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Lessons learned in El Salvador

I have traveled to El Salvador six times since starting my job with Voices on the Border, a small solidarity organization supporting community development in rural El Salvador. 

On my first trip I got some kind of fever that I was later told had a 70% mortality rate. 

On my second trip I sunburned in the back of a pickup and spent the next week pouring Milk of Magnesia on my legs (has anyone else ever heard of this as a miracle cure for sunburn?  Well, it’s not.) 

On my third trip I learned the proper way to shoot a gun. 

On my fourth trip I received a trophy from the mayor of Ciudad Delgado (it said FOURTH PLACE WOMEN’S COMPETITION but he told me it was for being an esteemed visitor.) 

On my fifth trip I was bitten by a scorpion. 

On my sixth trip I learned how to milk a cow and finally got really good at sleeping through the night in a hammock (tip: it helps to sleep sideways.) 

But if you asked me to sum it all up, to put one story on countless interactions, to shed a little light on the Salvadoran experience (or at least my experience in El Salvador), I would tell you this one.

I would narrow down all of my weeks on these congested urban streets and dusty country roads to two days in Northern Morazán with a binational group of physical therapy students, teaching the war-wounded how to heal themselves.

We were a mixed group. We had
• two environmentalist nuns from Erie, PA
• a physical therapy professor and Service Learning pioneer from Gannon University
• a Gannon PT grad now practicing a touchier-feelier version of physical therapy called myofascial release, which is controversial and not universally accepted as sound practice (even by her former professor)
• her mother, a seamstress with her own business making cloth diapers
• four female PT students from Gannon, with extensive training and preparation on physical therpapy but no background whatsoever that would prepare them for the political, social, and emotional issues that arise during a trip to the Salvadoran campo
• a nurse from Portland, Oregon
• her father, a member of the Voices board of directors.
• the two directors of Voices on the Border
• ten physical therapy students from the National University of El Salvador
• two health promoters from another part of El Salvador, both veterans of the war themselves, having joined the guerrilla in their early teens
• three drivers, one of whom was coincidentally an expert in sewing machine repair, which came in handy

And then there were nineteen Salvadoran campesinos, wounded from a twelve-year civil war that ended fifteen years ago.

The People Will Be the Mountains
Let me take a minute to tell you about these people, and this place. Northern Morazán is separated from the southern part of the state (or department, as they say here) by the Torola River. At the beginning of the war, the bridge over the Torola was blown up by the FMLN (the revolutionary guerrilla group). This made life difficult for the people in the north, who were now cut off from all supplies and food products from the rest of the country, but it made it possible for the guerrillas to effectively control the eight northern municipalities of the department. 

Their support was strong in the region, partly because people who live in wrenching poverty tend to be the first to fight for change, and partly because the war’s most gruesome massacre, in a little town called El Mozote, occurred in Northern Morazán.  When we brought the delegation to El Mozote, they said they could still feel that the ground was soaked with blood.

Before he died, Ché Guevara, the legendary Cuban-Argentine-Bolivian-Congolese revolutionary warrior, said that El Salvador could never have a revolution because it didn’t have mountains, to which the response was “in El Salvador, the people will be the mountains.”  This was true to an impressive extent, as the guerrillas had overwhelming support from the people, who risked their lives to bring them supplies or food or warnings.  But to be safe, the guerrillas sought out what modest mountains El Salvador does have, primarily in Northern Morazán and Chalatenango, to become their theaters of operations. And so in those places, no one was spared.

Thousands went into exile wherever they could.  Some had the good fortune to be welcomed by friendly Nicaraguans, a neighbor in the middle of its own revolutionary process.  Others were taken in by a friendly Panamanian government (till the government changed and was no longer so friendly).  Others landed in neighboring Honduras, which was providing aid and comfort to Salvadoran death squads and their Uncle Sam.  Others scattered from place to place within El Salvador, looking for comparative safety in their own country, and thousands were helped to safety by a sanctuary movement in the United States that helped refugees get asylum in the very country that was arming their oppressors to the tune of $1.5 million a day.  

And then thousands stayed and fought. And so this helps explain a bit about the people of Northern Morazán, why every man over thirty has missing fingers or a limp or bullets under his skin; why they wear their age so old, why the middle-aged are ancient, sun-hardened and wrinkled and hollowed out. Optimistic visitors see the triumph of hope over tragedy when they meet trauma survivors, but I can’t help but feel the heaviness of their hearts in their handshake. They are not well.

Solidarity, Not Charity
And so we came to help. El Salvador has seen a lot of aid and solidarity from the United States; a mixed message at best.  Our country enforces poverty with bombs, and then sends down well-intentioned church mission groups to put band-aids on bullet wounds. 

This group, I like to think, was a little different.  They teamed up with their professional peers in El Salvador to teach Salvadorans to heal themselves and each other, rather than curing them and than taking their expertise with them when they left.  The physical therapists brought no equipment more complex than socks and tennis balls, which they turned into a self-massage tool.  The same professor had brought a group down to do a similar workshop in 2004, and months later I heard from some attendees that they were sleeping through the night for the first time in twelve years. 

I worried that people would come in with problems either outside the scope of PT or too serious for the students, and that they would need to refer them to a doctor.  The whole problem – the reason that medical brigades come from other countries to do service in El Salvador – is that there is very little affordable medical care to speak of.  Health care is being unofficially privatized by the severe under-funding of the public health care system. 

The Rosales Hospital in San Salvador – the only public specialty hospital in the entire country – is bedlam.  You walk through the hallways and practically step over half-naked, half-conscious people with all nature of wounds and illnesses.  There aren’t enough beds, there aren’t enough nurses, there aren’t enough gloves, there aren’t enough bedsheets.  All that exists in abundance are sick people, who come in by the hundreds to their very last resort. 

Physical therapy training was by no means all that was needed, but at the moment, it was all we had to offer.

City Kids
The first session of the training was on basic care for your spine and how to avoid injury in everyday life.  As two of the Salvadoran students were demonstrating good posture and sleeping positions, a man in the back stood up and his comment started with “That might be all well and good for you city kids…”

Indeed, basic PT education, especially in the United States, does not answer their questions about amputations and buried shrapnel making its way back out through the skin.  The poor and wounded peasants of Morazán can not buy ergonomic chairs.  They sleep on hammocks (a PT no-no) and straw mats.  They carry heavy burdens.  They live hard lives.

The man went on to tell his story.  Storytelling wasn’t meant to be a part of the training, but it is an inevitable part of any gathering with war veterans.  He told about how he was shot in the back, and in the same combat his buddy was shot in the foot and wouldn’t stop crying.  And if he kept crying they would all be found and killed, so he had picked up his friend and carried him all day and part of the next to the guerrilla hospital.  With a bullet in his back.

The “city kids” comment wasn’t meant as disrespect, and I was relieved to see that it didn’t jam up the training.  It was a useful reminder to keep it real.  The next day, when I saw them teach Rufina Amaya, the sole survivor of the El Mozote massacre, how to lift her 96-year-old amputee father from his bed to his chair to the toilet without aggravating her own hernias, I knew they had found a way to make it relevant.

The second day of the physical therapy workshop was a clinic where townspeople could come in and be treated by a team of trainees and the PT students.  This was a way to give hands-on experience to the trainees as well as a gift to the town.  The myofascial therapist had warned me that people who have seen trauma often clench their emotions into their muscles, and when their muscles release, the emotions spill over. 

In the afternoon of the clinic day, a woman lay down on the table and began to cry within moments of being touched.  It all came out: she had lost everyone in the war, she had no one, she had been in pain for sixteen years and was afraid she would never be rid of it, she was lonely and life was so, so hard.  She cried for an hour.  Five people stood around that table laying hands on her.

It was poignant to see the Salvadoran university students interact with the townspeople.  They were, indeed, city kids, coming to Morazán for the first time ever, with their videocameras and hair care products.  The significance of this place and these people in their own history, however, was not lost on them.  At the beginning of her session on relaxation and meditation, one of them addressed the gathered ex-guerrillas and said:

On behalf of all of us, I want to thank you all for all that you have done.  We know that you have fought and suffered and sacrificed so that we might have a better future, and we want you to know that we are grateful.

I had never seen anything like that.  I had never seen one generation thank another for being the giants on whose shoulders they stood.  I never saw people reach across history and hold hands with the past like that.

After the first day’s training we all went to the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution – the US delegates, the university students, the health promoters, and the war-wounded.  The whole motley bunch of us.  The museum is the only one in the country dedicated to the war, and it is stuck up in this remote mountain town in the far corner of El Salvador.  Some of the veterans saw themselves in the pictures, or friends.  A few days later, I recognized someone at an FMLN rally in a whole different part of the country who I’d seen in one of the pictures on the museum wall.

I could tell stories.  They are not my stories; I didn’t live them, but they are stories worth telling.  I share their desire to tell stories, to ask someone else to help carry these burdens.  I could tell you how Col. Monterrosa died trying to kidnap the FMLN’s Radio Venceremos transmitter, victim of an elaborate hoax (and the FMLN’s favorite story.)  I could tell you about the guerrilla special forces that went out naked and silent and unencumbered, and about the Vietnamese consultants who taught them to live in tunnels.  I could tell you how Carmen (or Rosa, her nom de guerre) was a combat medic and learned that the last thing people do before they hemorrhage to death is ask for water, how she saw her husband die and kept fighting, how even after the war she did house calls in her combat boots, and that only in the last few years has she stopped dreaming about the war.  (Or no, she corrects herself; she still dreams of it, but now she’s the one leading the charge and inspiring the troops.  I guess that means she no longer dreams of all the people she couldn’t save, or the mortar attacks she and she alone survived.)

Or I could tell you the post-war story.  January marked fifteen years since the signing of the Peace Accords that ended the war.  But what kind of peace did the Peace Accords bring, when El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the Americas? 

The negotiation of those Accords is still looked at as one of the United Nations’ finest moments, taking a country from the depths of civil war to a redesigned society with democratic institutions.  But the underlying socio-economic issues that had largely originated the war went unaddressed.  If economic issues had been on the table, big business would have gotten involved, and talks would have gotten nowhere. 

Crime and the Ambassador
Meanwhile, El Salvador flirts with “failed-state” status for the simple fact that it can’t get crime under control.  Violent crime rates are five times what the WHO considers an “epidemic.”  After leaving Morazán, the delegation had a chance to meet with outgoing US Ambassador Doug Barclay a week before he left (to be replaced by another $200,000+ Bush donor with no Spanish ability or foreign service experience, Charles Glazer.)  A few months before, Barclay had made what he considered to be a very bold speech, telling El Salvador that they need to “deal with” their crime problem or they’ll never attract foreign investment.  The tagline of his speech was “Hágalo” which he translates to “Just Do It” (too bad the Nike slogan doesn’t translate; really it just sounds like he’s barking orders.). 

Note #1: the Ambassador told us that the issue of crime came to his attention on July 5, with the deaths of two police officers who were in the process of suppressing a student protest.  (I guess until then he hadn’t noticed everyone else hiding behind razor wire and steel bars.)

Note #2: The Ambassador’s henchman made this sagacious analysis of the rise of violent crime: it is because of the rise of the two major gangs.  Do not ask this man why these gangs have risen to such levels of transnational terror.  He will tell you that he comes from the Ozarks, where everyone is poor and everyone has a gun, and there is no crime.  And so poverty does not lead to crime.  And so you can address crime without addressing poverty.  And so once again, we can fight violence with violence with violence, and ignore underlying issues of alienation and marginalization.  At your own risk.

Well, good for the Ambassador, anyway.  He told El Salvador that they have a crime problem, and to deal with it.  And then he left, Spanish phrasebook (“Hágalo!”) tucked under one arm.  Problem is, President Tony Saca was elected 3 years ago on the promise that he was going to Hacerlo.  He implemented a plan he called Super Iron Fist, and he’s been swinging his sword at gangs ever since.  Result: the gangs have professionalized, tightened their relationship with organized crime, and streamlined their extortion operations. 

It was good election rhetoric, anyway. 

When I tell these stories – about El Salvador’s downward spiral into crime, corruption, and poverty – some people said I paint a gloomy picture.  A reader of a recent article of mine even sent me an email reminding me that El Salvador isn’t all thugs and dictators. 

I don’t mean to paint that picture.  If I tell sad stories and enraging tales of injustice, it is because that’s the story I hear from movement leaders and community organizers and health workers when they talk about what they’re up against.  But I hear these stories looking into the eyes of smart, resourceful, fun-loving people of integrity and courage. 

El Salvador is not a country of thugs and dictators.  It’s a country of people standing up to thugs and dictators.  That’s the beauty of it.

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