San Salvador, El Salvador
On December 2, 1980, four American churchwomen–Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan–who were engaged in a mission of mercy in war-torn El Salvador were pulled from their van, raped and murdered by troops of the Salvadoran National Guard.
We were invited by the Washington Office on Latin America and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities to participate in a weeklong series of events in El Salvador marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the slaying of the women. We decided to make the trip not to recall the horrific tragedy or to decry the misguided US foreign policy toward Latin America back in the 1980s. Instead, we made the visit to celebrate the lives of these remarkable women and to be inspired by their selfless example.
Our visit also included special memorials to other victims of the brutality that was meted out to those perceived by government and security forces as objectionable critics. In 1980 the much admired Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while presiding over mass in a small chapel near a cancer hospital in San Salvador. He had repeatedly deplored the repressive tactics and the neglect of the poor and vulnerable by the ruling authorities. Today, Archbishop Romero is regarded by multitudes of Salvadorans as both saint and savior–a treasured national hero of courage and compassion.
We both have followed events in El Salvador for many years. One of us worked on refugee and human rights issues in that country for more than two decades. The other became painfully aware of the violent nature of the conflict when a letter of invitation to speak at the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador from the distinguished rector of the university arrived in the mail. On the day the letter came–November 16, 1989–the rector, five other Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter were all murdered on the grounds of the university.
This series of shocking assassinations, the work of Salvadoran officials who were determined to eliminate their more influential critics, still reverberate across the political, military and religious circles of El Salvador.
The open conflict that killed more than 70,000 Salvadoran civilians between 1980 and 1992 has subsided, but the wounds and memories of war and the unresolved clash of interests–especially the painful gap between the rich and poor–remain.
At the same time, we did see several positive developments and signs of hope. Since the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords, the military has largely retreated to its barracks, civilian national police now guard the streets (albeit underpaid and underdeveloped) and civil society is flourishing. In the heart of the capital is a marvelous children’s museum, built almost entirely with private contributions, that is one of the finest such museums we have ever seen. It offers an array of educational, cultural, scientific and recreational experiences that will surely arouse and expand the intellectual curiosity, the imaginations and the quest for pleasure and learning among the children. What makes this museum so special is that those involved in the project are dedicated to making sure that every child–rich and poor–has access to its treasures.