Voices Developments

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.


Salvadoran Human Rights Organization, Pro-Busqueda Attacked

At 4:45 am yesterday morning, three unknown assailants raided the offices of Pro-Busqueda, a human rights organization in El Salvador that for more than 19 years has worked to reunite families separated during the country’s 12-year civil war.

The assailants held a driver and night watchman at gunpoint while they destroyed files and computers, doused offices with gasoline, and set them on fire. A statement sent around by Pro-Busqueda yesterday afternoon said that the attackers targeted the offices most vital to their work, destroying archives and files related to cases that they have pending in the judicial system. When the attackers left, the night watchman and driver were able to free themselves and put out the fires with hoses

Ester Alvarenga, a Former Director of Pro-Busqueda and a member of the technical team said that the assailants had done the most damage in the administrative and advocacy departments. She also made it clear that they have all of their information backed up so it was a not a total loss.

Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales, who visited the scene shortly after the attack said it was well planned and was reminiscent of attacks on human rights organizations during the 1980s. He also said there hasn’t been an attack like this on a human rights organizations since the end of the war.

The specific reasons for the attack remains unclear, but it is likely related to cases pending in international and domestic courts related to the forced disappearances of children during the war. This past Monday, the Constitutional Court suspended evidentiary hearings against former members of the armed forces who did not attend their habeas corpus hearing, during which Pro-Busqueda was scheduled to present evidence they have collected against the defendents.

Just last month the Catholic Church closed Tutela Legal, one of the leading human rights organizations in El Salvador. The organization housed an extensive collection of evidence and documents related to human rights abuses committed during the civil war. The closing of Tutela Legal and the attack on Pro-busqueda come as the Constitutional Court considers constitutionality of the Amnesty Law, which has protected war criminals from being prosecuted for atrocities committed during the 1980s.

Tutela Legal and Pro-Busqueda are not the only organizations and people with evidence and records that could be used to prosecute crimes committed during the civil war. The Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America (IDHUCA) and others have been collecting evidence and documents since before the war ended, and could also be a threat to those who risk prosecution.

In March Voices staff had a conversation with Benjamin Cuellar, the director of the IDHUCA, about the Amnesty Law and the lack of transitional justice after the war. Instead of treating the Peace Accords as the beginning of the peace process, the Salvadoran government and many international stakeholders were too quick to declare peace and put the war in the past, ignoring issues of justice. But it is difficult if not impossible to achieve peace until there is also justice.

Womens issues

Women of the War, Stories of El Salvador

Mujeres de la Guerra, Historias de El Salvador (Women of the War, Stories of El Salvador) is a documentary, book, and series of photographs about women leaders who work for peace and justice in El Salvador, in many cases beginning with the repression and injustice at the cause of the Salvadoran civil war.

The talented women compiling these important testimonies into a film and book need your support to finish up They need to raise $12,000 by July. As of this morning they have $4000 and need $8000 more. Members of Voices’ staff and board of directors has contributed to this great project and we’d be grateful if you did as well. Click here to donate!

Of the 28 Salvadoran women who shared their testimonies for this project, four are from Voices’ partner communities in Morazán and the Bajo Lempa. Gabriela Hernandez, Gaby, a member of the Pastoral Association of Segundo Montes, is featured in the Mujeres de la Guerra teaser.

Another of the women interviewed in the project is Maria Yolanda Garcia Vigil.  Yolanda was a young girl when violent repression began in Morazán. She tells of fleeing into the mountains from the army’s scorched earth campaign, returning to El Salvador at 13 years old to learn basic nursing skills while treating wounded guerrilla and civilians during the war, and then organizing her people in the refugee camp Colomoncagua to return home.

Today, Yolanda has helped found the Morazán Women’s Network, to empower women throughout the department to demand respect for their rights. In March 2012, she was elected a member of the City Council of Meanguera, Morazán.

Yolanda’s Mujeres de la Guerra Portrait

Despite having been unable to attend even first grade because of the violence in her hometown, Yolanda clearly explains the root causes and consequences of injustice and inequality in the 1970s and ‘80s, and the injustice that continues today. In her own words, excerpts of Yolanda’s story follow:

Before the war, my family lived in the community Ojos de Agua, in Torola. My mom was a housewife, and my father a day laborer.  We lived off of the work that my father did. He planted a field, and that’s how we survived. At that time, there was great social inequality, there wasn’t democracy, there wasn’t freedom of expression. And so rural farmers, including my dad, got organized. They began a new form of life for rural families. Rural farmers begin to unite in groups; they begin to carry out collective work.

The oligarchy of El Salvador began to see these uprisings of people, of rural farmers, in organized life, uniting more and more. And they began to say, ‘Communism is coming. These are subversives, terrorists.’  They began to say, ‘[t]hese people can’t live.  We can’t let them multiply,’ because it was a danger for the oligarchy.

And repression in communities began.  Where I lived, they start to persecute people.  They captured people, and many people were disappeared.  In 1980, the armed forces launched an operation called the scorched earth campaign. In that operation their goal was to kill all living things.

Around ‘79, we didn’t sleep in our home anymore. People went to the mountains to sleep. We built shacks out of tarp or weeds, and people slept there.  No one could live in their homes, because there was so much risk. Because the people that were found there were killed.  Or they were taken captured to be tortured, until they were killed. There wasn’t anything to eat.  When that repression began, we couldn’t work the land anymore.  You couldn’t work, just fleeing.  Fleeing.

My grandmother was hung.  They hung my grandma.  And they shot her.  She was buried by my mom, more or less, on the spot. And my mom, too.  They found her with eight kids in a house.  My mom was tied up, all her teeth were broken from being kicked, she was blindfolded and beaten. They tried to kill her by beating her.

I think we have achieved things for women.  Maybe there are places where that’s not true, but in our community, it is.  Here, women participate. Women are very active, and today, there is more awareness.  The goal is to empower women and feel equal in work, in decisions.  I think that as a community we’ve achieved a lot.

We are in favor of justice, and it hasn’t happened yet.  Justice hasn’t come.  So we have to keep fighting.  That’s the challenge.  We need to strengthen our organization. Because it’s a lie that things will happen just because, or because the big people want them.  The effort has to be from the people.

These are real things, these aren’t things from a movie, but things that we have lived.  And things that haven’t been easy. Our struggle has been of a lot of sacrifice, of blood, of so many martyrs that have given their lives in this history.  We will construct our future together.  The problems that we face in our country aren’t just here; the crisis is on the global level. And everywhere, even in the United States, there are people that are organized and fighting against injustice.

Read more about the Mujeres de la Guerra project and the stories of the women at http://www.indiegogo.com/mujeresdelaguerra. And please support this great project!

International Relations, News Highlights, Politics, U.S. Relations

Former Salvadoran General Faces Deportation from the US

General Eugenio Vides Casanova currently has been living as a legal resident in South Florida since 1989.  He moved to the United States after retiring honorably from his post as El Salvador’s minister of defense, a position he held for 6 years during El Salvador’s brutal civil war.  During this time, he was a close ally of the United States because of his intense efforts against the Marxist guerillas.

In a case that the New York Times calls “an about-face in American policy,” General Vides is now facing possible deportation following being charged with torture in a U.S. immigration court.   This is the first time the Department of Homeland Security has pursued immigration charges against a high-ranking foreign military official.

Both the prosecution and defense are expected to call former U.S. ambassadors to testify: Robert E. White for the prosecution and Edwin G. Corr for the defense.  Another witness is Juan Romagoza Arce, a Salvadoran doctor who was tortured by the National Guard in 1980.

General Vides has already faced legal trouble in the U.S. for his actions during El Salvador’s civil war.  He, along with General José Guillermo García, was accused and acquitted by a Florida jury in 2000 in a civil case for the killing of four American churchwomen who were murdered by Vides’ Salvadoran National Guard.  The same year, the justice center filed charges of torture against the two generals.  In 2002, they were found guilty of torture by a Florida jury and ordered to pay $54.6 million to three torture victims, a decision that was upheld by an appeals court in 2006.

This case is an example of the lingering effects of El Salvador’s civil war, effects that can even be seen in the United States.  No American officials have been held accountable for their part in human rights abuses in El Salvador during the war.  Even though more than 400 people have been deported from the US since 2003 for rights abuses, this is an important effort to hold Salvadoran allies of the US responsible for their actions in a war that often slips under Americans’ radars.

Those who fought on the other side in the war, the FMLN guerillas, have been at odds with U.S. officials since the war, first for their communist/Marxist ideals and later for actions taken during the war.  For example, US diplomats still refuse to meet with El Salvador’s Public Security Minister Manuel Melgar.  He was a guerilla during the war who is accused of killing 4 US Marines in 1985.  In a July 2009 cable released by the WikiLeaks website, American diplomats described seeing his appointment as the imposition of FMLN hardliners, despite President Funes’ pretty moderate political stance.

The case against General Vides is an important step in acknowledging the human rights abuses by both sides during the civil war, including those who the US government strongly supported.  The trial is expected to last a week, so it should be decided by the end of April, which could set a significant precedent for finally responding to El Salvador’s dirty war.

News Highlights, Politics

Victims of Abuses during Civil War Speak Out at International Tribunal

The International Tribunal for Restorative Justices opened a public forum for people who had suffered human rights abuses during El Salvador’s civil war. The three-day event was hosted at the Central American University as part of its Truth Festival, a week-long program in commemoration of the anniversary of Monseñor Romero’s assassination.

The testimonies heard by the Tribunal were powerful and disturbing. They narrated stories of incredible human suffering -death threats, tortures, disappearances, assassinations, scorched earth campaigns, massacres- all committed directly by or with the complicity of the Salvadoran Armed Forces.

Julio Rivera offered his testimony and told of how on March 11, 1980, at the age of 7, he witnessed the killing of his mother and three remaining siblings, because his mother had advocated for political prisoners. Only days later -in hiding with his father- he witnessed the massacre at the Sumpul River committed by Salvadoran military in collaboration with local paramilitary groups and the Honduran military. Thirteen members of his extended family were killed in the massacre.

There has been very little political will on the part of the Salvadoran government to address these atrocities. For many years, the Salvadoran government flatly denied their existence, or blamed them on the guerillas. In 1993, El Salvador passed an amnesty law, creating a significant barrier to even gathering information on the atrocities committed. Successive presidents, including president-elect Funes, have refused to repeal the amnesty law, saying it would re-open old wounds.

Rivera replies that that wounds have never closed. He declared that the wounds will heal only when the truth has been heard and acknowledged, and there is a true process of justice and reconciliation.