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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 221 | Diciembre 1999
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El Salvador

The Subversive Memory Of a Country’s Martyrs

The tenth anniversary of the massacre at San Salvador's Central American University turned into a national fiesta in remembrance of the thousands of martyrs of the Salvadoran civil war, demonstrating that in a country still awaiting the arrival of real peace, a peaceful future might yet be forged from the memory of the blood spilt and the efforts made.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

A decade ago, in the early hours of November 16, officers and troops of a special Salvadoran army squad entered the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador and one by one blew out the brains of six Jesuit lecturers and researchers who lived on campus with machine gun fire. Then, cold-bloodedly fulfilling the orders of the army high command to leave no witnesses, they gunned down a woman and her daughter, who died in an eternal embrace alongside the priests they worked for as domestics.

Investigations by both the Jesuit community and the Truth Commission formed at the request of the United Nations identified the Salvadoran Armed Forces High Command as directly responsible for ordering the massacre. Ever since that killing took place, however, both its material and intellectual authors have been closely protected, particularly by Alfredo Cristiani, then President of the country and currently president of the ARENA party. Like Cristiani, several of the murderers continue to parade as honorable members of the commercial and banking community and respected analysts of the national situation; some are even working in institutions responsible for deciding El Salvador's future course. Such a situation makes it perfectly obvious that impunity still reigns in Salvadoran society.

Ten years on, thousands of Salvadorans and dozens of delegations from foreign universities and churches visited the site of the massacre to bear witness to the truth and justice that marked those lives that were so cruelly cut short. They were also there to demonstrate that the blood of the martyrs had powerfully touched many people and to proclaim that their fight, their accusations and their intellectual analysis based on the reality of the excluded majorities is still valid today.

“They shine like luminaries”

In these regressive times, words of encouragement and solidarity are not always to be expected from the Vatican for the Christian communities committed to continuous, small-scale grassroots struggles. But such words were heard and very much welcomed by those of us present on November 16. The Vatican's delegate to the events marking the tenth anniversary of the massacre summed up the feelings of the 1,800 people attending the closing ceremony of the numerous activities in memory of the martyrs. “The Jesuits and their two collaborators shine like luminaries before us, and offer us a reason to live that can fill our lives,” he announced to loud applause. He had captured the feeling of this grassroots Salvadoran celebration.

The previous night, a woman from Chalatenango in northern El Salvador also managed to capture the sentiments of the 14,000 people crowded onto the campus grounds for a massive vigil. “As on all of these anniversaries, but particularly on this one,” she observed, “the poor Salvadorans from the cantons, from the hills and mountain streams, from the capital city's settlements and neighborhoods, have taken the UCA by storm.”

fiesta of nostalgia

During those same days, former FMLN fighters were also celebrating the tenth anniversary of the November 1989 guerrilla offensive, which the Salvadoran High Command took advantage of to plan and execute the murder of Father Ignacio Ellacuría and his colleagues at the UCA. The former guerrillas organized marches and celebrations during which they proclaimed the FMLN's unity, despite the party's obvious internal divisions. Dressed in combat fatigues, they chanted slogans from a war interred by the January 1992 peace accords. One journalist covering the celebrations described them as a “fiesta of nostalgia” because the organizers insisted on ignoring the political challenges facing the left today in favor of exaggerating past glories.

One veteran fighter envío spoke with saw what he termed an “enormous” difference between the UCA celebration and the one organized by the former guerrillas: the “grassroots turnout.” He admitted that “there were many more people at the UCA than at the event organized by the demobilized FMLN fighters, most of whom belonged to the party's orthodox line and drowned their feelings in noisy, upbeat music and beer. Perhaps they did so to forget that ten years after the last guerrilla offensive things are going badly for the Salvadoran left.”

The war-disabled as well

The UCA celebration rekindled the most positive elements of the Salvadoran tradition of struggle and martyrdom and promoted other efforts. One example was the march organized on their own by thousands of people who had been left wounded and maimed by the war. At the Monument to the Savior of the World they joined up with the “lantern procession” to the UCA that traditionally marks the beginning of the vigil in memory of the UCA martyrs. Like many other activities across the country, the march of the war disabled was not one of the official events organized for November 19, but the combination of all of these different activities had the effect of creating a national celebration in memory of all Salvadoran martyrs.

According to one of the organizers of the march of the war-disabled, the activity “was not well organized; we just wanted to join up with the UCA fiesta. We never expected so many people. Here we are, some of us limping, others blind in one eye, some marked by burns and others on crutches, but all of us wanting to re-discover so many lost dreams. Four buses arrived from Guarjila alone carrying a bunch of war disabled with the seminary student Tupac, who's one of ours. We had no idea how to organize so many people who we had never even expected to turn up. One worried policeman even came up to ask what was going on, because we hadn't bothered to advise anyone, thinking that only a handful of people would be there. The compañeros responsible for organization arrived late, once many small groups had already set off for the UCA on their own so as not to arrive late for the lantern procession.”

The blood of all

Parishes and communities in the north and east of the country had been preparing to participate in the “national fiesta of Salvadoran martyrs” for weeks. Dozens of delegations from the United States and Europe also announced that they would participate, along with relatives of five of the six murdered priests who traveled from Spain. On the night of the vigil people turned up from many parts of the country and the world; it was hard to miss a beautiful banner saluting the Salvadoran people displayed by a delegation all the way from the Republic of Korea.

There was also an important regional presence with many delegations from the rest of Central America traveling to San Salvador, including representatives of an organization of hurricane victims from the northern coast of Honduras who came to greet and thank the groups of Salvadorans who provided solidarity and helped in emergency, rehabilitation and reconstruction activities in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. According to the doormen posted at the various entrances to the UCA, over 14,000 people joined that vibrant popular fiesta on the night of November 15.

One of the organizers responsible for mobilizing the peasant communities of Chalatenango was so overcome that he could not contain his emotion. “The people have come to remember not just the UCA martyrs but also all the martyrs from their own communities who offered their lives in the hope of better times,” he explained. “It's something new for me to joyfully celebrate the death, the murder of loved ones, friends and colleagues. In this sense the people have educated me, taught me that there is sense amid the darkness of injustice and murder. Death has no dominion when faced with such joy; it is neutralized, canceled out, as is the intention of the murderers.”

The fiesta in the communities

The memory of the martyrs has been kept alive at the UCA for a decade, but this year the university witnessed the largest popular gathering in El Salvador in recent years. In the words of the Jesuit Provincial as he welcomed the relatives of the murdered priests, “We can state with profound joy that the anniversary of our martyrs has increasingly become a fiesta of the Christian communities that proclaim and adopt the beatitudes of the Kingdom. It is a splendid opportunity for a meeting of faith and the renewal of hope and commitment. This celebration expresses what is best and most beautiful about the mystical reserves of the poor and renews the struggle for a more just society, so necessary in these times of such injustice, concealed by so many neoliberal campaigns for quick and easy solutions to the problems facing us that would consign the people's true history to oblivion.”
Later, when he closed the vigil and thanked those present for their contribution to that unforgettable celebration, the Provincial singled out the Salvadoran communities: “With your presence you have turned this place that was bathed in blood into the Lord's temple, a sacred place for prayer, a place for fraternal meeting, confirming that it belongs to a Church, that in fidelity to Jesus Christ it seeks to commit itself to the poorest and most excluded people of the Earth. Year after year, you fill this university campus with fiesta, singing and hope. For us, you continue to provide a criterion and a source of strength to remain true to the cause for which our martyrs gave their lives. You feed our faith and our mission and your demands for justice test our work and our lifestyles.”

Spurring on the struggle

Both the priests and the Salvadoran communities who organized this tenth anniversary celebration wanted to show that the blood shed and the martyrdom suffered continue to provide an inexhaustible source of commitment with which to awaken the people from their apathy and frustration. There is no room for personal, group or institutional depression when every day thousands of men, women and children are still struggling to avoid either dying of starvation or falling prey to irrational violence.

At the same time, all of the reflections made over so many days of remembrance have highlighted the fact that although peace may have been signed in El Salvador, the causes of the war have yet to be eradicated. There are still great inequalities in the country and it continues to have one of the highest levels of violence in the world.

The celebration of the martyrs also aimed to resoundingly express the fact that, despite the sacrifice of so many Salvadorans who shed their blood to create a more human, shared country, every day many compatriots resolutely seek a way to escape to the North because there is no room for them in their homeland. El Salvador is still a country for the rich few, as is increasingly evident. Although, in the words of the poet Roque Dalton, many Salvadorans continue to cry and kill themselves for the national flag, fewer and fewer Salvadorans are sharing the homeland and its assets.

The social and economic inequalities are now much more dramatic than in 1989. While it is true that the gross domestic product has risen by 29% over the last ten years, it is also true that the wages of the vast majority of the population remain frozen at 1989 levels. As someone commented during the fiesta at the UCA, “The life and words of our martyrs must continue to spur us on to a greater commitment to the poorest sectors so that together we can build a different, fairer El Salvador with greater solidarity. Their blood will not let us live in peace while the conditions that shook their lives and caused their deaths continue to exist and to cause suffering among the country's poor majorities.”

So many plans, so many dreams

The fiesta served as a catharsis and a reconciliation for people who have been demobilized for so long, battered by bad news, weakened by the many divisions among the left and frustrated by the course adopted by many FMLN leaders who have ended up negotiating positions of power with the most hardline sectors of the right and forgetting the many people who gave up their lives for the cause. Having been dispersed and demobilized for so long now, these people had a chance through the events marking the tenth anniversary of the massacre to shake off their heavy weights and desperation. It was a chance to reconcile themselves with so much shared and thwarted history and to reconcile the honesty of their past struggle with the sterility of the present situation. As one veteran reluctant to exhaust his ideals in electoral battles put it, “So much time and energy and so many dreams, risks and hardships were put into the revolutionary fight. So many organized flights from the enemy, so many plans for a shared country, so many bullets exchanged, so much adrenaline have been invested in the struggle only to end up with a mediocre and useless social democracy that is nothing more than a euphemism for the faint- hearted submission displayed by most of the leaders...”

Ten years of lessons

The following are some of the lessons that can be drawn from the celebration of those who died:
* The martyrs were pioneers in analyzing and proposing a negotiated solution to the armed conflict at a time when their proposals were viewed as deluded by leaders on both sides and their voices were little more than cries in the desert. Their obstinate insistence on dialogue and independence from both factions was one of the reasons the army decided to use bullets to put an end to ideas they had no other way of answering. With the massacre, national and international society became convinced that the war would never end unless the opposing parties sat down to seek a definitive negotiated solution. The martyrs' deaths thus taught that dialogue and negotiation are still highly important instruments for seeking serious answers to conflicts within society.

* Dialogue and negotiation, however, are not enough in themselves. They have to be accompanied by pressure and demands from different sectors of society. The signing of the peace accords was the result of a forced dialogue and negotiation process that in turn was the result of tenacious pressure from Salvadoran society.

* Pressure from a country's citizens has to be supported by the pressure and active presence of agencies and solidarity organizations from the international community. Without the collaboration and pressure of the European countries, without the effective commitment of the international community, the churches and so many sectors of international solidarity, it would have been very difficult to bring about peace, let alone find out who was responsible for the massacre of the Jesuits and other crimes. The UCA massacre shook the world and convinced the international community of the need to put a stop to the kind of barbarities summed up in that particular crime.

* The January 1992 peace accords put an end to the war, but not to the socioeconomic conditions that generated it and that continue contributing to so many unjust deaths. Peace is so much more than the end of an armed conflict, and the signing of the accords barely opened the doors to an ongoing struggle to eradicate the causes of the country's inequalities, to make room for all of its people and ensure that they have equal opportunities.

* The government of El Salvador is still fundamentally committed to a national economic model that increases social inequalities. That is where the structural roots of the country's violence lie, and many other forms of violence and exclusion will ensure that Salvadorans continue to live without peace as long as this economic war is not eradicated.

* True peace and reconciliation, in the form of an end to the inhuman conditions that generate indignity and injustice among citizens, will continue to be a pending task for Salvadorans.

* The memory of the martyrs helps keep people aware, and the fiestas held in their memory are instruments in the struggle against and subversion of a system that strives to bury the population in oblivion.

The blood that cannot be erased

One student who attended the events at the UCA told envío, “These fiestas in celebration of the martyrs from the massacres at Sumpul, Copapayo, Tenango and Guadalupe, Mozote and the UCA are like a calendar of popular fiestas that keep providing sense to the lives of the country's marginalized majorities, renewing people's hope year after year. I feel that the peasants renew their hope in these fiestas by meeting up with people they fought with or met when they fled into Honduras to avoid the army, so they can tell themselves that it was not all a dream, that although they may have attempted the impossible, they did it because they grew strong through their unity and it seemed possible to them. And if they tried it once, whenever an able and willing leader emerges they are going to follow him and try again, though perhaps not in the same way; perhaps it won't need another war. Today we have to face a war that is killing us off slowly and silently through state policies, organized crime and street violence; there is no room for complacency. These anniversaries serve to rekindle our commitments. I can't help it: seeing so many people packed into this university square has suddenly stirred up all of my dormant dreams, and I'm sure that all of the people who came to this fiesta will not be the same after, because the memory of martyrs is subversive.”
The fiesta brought back memories and the smell of blood to all of us there. Certain images cannot be erased even after ten years, and those of the eight bodies in the UCA grass and the hundreds and thousands of people cut down in their innocence were present in our minds and hearts in all of their crude reality. Their blood will not let us live or rest in peace as long as the conditions that shook their lives and caused their deaths remain. Adjusting their struggle to the new conditions is the only way to really remember them as they should be remembered.

Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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