Sacred Pilgrimages to the School of the Americas and El Salvador

By Jennifer Svetlik 11-19-2008

Last spring, I made a pilgrimage to rural El Salvador to learn about the violence that had occurred there during the U.S-supported Salvadoran Civil War. The journey became a sacred one for me my first evening there, in the home of my host Florinda. As she served us sopa de fideo and papusas, Florinda shared with us, tears peeking out the sides of her eyes, the story of her childhood. Her grandchildren listened wide-eyed from a hammock across the room.

In 1980, when Florinda was 14, army soldiers burned the homes and fields of the 300 people that lived in her village. Traveling rebel guerillas had come through a few days before asking the villagers for food, and although the villagers had denied them assistance, the army believed they were supporting the revolutionaries. The soldiers killed anyone unable to escape, including Florinda's 8-year-old brother.

Many of the villagers fled the violence and traveled during the night to Honduras. Florinda's entire community remained together in Honduran refugee camps and lived on a diet only of mangos, possessionless and nearly starving. Although they experienced indescribable suffering and death, their community also has a resurrection story -- after 10 years of exile, the community returned together to El Salvador to begin life anew and form a grassroots peace and development organization. Their organization now runs a local public radio station, a sustainable farming project, art classes, and a gang-tattoo removal program.

I was absolutely humbled to hear Florinda's story and felt privileged to share her table. I was honored that she was so quickly willing to open up to us and to share her community's sacred stories of struggle and pain.

Florinda's story of suffering is not unique. Over 75,000 people were killed in the Salvadoran Civil War, which ripped the country apart for 12 years. Millions more became homeless and were exiled. The Salvadoran army tortured, raped, and murdered thousands of people they believed had a connection with communism or the rebel forces. Religious people were also targeted; the most well-known include Archbishop Oscar Romero, six Jesuit priests, and four U.S. churchwomen, for their connection to liberation theology and work with the poor.

A U.S. Congressional Task Force reported that 19 of the 26 people responsible for the murders of the Jesuits were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Two of the three people responsible for the murder of Archbishop Romero were also SOA graduates, and a battalion led by SOA-trained officers committed one of the gravest Latin American human rights violations ever, the massacre of 900 unarmed people in the town of El Mozote, El Salvador.

Four months before I traveled to El Salvador to meet Florinda and eat in her home, I participated in another sacred journey, my first pilgrimage to the School of the Americas Watch Vigil at the gates of Ft. Benning. Over 25,000 people gathered, many of them people of faith, to protest the existence of this school that has trained 60,000 Latin Americans, many of whom have gone on to commit acts of torture and murder against their own people (acts that continue to the present day). The vigil was an inspiring three days of prayer, public witness, dance and song, homage to victims, and collective commitments to working for peace and closing the School of the Americas.

This weekend, thousands of people concerned about U.S. militarism will once again make the pilgrimage to the vigil at the gates of Ft. Benning. I'll be making the trip with my housemates, the Sojourners interns. This year, I'll go again as a concerned citizen, but I'll also carry in my heart the stories of Florinda, her grandchildren, and the other Salvadorans I met last spring. United with them in prayer and common cause, I will use this opportunity to echo the words of Archbishop Romero: "In the name of God then, in the name of this suffering people I ask you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: stop the repression!"

Jennifer Svetlik is an organizing assistant for Sojourners.

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