that you can’t achieve peace without justice. During this journey in El Salvador I have came to understand that completely. After 12 years of civil war, the Salvadoran military and leftist guerillas signed a peace accord. A year later, the country’s legislative assembly passed an amnesty law shielding perpetrators from prosecution for their role in wartime atrocities. So where is the justice really? I think it is sickening that a mother can lose 4 children and have no justice! Are they saying it’s okay to kill 75,000 people? The present president however has apologized for the crimes of the El Mozote massacre, a massacre of 1000 innocents. He said “For this massacre, for the abhorrent violations of human rights and the abuses perpetrated in the name of the Salvadoran state, I ask forgiveness of the families of the victims,”
There was a deep sadness in the people we talked to, sorrow rang through in their words when telling their story. Unfortunately everyone in Arcatao was affected by the war, everyone has been scarred in some way by the war. However Arcatao is a wonderful place and is working towards healing the wounds of the war. A light that shines bright with hope, shines through the young people in Arcatao and we were blessed to meet them. They have formed a youth group, they fundraise, dance, sing, act, and so much more. I was honoured to be part of their group whilst in Arcatao.
One particular evening when we ate pupusas (a traditional Salvadoran dish) together. We then played games and sang and prayed together. They had such enthusiasm. They support each other no matter what the age gap. I experienced a moment of true and pure joy that evening, incapable of doing anything but smiling and enjoying it. Paralysed by happiness. I believe this happened because we connected so well with them, that connection took root within the fact that it didn’t matter that we were from different parts of the world; we are all the same.
Another way they’ve been healing the wounds of the war is by building a memorial chapel; it will provide a place of rest for those who died in the war. We were able to help with the construction by digging. CAFOD provide legal aid in support of the exhumations of loved ones, this is vital and the survivors committee is very thankful for it. They have also made a museum, it is small and contains so much information, clothes people were wearing when killed, shrapnel from the area, bomb shells, pictures children had drawn during the war. It is a way of telling their story which is important because the state doesn’t want to know. The past is still unbearable but at least they are trying to move forward , learning from the past, never forgetting their loved ones.
75,000 isn’t just a number ! They were people and each person had a past, a present and a future. Life! A gift from God. They all had talents and hopes. They were brutally murdered, treated like vermin, their futures cut short. You could have been one of the 75000, so could I. They were our sisters and brothers and will always be. Remember with one father, there is one family.
If you are aged 18-30 (or know someone who is) and want to explore and express your faith with CAFOD’s Step into the Gap programme, then follow the link below. You’ll have the chance to volunteer in the UK and overseas, experiencing new cultures and meeting inspiring people along the way: