700 days in El Salvador

Michele GierckMelbourne, 1989. José was the first Salvadorean refugee to tell me his story. José’s father had been tipped off by a friend that his son’s name was on ‘the list’, so they acted swiftly. Within hours José had packed his things, left his family, and was on a bus bound for the border. Although he didn’t know it then, his life as a refugee would last more than a decade.

He had been forced to flee his homeland because his name was on a death-squad list—simply because he was affiliated with a trade union. In El Salvador that was all it took to make someone a military target.

Many of his co-workers had already been rounded up and taken away. (They became the desaparecidos, the disappeared.) Many were tortured. The military had absolute power over ordinary people’s lives and they exercised this brutally. José escaped with his life, but was scarred none the less ...

Two months into my second year of Spanish classes at university, we were assigned a play to read, Pedro y el Capitán. It is a short work of only four scenes—a long conversation between torturer and tortured. Although torture does not figure physically in any part, author Mario Benedetti explains its presence as a great shadow that weighs on the dialogue. This is not the drama of a monster and a saint. It is about two human beings, two men, each with their own vulnerabilities. The major difference between them is ideological.

Imprisoned and tortured, Pedro drifts in and out of consciousness. The Captain has the upper hand but Pedro uses his silence, and his words, wisely. It becomes apparent that the Captain is captive too, a weak man caught in a brutal system. Escape for him is just as impossible. Pedro, a courageous character, dies loyal to his compañeros and his cause, and in the process he breaks the Captain.

Pedro y el Capitán is a simple, evocative drama about the reality of life in Latin America. Yet after reading it, I found the issue of torture casting shadows on my own life ...

For class purposes students were required to write an essay on the play, but each of my attempts finished with a blank page. The expectation was that we would detach ourselves, write as if the drama were fiction. Yet, for me, who through Benedetti’s imagery had glimpsed another reality, it wasn’t fiction. As we planned and wrote our essays, numerous Pedros were being tortured. A question started gnawing at me: what was the point of a banal essay? Wouldn’t it be better to focus energy on the real Pedros of this world?

It was while considering this dilemma that I had met José. Not only had he read Benedetti’s book, he offered to discuss it. Coming from El Salvador he was able to open up that world, bring it to life by telling real stories. And he was aghast to think that another human being—even a foreigner, an outsider, an essay writer—could even contemplate feeling sorry for the Captain. José’s perspective sprang from conocering.

I need to explain conocering. English, rich in so many ways, has its limitations. Take, for example the English verb ‘to know’. One cannot deduce from its usage the mode of acquisition of the knowledge. By contrast, Spanish makes an important distinction: it has two infinitives for the verb ‘to know’. The first, saber, refers to taking in data from a book or a computer—a more intellectual, often detached approach. Then there’s conocer. It’s a knowing rooted in experience. To know a place or a person conocer-style means you have touched them, felt their spirit.

José had conocered. He’d had first-hand experience of the world in which Pedro and the Captain lived. His understanding of Benedetti’s book and Central American politics came from conocering, while I could only saber it through words on a page.

There was a knock on the front door. José. He looked worried, the furrows along his brow pronounced. We headed to the kitchen for a cafecito. Two months had passed since we first met, yet our conversations, like the war in El Salvador, continued steadily.

José had a document—a fax from El Salvador, needing urgent translation. The usual volunteer translators were unavailable. Could I help? The fax, a dictionary, pens, paper, José and I were spread out around the kitchen table. We pored over the document, flicking through the dictionary searching for clues, slowly filling the gaps, adding single words, then phrases. The process was time-consuming and, at times, frustrating. José was not fluent in written English and I was scarcely literate in Spanish, yet the result, after much effort, was accurate and the style free-flowing in a Salvadorean way ...

This was the first of our joint translations. More followed. We became a regular team. The texts rendered into English were first-hand accounts of the suffering endured by communities in El Salvador; a history of war written by those on the receiving end. Anyone reading it would have to conclude that bombing, rape and torture had become a part of Salvadorean life. And you’d have to ask, as I often did, had the Salvadorean military gone mad?

Translating the stories of el pueblo was challenging, not only because of my limited linguistic abilities but because it brought my world view into question. I had grown up in Bulleen, a Melbourne suburb as neighbourly as it was tranquil. In my world, ‘attack’ meant swooping magpies, protecting their young during breeding season: the victims—luckless pedestrians. During my childhood this had been a frightening experience. But in El Salvador ‘attack’ meant the engagement of weaponry with deadly intent: the targets often the civilian population. It was very unsettling. I thought I had seen the world, I thought I was very adventurous, perhaps a little brave when, at nineteen, I bought a round-the-world airline ticket. But neither travel, corporate work in the tourism industry, nor my current university studies were preparation for the orbit into which I was being drawn as I continued the translations ...

We had been translating for five months when the tension in El Salvador heightened dramatically. I could feel it pulsing through the language of the faxes, even from where we sat thousands of kilometres away.

The guerrillas, the FMLN, had an audacious plan—to take control of the capital. ‘Impossible’, according to the military. And they should have known—many of their senior officers having been trained in the USA.

The guerrilla offensive, when it came, was as swift as it was decisive. It caught the Salvadorean military off guard. The guerrillas first took over the poor neighbourhoods of San Salvador, where they had some support. Then in a daring move, they took control of the wealthy parts of the capital.

What was the military to do—the same military which had assured its major funder, the US government, that the situation was under control? It was in trouble. So there was only one option, apart from capitulation: to throw everything available at the guerrillas, and those the government perceived to be guerrilla sympathisers—the urban poor. Indiscriminate aerial bombing of poor neighbourhoods began immediately.

Scores were killed. The military would not even allow the Red Cross access to the wounded. Blood flowed literally along the gutters. Bodies lay untidily in the streets, the colour of life gone, so they looked like scattered bundles and discarded cloth.

Our fax machine barely stopped ...

José found me sitting at the desk, staring out the window, tears in my eyes. The awareness of so much suffering and desperation, and the world taking no notice, overwhelmed me.

‘José, I’m not going to just keep sitting in this back room, translating stories about people being bombed. I’m going to do something.’

But in reality what could I do, apart from helping as an emergency translator?

On 16 November 1989 the military panicked. They entered the grounds of the University of Central America, the UCA, the Jesuit University in San Salvador, and literally blew the brains out of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter: suddenly our translations were no longer about the anonymous. The killing of seventy thousand Salvadorean people might not have made world news, nor the massacre at El Mozote.

But the cold-blooded shooting of six Jesuit priests did. Suddenly this slaughter was a new story, even in Australia. It sent reverberations around the world and, importantly, to Washington. The Salvadorean military had made a serious miscalculation. Their actions on 16 November 1989 would affect their lines of resupply from the US government, the government that trained and armed them. If the USA hadn’t been sensitive to the human cost, it was always sensitive to the potential political cost.

In Melbourne, the bluestone Church of Saint Ignatius was packed for the mass commemorating the six Jesuits, Julia Elba and her daughter Celina. No event in nine years of war in El Salvador had affected people around the world the way this did.

There was shock—disbelief. If Jesuit priests could be targeted in their private university, what hope was there for the people on the streets, or in the mountains?

I had not been inside a church for years, but on this occasion, I sat down the back, head in hands, and cried. 

This is an edited extract of 700 Days in El Salvador, by Michele Gierck, published by Coretext (isbn 0 977 50290 2, rrp $22.95).



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