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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Teacher’s stories, the return to San Jose las Flores – July 10

The church was one of the few buildings standing when the community returned in 1986 It was very important that all teachers had a chance to tell their stories. Everyone had been exhausted by the end of the previous day’s session. Today, Lidia continued with her story. When she was 12 years old, she lived in the mountains. She saw this as a privilege, she was alive. She and other teachers talked about trying to share these experiences with their students. The parents are reluctant to do so. Like the others, she has lots of nightmares. Morena continued by relating how her father was killed when she was six years old. The army was following them so they got used to hiding and running all the time. She is still very nervous and anxious much of the time. She and her family lived in Honduras for two years. When they returned in 1990, the community was already rebuilding houses in San Jose Las Flores. Still, the army attacked the people. Several times they would shoot at the people from the hills above the town. Her cousin was killed and her sister was injured in these attacks. Much of what happened to these people remains unresolved. Several times, our group leader Migual spoke of the need for justice – a need that remains to be fulfilled. The trauma remains he believes, because there has been no justice. Others say that God will punish those who committed these crimes. We asked them why they decided to come back here when there was so much danger. They quickly answered that many of them had been running for six years and were simply ‘burned out’. The community and the FMLN was looking for an alternative to hiding in the forests. To illustrate how the community was resettled, the teachers then showed us an old video taken during a mass celebrating the return of families to San Jose Las Flores. The footage is incredible and really needs to be seen by a wider audience. You can see some of the teachers as young children. They all look malnourished, afraid and hollow. Surrounding them in the background you can see FMLN troops guarding the community. The town has been totally ruined. The only recognizable building is the church. A mass is taking place and the people are celebrating their return from the refugee centers and the forest. The local people are accompanied by people from Spain and the United States. They also had the support of their local bishop. It was a great privilege to share these old videos with our friends. It was like watching home movies in someone’s basement! They laughed and cheered when they saw someone that they knew. As the videos continued, we saw the community celebrate their first corn harvest. This was three months after the first video. The difference was startling. The children played and laughed and looked healthy and happy. He community was being rebuilt. There was an obvious sense of community pulling together to reclaim their homes. You could tell already that these people were not beaten and that after all that had happened, these people would survive.
A banner celebrating the 25th anniversary of the return to San Jose las Flores

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Sumpul River Massacre

The Sumpul River near San Jose las Flores It is impossible to discuss education and the development of a new generation of Salvadorans without discussing the impact of the war and specifically the Sumpul River Massacre. Every teacher lost family members during the war, each has a story to tell about the massacre. When we asked the teachers how they deal with the massacre 31 years later, each teacher asked to speak. Nelson started with his story. Nelson was two years old when the massacre took place. He lost his mother and his seven-month old brother at that time. She disappeared, he drowned in the river. The family of Nelson’s mother was totally wiped out at this time. In total, 15 people from his family were killed, many drowning in the river as they fled the army who was determined to clear the area of anyone who could support the insurgents. Nelson was obviously traumatized by what he experienced. He still sees dead people when he sleeps and sometimes he gets depressed. He says it helps when he talks to his daughter Ireni. Sometimes they try to imagine what her uncle would look like now if he was alive. His experiences have motivated him to do the best he can for the current generation of students. Another teacher talked about what she remembered as a three-year old. She recalls crossing the Sumpul to get away from the soldiers. She saw her uncle get shot as he tried to carry a body across the river. Many of the people who made it across the river were shot by Honduran soldiers who were supporting the Salvadoran army. In some cases, babies were thrown on bayonets and pregnant women were cut open and their babies were ripped from them. This teacher still dreams of soldiers following her. Esperanza followed by telling her story. She was four years old in 1980. Everyone had to run because the army was coming. Her mother was found and she was killed. Then the soldiers put the body where the community could see it, but they were unable to get to her mother to recover the body. The army captured a group of children and pretended to prepare to shoot them also, but the children were able to escape when the soldiers were distracted. Her grandfather was also killed, he was decapitated. To survive, people had to dig holes in the ground. They wore dark clothing so that they could hide from the planes that searched for them. The people hid from the army in the woods where they had no clean water or access to health services. Many times they encountered people hanged in the forest by the military. Her husband also lost his mother at this time. Today they find it difficult to describe what they experienced to their grandchildren, the children find it hard to believe the stories. Many people are sick today, Esperanza believes due to the trauma they suffered during this period.
Mural from the town of Arcatao Chalatenango - Central American Politics Teresa continued. In her area, the army would paint white or black hands on the doors of peoples’ houses. They did this in the night, but no one really knew what the hands meant. After several hands were painted on their door, Teresa’s grandmother took the children to a refugee centre. Her father had already been killed in the war. Any man in this area was considered by the army to be an insurgent. If you were captured, you were tortured. They would routinely cut off part of the body ending with the eyes. Estella was eight years old when the army came to her village. Three of her brothers were hiding with 25 other people. They were found by the army – all of them were killed. Estella was hiding in another house. The soldiers called to them and asked them to come out, but they had the wrong house. Because of this mistake she survived. Her father found the bodies when he returned to the village. He had to wait three days before it was considered safe to bury the bodies. One young boy did survive buried under the bodies. He was found by guerillas two days after the shooting. The teachers continued on and on with stories of atrocities. People were burned alive in their own ovens or hung up like piñatas. Others were impaled on sticks or were mutilated. People broke down as they told their stories. In a country where family is everything, all these people live missing aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. The pain is still there; it has not been dealt with or resolved. This was an incredibly powerful session. Almost every teacher had a chance to speak. Finally, Nelson said we had to stop; the teachers had to get ready for afternoon classes. Something had certainly changed by the end of this session. The teachers had shared with us some of the most painful memories they live with every day. Our relationship has changed in some very important ways.
Vilma started teaching in the forests when she was 12

Sunday, August 21, 2011

We meet the teachers of San Jose Las Flores – July 8

An early classroom in the woods as depicted on a wall mural at the school On our first full day in San Jose las Flores we sat down with the teachers we would be working with for the next week. There was Blanca, Jose, Lydia, Morena, Abalose, Esperanza, Nina, Douglas, Salvdor and Vilma. They taught from kindergarten to grade 9. Before learning more about their education methods, we needed to understand how this community had developed over the years.
Some of the teacher group we met with every day at the school In 1986, Bishop Damas was invited into the area to witness the plight of the people. He was able to see what was happening to the people and how they were being oppressed by the army. The bishop publically denounced what was going on and resolved to help the people reclaim their towns. On June 20th, 36 families who had previously taken refuge in the Church were escorted back to San Jose Las Flores. They were joined by people who had spent the previous six years hiding in the mountains. The community they returned to had been completely destroyed in earlier battles. Gradually, the town was rebuilt and people started to look for projects to sustain the community. Women started a community kitchen and a bread shop. While the projects were small, the projects allowed people to take charge of their own development. The people also built their first school out of adobe.
One of the community project – the bread shop The teachers started to tell us how they organized themselves. We learned first that they actually chose their own principal! A principal is chosen for a three-year term. The principal can stay on if the teachers agree to this. The principal is not paid any more than the teachers and it was very evident that they all worked together as a team. Decisions affecting the school were debated and decided upon as a group. The students are very motivated to come to school. There is little specialized equipment in the school, but this is changing due to donations from Holy Trinity High School here in Ottawa. The school now has a computer lab of twelve computers. The school lacks specialized equipment for art and phys.ed and there are no special programs in these areas, there is very little support for students with learning disabilities. The roof is in need of repair, there is no science lab and there is a lack of good textbooks. Still, the teachers are patient, they are aware that they lack a great deal, but they are seeing some change especially with support from outside the community. This year for the first time, the school has an English language teacher (Salvadore). There are also plans to dedicate a teacher to work with kids with learning disabilities. They are also experimenting with afternoon enrichment classes in art and phys.ed. Usually, the primary and junior students go to school in the morning. The teachers are now volunteering their time to develop some of these enrichment studies.
Kindergarten kids line up for the morning snack The teachers also discussed the need for psychological and emotional support. The students they work with all come from families that were traumatized in the war. Students are also malnourished so there is a need to provide children with healthy food while they are at school. The teachers are now considering projects that will allow students to grow food and raise livestock. They are even thinking of raising fish on the school grounds. We all see that there are lots of challenges facing the school community. The exciting thing about these people is that they are constantly planning new and innovative ways to solve these problems!

Moving to Chalatenango – July 7

We have now moved our group to Chalatenango. We will be in this very interesting and beautiful part of the country for the next eight days. We began our journey by meeting members of the The Association of Communities for the Development of Chalatenango-CCR. This arm of CRIPDES was founded in June of 1987 during the armed conflict in El Salvador, as an answer to the need to repopulate the communities of the North-eastern part of Chalatenango that had been destroyed by the armed conflict. (Sister Cities website) One of their board members is Nelson Orellana-Secretary of Popular Education, from San José Las Flores. Nelson will be our host while we are in san Jose Las Flores. We also met other board members working on women’s issues and health. The CCR started as a response to the displacements caused by the war. People in the region no longer had access to health care and education. For the first time, we learned that the children during the conflict learned under the trees in the mountains. People developed methods of popular education based on the desire to keep basic education services going even though the war raged al around them. Nelson started as a teacher when he himself was in grade 5. This was typical of the teachers at that time. We will learn much more about this later. Over time, these volunteer teachers were trained and certified to work in towns throughout the department. They are unified by their desire to build a better society out of the ruin on the war years. There are now 19 schools and over 1700 students in the communities surrounding Chalatenango. Another major theme that was discussed in this introductory session was mining. This is a topic we will come back to later in this journal. It makes a great deal of sense that this is a major concern for the people of Chalatenango. Members of the CCR spoke to us about their struggle to return to the land in the midst of the war. They tell stories of people being escorted back to their communities by nuns, priests and members of the international community. People continued to be killed by the military for years after they returned to the towns and villages. People who have struggled so valiantly for their lands will not now easily give up territory to mining companies from the North. More on this later.
Our first meeting with Nelson in the offices of the CCR

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

[Tim's El Salvador Blog] Officers indicted for Jesuit murders surrender

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From: Tim Muth <>
Date: 8 August, 2011 11:59:29 PM ADT
To: Blog Group <>
Subject: [Tim's El Salvador Blog] Officers indicted for Jesuit murders surrender

The prosecution in Spanish courts for the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter took another step forward today. In May of this year, the Spanish court indicted 20 former Salvadoran military officers for participation in the planning, execution and coverup of the murders. That indictment resulted in an arrest warrant going out through Interpol. Today, nine high-ranking retired military officers, surrendered themselves at a military barracks. The BBC describes:

Nine former Salvadoran soldiers have turned themselves in to face charges that they shot dead six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter during El Salvador's civil war.

They had been indicted in Spain under its universal jurisdiction law, which holds that some crimes are so grave that they can be tried anywhere.

The killing became one of the most infamous of El Salvador's civil war.

El Salvador will have to decide whether to extradite the nine to Spain.

The men handed themselves in at a military base after reportedly hearing that Salvadoran police were going to detain them under an international arrest order issued by Interpol.

A total of 20 former soldiers, including two former defence ministers, were indicted by the Spanish court.

Among those in custody is Gen Rafael Humberto Larios, the minister of defense at the time of the massacre. Somehow, however, I have my doubts that these retired officers would voluntarily turn themselves in without some prior assurance that the Salvadoran justice system will not extradite them to Spain. Of the remaining 11 defendants, General Emilio Ponce has died, and the other ten are not yet in custody.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Compadres y Comadres Journal - 2011 Our visit with the Concertacion de Mujeres – July 6

Concertacion de Mujeres – July 6

Women’s sewing co-op in San Salvador

We asked to meet with representatives of the Concertacion as part of our orientation this year. It is difficult to really understand the relationship between men and women in El Salvador, but we felt it was important to get some sense of how things are for women and especially how things are changing. Rosa, the President of CRIPDES spent two hours talking about women’s issues with us. I hope this session will become a regular part of our delegation program. Later, after meeting with Rosa, we were able to visit a women’s sewing co-op to see an empowerment program in action. The women are currently making t-shirts for the Canadian Federation of Students. I hope they will soon be able to make Compadres y Comadres shirts for us!

In 1995, a collection of women’s organizations and Development and Peace started the Concertacion as a way to develop awareness in El Salvador of the inequality that exists between women and men. The group decided to work in marginalized communities and with the rural poor. Their main goal was to talk to women about their rights. Inequality exists in many ways, women are victimized by the police, and there are no long-term shelters for women who are being abused by their partners. Men still play a dominant role in the family and in society in general. This position is reinforced by the Church in most cases.

It was explained to us that work needs to be done to change attitudes amongst women and men. Women are being taught to realize that they have rights and options especially when they find themselves in an abusive relationship. In general, the task of promotion of equal rights focuses on three main initiatives – the promotion of women’s rights within society, the education of women so that they know what their rights are and the development of economic initiatives to help women become more independent. Micro credit projects were mentioned several times as a way to help women develop some independence.

The current government has initiated the development of women’s centers in some of the rural communities. These centers will act as a resource for women when they need medical care or legal advice. The government is also refurbishing the main maternity hospital which has for years suffered from very overcrowded conditions.

                                Rosa speaks to us about women’s issues in El Salvador

Monday, August 1, 2011

Compadres y Comadres Journal 2011 - meeting with Mesa National Frente a la Mineria Metalica

One of the issues of greatest importance to NGOs in El Salvador is mining. We touched on this topic on our first meeting with CRIPDES. On our second day, this was the focus of our morning meeting. There is not a strong tradition of mining in El Salvador. The Mesa is learning from the unfortunate experiences of other countries in Central America. While some people believe that mining will be good for the country, there is great concern that mining operations will have a negative impact on the fragile environment of El Salvador.

Free trade agreements like CAFTA allow international companies to come in and exert authority over the national government of the country. Currently, Pacific Rim is suing the government using mechanisms available under CAFTA.

Why is there such opposition to mining in El Salvador? First, the environment of the country is fragile. El Salvador’s major river, the Lempa is shared with Honduras. El Salvador relies on the river for irrigation, power, tourism and fishing. There is grave concern that mining operations would deplete this vital national resource. Most of the potential mines are located in the north of the country. Most of the agricultural production also occurs in the north. This is a country that already relies on food imports and needs to put more land into production. Mining is a threat to initiatives that encourage food production.

While mining companies argue that their operations will bring jobs to poor underemployed areas, it is also recognized that 98% of the profits from mining will flow back to the country of origin, leaving very little permanent wealth in El Salvador.

There is also an unacceptable social cost to mining. As mentioned earlier, there is a high social cost to the search for minerals. In Cabanas, five people have died in fighting within communities. There is concern that there will be more violence in an area that has experienced a great deal of violence over the past twenty years. Apart from the murders, Radio Victoria a community radio station in Cabanas has received many threats in reaction to their reporting on the mining issue.

The solution may lie in creating a law against mining in El Salvador. Such a law exists in Costa Rica and is being studied by the government. While proposals are being studied, Pacific Rim and other mining companies continue to pursue claims against the country.

Compadres y Comadres Journal 2011 - our meeting with CRIPDES

July 4 Meeting with CRIPDES

First day, our meeting with Rosa and Bernardo of CRIPDES

We met with Rosa and Bernardo, the current president and vice-president of CRIPDES respectively. Always on our delegations we begin to set context by meeting with our hosts, CRIPDES. Rosa started with a history of the organization. Formerly the Christian Committee of the Displaced, CRIPDES was founded in 1984 to support people displaced by the Salvadoran civil war as they returned to their homes. At the time, there was much repression in the countryside. Massacres had taken place on the Sumpul River in and around Suchitoto, San Vincente and other areas. People were forced to move from place to place. Many left for Honduras, Nicaragua, the United States and also San Salvador. Most of the original board members were women. CRIPDES quickly got involved in resettling the displaced population. They linked themselves to Salvaide in Canada and Sister Cities in the United States.

It was hard to bring people back to the countryside; the army did not want the people resettled. There were no services for the people, no access to education or health care. People had to learn to help themselves. They became their own teachers and they had to learn how to look after each other medically as well. People also did not have access to clean drinking water or even land. CRIPDES worked with communities and helped them to become organized.

After the war ended, the struggle continued. CRIPDES assisted women as they advocated for their rights. They trained popular educators in order to get schools going again. This work is on-going, some communities have schools and teachers however in other areas, there is a lack of teachers and schools. There is a great deal of work to do in this area!

CRIPDES has done a great amount of work on the issue of water privatization. Rosa was amongst several staff members who were imprisoned a few years ago as they took part in protests against water privatization policies of the government. CRIPDES members were actually charged as terrorists under post-911 legislation. The charges were eventually dropped, but the law they were charged under still exists.

CRIPDES works in 390 communities across the country. They are divided up into regional groupings that include the CCR (Chalatenango), PROGRESO (Suchitoto), San Vincente and La Libertad. Within each community there are local organizations. Good, strong organization is certainly the key to success for CRIPDES. Throughout the organization, there is a strong emphasis on programming for youth and women. Training is the key and CRIPDES uses popular education methods to empower youth and women.

CRIPDES, along with many other Salvadoran groups focuses on the issue of mining. National and especially international laws favor the exploitation of mineral resources by mining companies. Most of these companies are Canadian. The main problem is that El Salvador is a densely populated country. People live where companies want to mine. Currently there are 29 mining projects on hold as the current Salvadoran government studies the possibility of banning mining outright in the country.

The drive to exploit these resources has led to violence, especially in Cabanas, where Pacific Rim is hoping to develop a gold mine. Five people, including a woman eight months pregnant, have been killed over the past two years as a direct result of this conflict. An economy based on exploitation is not sustainable. CRIPDES advocates for the development of a local economy focusing on local crops and animals. Tourism is also being encouraged as a well to develop resources in a sustainable fashion.

This was our introduction to the work of CRIPDES. Themes relating to mining and sustainable development will reoccur throughout our meetings.

CRIPDES logo outside the main office in San Salvador