I am spending 10 weeks volunteering in El Salvador, Central America. We have completed almost 2 weeks of training, have just begun the first project in Arcatao (near the border with Honduras) and will spend the last 4 weeks in the capital San Salvador working on issues such as gender inequality, sexual reproductive health and environmental sustainability.
I am volunteering through the International Citizen Service, specifically the Progressio Empower programme. My plan is to save the world one developing country at a time, I realise you may think this is an unrealistic goal but I once met an inspirational Ghanain who taught me you can never have enough optimism when it comes to working in international development. A pessimistic individual just wouldn’t survive!
I’m afraid today’s blog is a heavy one (and cheesy in places) where I attempt to convey the very sad history of this country.
Since we stepped foot off the plane, the thing we hear about most is the continuous impact that the civil war of the 1980s still has on the people. It’s one of those things I’ve become numb to as a Westerner, something we see in the news everyday; I’ve heard many peoples’ stories about their memories of the war but the ones that have stood out are those that brought out a deep emotional response.
To give you a brief history, there are perhaps a number of causes, probably mostly down to underlying socio-economic tensions because of years of inequality, violent repression and human rights violations by an authoritarian regime. The assassination of Monsignor Oscar Romero, now a widely idolised martyr who spoke out against the governments violent repressions, probably played a large part in causing the war. Arcatao (the town we are working in) is where they say the war began. Today we visited a war museum where a local woman called Ellia who told us her story of the war.
The majority of jobs here were in agriculture but farmers rights were being abused so they began to form unions. The Government responded with more violent repression. Many local people in this area were persecuted. Ellia’s town was the first to suffer this persecution, she explained that the army came to kill the men and if they weren’t there they would burn the women with cigarettes and they would take the pregnant women down to the river cut open their bellies, remove the foetus and kill it.
The people fled into the nearby mountains, Arcatao became abandoned as more and more villages were deserted in favour of the shelters of the mountains caves. They successfully protected themselves for a couple of years forming guerrilla groups and preventing the army from climbing the mountains to attack. But the US, fearing a coup by a leftist party intervened and began funding the violent dictator to continue the war and repress the people (many of which weren’t socialists at all, simply farmers trying to protect their families from repression.)
The army attacked the mountains with planes and the people were forced to leave. As they fled they were shot while crossing the river, and over 1000 people, many of them women and children were massacred. This and many other massacres haunt the town and you can still see the impact, every single family has a horrific story to tell.
Natasha Kendrick is a Progressio Empower volunteer in El Salvador. She is pictured (right) with Ellia.