Thursday was a an 18-hour grind punctuated by multiple opportunities to taste the beauty of El Salvador, the very difficult times faced by its people, and the hopeful determination that endures. Along the way we met some amazing people, including a man one member called the “best governor ever.”
The 14-person team from Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. had come to learn more about associate pastor Edgar Palacios’ homeland, his role in negotiating peace during the civil war of 1980-92, the students that Calvary provides scholarships for, and to explore other opportunities of service to the beleagured country.
A 4:30 a.m. start and two-and-a-half hours of moutain roads brought us to San Miguel, in the eastern part of El Salvador, where we stopped for a breakfast buffet at a place called “Biggest,” then drove another hour into the mountainous state of Morazon and its capital of San Francisco Gotera, where we met Governor Miguel Ventura.
Ventura greeted us in his aging and very modest office, where the walls were adorned with a banner honoring Msgr. Oscar Romero, pictures of other leaders, and samples of crafts made in Morazon. Ventura served the area for many years as a priest, but left the priesthood when he fell in love and got married. Clad in a plaid shirt, he welcomed us to his office and pulled up a small chair beside his desk to tell us about his state, his work, and his hopes for the people he loves.
Morazon is the easternmost state in El Salvador, and one of the largest. It is beautiful, mountainous country along the border with Honduras, and one that suffered terribly during the civil war, with some towns and villages completely destroyed. Ventura described the struggle he has to build needed infrastructures (like good roads) and to provide needed services with very little money coming in from the central government. Like all Salvadoran leaders we talked with, he believes in the importance of education. He has hopes of establishing a satellite campus of the National University in Morazon, which currently has no educational institutions beyond high school.
Ventura spent much of the day with us. With no security, he hopped into a much-dented gray Toyota pickup and led us through winding roads — stopping occasionally to note small landslides caused by recent rains — to the town of Segundo Montes, named for one of the six Jesuit priests who was killed in 1989. The population of Segundo Montes consists almost completely of families who fled to Honduras during the war, when the army (advised by the U.S.) implemented a “scorched earth” policy that included wiping out entire villages in an effort to cut off support to the FMLN. After the war, the citizens returned to find everything in ruins, but settled there and named the new town in honor of Montez.
In Segundo Montes we visited a center for arts and music that was begun after the war as a therapeutic way of helping children express their feelings about the sufferings they and their families experienced during the war. The center is led by Mia Vercruysse, a spunky Belgian woman who came to El Salvador in 1987 to work in the refugee camps, fell in love with the people, and decided to stay and help El Salvador rebuild (she’s center in the picture, beside Ventura). Children from all over Morazon and even Honduras come to the center, which charges only $2 per month. Donations from abroad provide most of the funding, but more is needed, Vercruysse said. A quartet of young adults who had been trained at the center and now teach there treated us to an impromptu concert in one of the center’s two buildings, which doubles as a stage for concerts.
Across the street from the arts center, we visited one of three centers for the elderly in the area. In a simple but clean building, a small staff prepares two meals a day for up to 30 senior adults who need assistance. As we gathered in the courtyard, between an open kitchen preparing lunch behind and clothes drying on a line before, we listened as Ventura spoke about how their rebuilding and educational efforts were guided by the principles of liberation theology, which insists on giving priority to the poor, believing God does the same. (Picture: Edgar Palacios, Gov. Miguel Ventura, and Amparo Palacios Lopez listen as a client at the senior center describes losing six close family members during the war.)
Once again falling in behind the governor’s pickup, we boarded the mini-bus and drove mostly downhill for several kilometers over steep and winding roads that consisted alternately of pavement, gravel, dirt, and large rocks packed tightly together. It was when the governor stopped to let a hitchhiker climb aboard that Mike Overby called him the “best governor ever.” Three other men soon joined him in the back of the truck, and on the way back out, the governor gave a lift to three women.
Our progress was slowed on one particularly sleep slope by a broad muddy stretch where a truck had become stuck, and we wondered if we’d be able to get through it on the way back. Our security detail of three unarmed policemen decided their compact car might not get through, so they parked it at a nearby house and joined us on the bus.
Eventually we reached the historical site of El Mozote, where in 1981 government forces rounded up hundreds of innocent citizens suspected of supporting the FMLN guerillas. The citizens were evangelical Christians who were not aligned with the FMLN and people thought they would be safe, so some residents of surrounding villages had joined them there. Their thought was wrong, however: the soldiers separated the hundreds of people into lines of men, women, and children, then systematically killed them all. They piled bodies in the priest’s home and other buildings, then collapsed the walls and burned everything. The story is known because one woman, Rufina Amaya. After her eight-month-old child was ripped from her arms, she was sent to the end of the women’s line, but managed to hide among the village cows until the shooting stopped in the growing darkness, then slipped into the woods. She later testified about the atrocities commited there, though the government denied the massacre, claiming that only a few citizens had died when caught in a crossfire between the army and the FMLN. A colorful mural of hope now marks the place where children’s bodies were later buried beside the priest’s former home. The names of the children are engraved beneath the mural, while the names of adults are included on another nearby memorial.
Our return visit went as we feared: the bus got stuck in the large muddy spot. The governor had apparently called someone from his roads crew, but they had only a single pickup and a rope. We tried tying the bus to the governor’s truck, but the rope broke as he tried to pull us out. The rope was then doubled and redoubled — with some of our team members sitting in the truck to give it more traction while others of us got in the mud and pushed — but the rope broke again. Finally, our driver, Daniel, had most of us go to the back of the bus to put more weight over the tires. He then backed up, got a running start, and somehow managed to plow through, accompanied by cheers both inside and outside the bus.
Extra stops and road delays put us well behind schedule, but we managed to have lunch in a restaurant set amid tropical plants with a beautiful view of the mountains, then made our way on to Perquin, where we met with Father Rogelio Ponselle, a native of Belgium who left a teaching post shortly after Vatican II and came to work in El Salvador. While serving in another part of the country, he saw a peaceful demonstration turn into a massacre as government forces opened fire. “I had to say mass in the atrium of the church because there were 10 or 15 bodies around the altar,” Ponselle said, “It was a very emotional time … and I knew that if the peasants took up arms, I could not abandon them.”
When, as a last resort, the peasants did take up arms, Ponselle accompanied them into the eastern mountains and ministered among them, supporting them as best he could. “I never had a gun,” he said, “but they would give me a gun when I was on watch duty — but they never let me watch unless nothing was happening.” Smiling, he added, “They said they weren’t sure what I would do with the gun!” Ponselle has remained in the area since then as the local priest, and is clearly much loved by the people. He had invited Perquin’s mayor to meet with us, and she brought the town manager with her. They, along with a trustee of the church, spoke to us about advances they had made and needs that still remain.
The mayor, whose first name was Miriam, said they had chosen to invest most of the few funds they have in human capital rather than infrastructure during the past two years. Julio, the church trustee, spoke of how they have worked especially to assist women and children by establishing a maternity facility where women can get care before and after the birth of their children. That has cut the infant mortality rate in one town from a previous 25 percent to zero during the past two years, he said.
We had hoped to visit the Museum of the Salvadorian Revolution, but it had closed. Here is the advantage of being a guest of the mayor: a quick phone call and it was reopened for us. There we saw memorabilia including a clandestine radio studio using egg crates for sound deadening, as well as the remains of the helicopter in which El Salvador’s Col. Domingo Monterrosa, thought to have ordered the El Mozote massacre, was brought down by an FMLN bomb disguised as a contraband radio transmitter. (In the photo, “RV” is for “Radio Venceremos,” or “We will overcome.”)
As we left for the long bus ride back to San Salvador, we couldn’t help but be incredibly impressed by the spirit of a people who have suffered so much, but still have hope and a determination to see the dream of a better society fulfilled. In particular, I remember the words of Cesar, the town manager, who spoke of how hard they worked to better the lives of the elderly, women, and children, seeing incremental progress and hoping for more: “We do not have the resources we need,” he said, “but we have the willingness to do all we can with what resources we have.”