Colomoncagua to CSM – Former Refugees Celebrate 25 Years Since Repatriation

Last Sunday, November16, 2014, the 12 Northern Morazán communities that comprise Ciudad Segundo Montes (CSM) celebrated the 25th Anniversary of their repatriation from a refugee camp in Colomoncagua, Honduras where they lived for 10 years. They left El Salvador in 1980 to escape civil war and extreme repression from the Salvadoran military. Their November 1989 return coincided with the FMLN’s final offensive, the assassination of 6 Jesuit priests at the University of Central America, and the beginning of the end of a long, brutal civil war.

Though the main celebration took place on Sunday, residents of CSM held activities for more than two weeks beforehand. During the day local organizations such as the Pastoral Team at the San Luis Temple held historical memory events and in the evenings other groups organized dances and events that featured traditional folk music and other local artists.

(Here is a slideshow from Sunday’s event – photos taken by Ebony Pleasants)

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Residents of CSM have been in high spirits all year, preparing for the celebrations and reflecting on all that they have accomplished over the past 25 years. When the refugees arrived in the Colomoncagua camp, they were poor and persecuted. Illiteracy rate was extremely high and people had nothing. Despite almost complete isolation and little support from foreign aid organizations, the refugees did more than survive – they thrived. They created an exemplary community based on cooperation, solidarity, and the common good. Refugees grew and made all of their food, made clothes and shoes, and took care of all of their basic needs.

When they repatriated their adult-literacy rate was 85%, 100% of children were in school, and people were empowered with a sense of community and liberation. In 1989 and 1990 the new communities in Northern Morazán were challenged with starting over. They have faced significant barriers over the past 25 years, but each community now has its own primary school and the region shares two technical high schools, two libraries, a youth center, and a community radio and television station. Currently 60 youth have scholarships to attend university. The local economy isn’t great, but it’s stronger than other rural communities in El Salvador. CSM also has a vibrant civil society, several strong youth organizations, museums, and crime rates remain relatively low. There is still work to do but people are proud of all that the have accomplished.

On Sunday morning, members of the Pastoral Team arrived early at the Temple in San Luis to clean and decorate the grounds, and prepare 1500 tamales and large vats of coffee and hot chocolate. The festivities began at 2 pm when 150 students from 10 escuelitas de fe (faith schools) marched from the Segundo Montes monument in San Luis to the Temple. The afternoon celebration was elaborate and included youth reading poems they’d written; interactive, community-building activities; and first communions. Father Miguel Ventura, who has been part of the liberation movement in Northern Morazán for more than 40 years, gave a stirring talk that covered much of the region’s history and recounted stories of hardship overcome by community, cooperation, and solidarity.

At 5 pm, people from all over Morazán as well as visitors from San Salvador and the international community gathered up the hill from San Luis for a candlelight procession to the Temple, where they joined the celebration. As people walked they chanted “Que Viva la Comunidad Segundo Montes, Que Vive!” People joined the procession as it made its way to the Temple, swelling to a group of more than 500 people.

Among the participants were a two hundred people from the Lower Lempa region of Usulután. In the early 1990s, as refugees repatriated and leftist militants demilitarized, many moved to the Lower Lempa to establish new communities along the coast on El Salvador’s most fertile agricultural land. Most families in the Lower Lempa have parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters and childhood friends in the Morazán, and they often gather to celebrate their common history. Sunday was no exception.

When the procession arrived at the Temple, the celebration turned into a vigil for the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter who were assassinated 25 years ago at the University of Central America (UCA). Father Segundo Montes, who was one of the Jesuit martyrs, had been an important advocate for the refugees in Colomoncagua. In the months leading up to the first wave of repatriation (there were four waves from November 1989 to March 1990), he visited the Colomoncagua camp on several occasions to negotiate their return with the Salvadoran and Honduran governments, and the United Nations. Father Segundo Montes’ encouragement and presence in the camps were what convinced the refugees that it was time to return.

Don Lorenzo, a community leader in San Luis, participated in the first wave of refugees to repatriate. He says the refugees didn’t learn about the UCA massacre and the loss of Father Segundo Montes until after they crossed back into El Salvador. It took several months to repatriate all 10,000 refugees, but by March 1990 they were all home. On March 25, 1990 the communities held an Inauguration Day Celebration in which they named their group of resettled communities Ciudad Segundo Montes.

IMAG0005Here is a translation of an Inauguration Day speech given by community representative, Juan Jose Rodriguez. The speech is an important accounting of the history of the refugees, as well as a vision for their future. The speech was given almost two years before the January 1992 Peace Accords ended El Salvador’s civil war, and reflects the hostile environment they came home to. This is just one of many documents from Voices’ archives that we are digitizing and sharing with the CSM.

For the past year, Voices field volunteer Ebony has been living in CSM and helping the Pastoral Team implement a historical memory project. Over the years, many outsiders have collected testimonies and written good accounts and even books about Colomoncagua and CSM, but the communities have never written their own history. The first phase of the historical memory project was to build the skills needed to take on such a large, complex initiative. Members of the Pastoral Team participated in numerous workshops to learn how to conduct interviews, and provide support for people who were recounting tragic events, some for the first time. They also learned how to organize information and materials, given oral presentations, and much more.

After the workshops, members of the Pastoral Team spent months conducting interviews, collecting documents and artifacts, and organizing their materials. Community members led this entire process, with no outside interference or influence. This is important because the target audience for the book, video, library, and other products are the future generations of Morazán. The generations that suffered extreme repression before the war, lived liberation theology, organized themselves in a refugee camp, and established a new kind of community want their children, grandchildren and future generations to know their story – much of which remains untold. Though the Pastoral Team is not finished with the historical memory project, they put together a powerful exhibit of their work to date. They presented photographs, testimonies, and materials they have collected over the past year.

The celebration on Sunday went well past 11 pm. There were speeches, hymns, live music, stories, and even a baptism. After the last songs were over, speeches concluded, and the 1500 tamales and vats of coffee and chocolate consumed, the celebration came to a close. Members of the Pastoral Team agreed that it was a great success.

Like the historical memory project, the 25th Anniversary Celebration of repatriation was more than looking back. It was an opportunity for people who experienced the worst kids of repression and hardship to assess how much they have accomplished and all that they now have. Perhaps most importantly it was an opportunity to give future generations a since of identity and root them in an ongoing struggle for social justice and liberation.

Voices on the Border is forever grateful for the ongoing support of our friends at St. Peters Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC for their ongoing support. Their friendship and financial support over the years has allowed Voices on the Border to maintain a constant presence in Northern Morazán, and fund numerous activities such as the Pastoral Team’s historical Memory project. It is impossible to quantify the impact that St. Peters has had in the region, or fully express our gratitude.

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