Between Guatemala and Honduras lies a nation in scaffolds. El Salvador has had a long and – in many ways – painful rebirthing process after a half century of war and chaos. Many locals we have spoken to point to three traumatic events in the past 50years: the war with Honduras, after which a segment of El Salvador along the border was snatched away; the civil war, with the death of Monsignor Oscar Romero and the massacres; and the rise of gang culture in the years immediately following that struggle. All that on top of the pain and torment of the decades before, with military juntas and the near complete extinction of El Salvador’s native population and culture.

The wounds of war

The nation now has a unique chance, perhaps the first real chance in its entire history, to build a peaceful and prosperous state that protects its citizens and culture. Under the leadership of the FMLN, El Salvador is ambitiously attempting a complete rejuvenation. But the scars remain. Gang culture has seeped into the cities, an import from America, from where people brutalised by harsh treatment in the ghettos of that country have returned following the end of the civil war; bringing a vicious brand of gang loyalty with them. Some of the cities contain districts that are effectively ungovernable.

Then there is the physical damage of the civil war, much of it in the countryside. War is waste; the destruction of human habitats. Churches, roads, bridges, houses – entire villages and towns were smashed apart and demolished in the fighting. Rebuilding them will be a long and expensive process, and after two decades of peace the task remains unfinished. Lastly there is the damage to the people themselves; we see those missing arms and legs whenever we walk about the communities we work in. A whole generation suffer from all the different wounds – physical and mental – war can create.

The problems of poverty

And, of course, alongside this El Salvador remains a poor country. Infrastructure, worsened by the war but poor to begin with, hinders development, noticeably in areas such as that where we are currently staying, Arcatao, where the only road connecting the community to its neighbour communities is a bumpy, dangerous dirt track. People’s incomes are desperately low in many cases. People in the city are paid only a handful of dollars for a day’s work, and in the countryside, with nothing going but farm jobs, it is far lower. Education is yet to be comprehensive and fully effective – again especially in the countryside.

In short, El Salvador suffers from the whole plethora of problems faced by most developing countries in the modern world, compounded by the damage of recent, violent warfare. As volunteers, it was daunting to feel ourselves facing these issues. It didn’t take long for us to come face to face with problems dwarfing those we were familiar with in England. The more we heard and saw of El Salvador’s difficulties, the greater the challenge facing us seemed. But quickly we got used to this feeling and started our work. 

The process of reconstruction

I myself feel glad that I can look back, four weeks into my placement, and quantify in my head the amount of physical work we’ve put into helping this country develop. Though perhaps not so big as, say, the skyscrapers in San Salvador, bringing in billions into the country’s economy, the churches we’ve helped build to give people a place to worship and the murals we’ve painted to help spread awareness – and so much more – what we have done allows me to say to myself now that I’m part of this great process of reconstruction.

A personal involvement

It’s always a pleasurable feeling to be part of a process on a larger scale than yourself, and being here in El Salvador I’m growing used to the feeling; a personal involvement with the development of El Salvador itself, and the feeling of some stake in its success. And quantifying this impact allows this sense to grow. I can now say that over the past 3 weeks I’ve helped along the slow task of building a new church – the old one was demolished in the war and the new one is to be built in exactly the same location, to the same specifications – painted a striking mural, helped dig a pit latrine, taken part in numerous workshops aimed at spreading awareness for various issues and interviewed several community members to help further their message and bring light and attention to the issues facing them. As well as giving a little business to the local market traders ...

A force for good

And little by little, through work such as that carried out by organisations like Progressio and its in-country partners, you can see the pieces being put together for a brighter, better and healthier El Salvador. The process will be tough, and the path to success will be never ending, and uphill in long stretches. But the resilience and determination of the El Salvadorians themselves is such a force for good that you can only think that they fully deserve not only the peace they’ve finally been granted, but the brighter future they are resolutely building themselves.

ICS volunteer Ben Lentaigne reflects on his first month in El Salvador.

Photo (left to right): ICS volunteers Alex, Ben, Kirsty, Katie and Grant get together for a mid-phase review of their time in El Salvador.