an international incident

In 1988 I went to live in tiny El Salvador, the smallest, most densely populated of the Central American republics. It was then in the throes of a civil war which had been going on for almost a decade. Eighteen months after I arrived, the leftist insurgents, known as the FMLN, launched a huge attack on the capital city, San Salvador. In spite of a decade of immense build-up financed by the U.S., the Salvadoran army was not able to defeat them. In 1990 serious peace negotiations began, while the war ground on for another two years.

I remember the war as a crucible, in which the best and worst of human nature were distilled and isolated, clear and stark and unmixed. I have sensory memories that have more to do with the intrinsic vividness of life in that society (and perhaps all materially impoverished societies) than with its being convulsed by war. There was the way the wind and sun felt in your face as you tore along a winding mountain road standing up in the back of a battered pick-up, the campesinos crowded in, gossiping and laughing beside you. There were the things people would give you in the villages when you went visiting: a piece of sugar cane, a sack of ripe mangoes, a glass of tamarind juice. And the colors of bougainvillea, flaming red and purple, spilling over a whitewashed wall.

But there are some incidents that defy descriptive language or any description really, except maybe telling the story up close, face-to-face, trying to get at with gestures and pregnant silences or shouts and grimaces what actually happened, because it went so far beyond the day-to-day as to seem an order of reality almost infinitely higher than the norm.

After I stopped living in El Salvador I spent several years traveling back and forth, leading American visitors on fact-finding trips into the warzones. The object of these visits was to focus international attention on the civil war and the suffering it was causing the rebel partisans living under fire. Visitors were often unclear on the concept: most were stolid church folks looking for plaster saints among the struggling Central American poor. But the overall effect of such visits was positive: aid got in through the military blockade, and the Salvadoran progressive movement grew in international sympathy and support.

During the time when most of the U.S. public was being primed for the flashy, murderous spectacle of the Persian Gulf War, I was taking one of these political tour groups towards guerrilla territory in Morazán province, in the far northeastern corner of El Salvador. It was a delegation of college students from Boulder, Colorado. Someone had forgotten to give them the dress code rap for travel in police states, because they were a sartorial disaster: grubby ripped tee shirts, flimsy, revealing clothes, lots of tie-dye, guys with long, long hair. They were pretty and sweet, but they were clueless. To them, El Salvador was like some terrifying fun-house ride: Counter-Insurgencyland.

We had driven a donated school bus over a pitted, winding stretch of the Pan American Highway from San Salvador to San Francisco Gotera, most of the length of the country, in four hours. Gotera was a garrison town. With 3,000 troops in the local base, it was the most militarized town in wartime El Salvador. A few kilometers farther north was the Torola River, border of the FMLN-controlled zone. Northern Morazán contained the largest area of land held continuously by the rebel forces throughout the war.

The town made most visitors nervous. The faces of the townspeople were hard and unsmiling. At the gas station on the outskirts, where our gasping found-object vehicles would almost always have to stop, the attendant had a flame-red pock-marked face, and light-colored eyes without a glimmer of the dark, humorous warmth which was so common in the country. He liked to ask pointed questions, which fortunately most foreign visitors knew too little Spanish to answer. It reminded me of a trash horror flick, the suspicious, inbred natives eyeing strangers with open malice. On the way in to town were the bristling checkpoints, three of them. Jack-booted police waited there, to stop your car, make you get out, hand over papers, stand and sweat awhile in the seamlessly intense heat and then go on.

Gotera was still a lovely cobbled-street mountain hamlet of candy-colored houses with red clay-tiled roofs. But the war had marred the pretty setting. Right in the middle of the town square across from a collapsing movie theater and flush against one stucco wall of the 17th century church stood the Fourth Detachment military base, its concrete bastions topped with arcing coils of razor wire and painted in oversize camouflage colors. No Hay Misión Imposible (There is No “Mission Impossible”) was painted in yard-high letters stretching along the main wall.

The base commander at the time was Colonel León Linares, a man as flamboyant and vain as George Armstrong Custer. I was told that he enjoyed riding his horse through the streets of Gotera to receive “his people’s” regards. His temperament was fierce and unstable. He had been a sub-commanding officer at the hamlet of El Mozote, a few miles to the north, in 1981, when the army carried out one of the worst civilian massacres in Latin American history. At least a thousand people, including over a hundred children, were murdered there, in an early attempt to stop the growing strength of the rebels. In the course of many visits, I actually saw Linares only once, as he had a tendency to disappear when being sought by people like me. His back towards me where I sat waiting for an audience in the sandbagged guard post on the square, he was talking intently into a cell phone and wearing a blue jogging suit with the word LEON (the name means “lion” in Spanish) in big white letters stitched across the back.

Officially, the Armed Forces High Command in San Salvador had to grant written permission for all visits to conflictive zones. Officially there wasn’t even a guerrilla army, just a few incompetent bandits hiding in the mountains, so such permission should have been easily granted. But mysteriously the bureaucrat who acted as foreign liaison, working out of a tiny, airless cement cubicle in the High Command fortress, often didn’t get passes ready in time, or forgot them, or got the dates wrong, or simply told you it had been decided not to give them out. Determined travelers then had to try getting the colonel’s okay at the base in Gotera. They usually found that he was not available. Just beyond the town was the last checkpoint, where all visitors were turned back– unless they had passes.

At this point campesino community members from the FMLN zone would step in. They knew that the Salvadoran military was a foreign aid junkie, and this forced its commanders to be somewhat attentive to its international image. Over the course of the long war, the civilians from the zone had learned how to mobilize support, how to denounce army human rights violations to a network of supporters worldwide. Linares, of course, believed that their talk of human rights really meant the peasants were in league with the “subversives,” as he and his peers were inclined to call the insurgents. As far as they were concerned, only communists and their infected dupes made such an issue about human rights. But the colonel had to play along with this pressure game at last, and usually, if you were willing to cool your heels for a few hours or a day or two in Gotera, you could get people and material aid across the Torola River into liberated territory.

That was what I expected to happen. But this time while we were waiting in Gotera, and the college kids were picking up hammocks and straw hats in the market stalls, while they passed, smiling, innocent and curious, like rainbow-colored extraterrestrials through this town where the tension, anger and fear were like a second skin beneath the surface bustle, something else happened.

It started with the arrest of three young men who lived in the war zone. They were driving a truck full of fuel to a large community of resettled refugees north of the Torola. The return of this city of 8,000 people, en masse, from a Honduran refugee camp the year before, was one of the most remarkable events of the war. It was a disaster for the army, whose whole campaign had been to depopulate the area in order to drain support for the FMLN.

In retaliation, the army resorted to harassment, arresting campesinos on trumped-up charges whenever they were caught outside the zone. The men arrested this time were accused– as captured civilians always were– of being guerrilla collaborators.

In the meantime, as the news of the arrest spread, men, women and children from the zone began to arrive in Gotera. By the time the first two men were released there were over a hundred people gathered at the entrance to the base, waiting, watching.

The next day there were more. A truck from the resettlement carrying another hundred was stopped by soldiers over a mile out of town; the people merely got out and walked the rest of the way, carrying their small cloth bundles with plastic water bottles, a few thick corn tortillas and beans. They all gathered in front of the base, and by mid-day they were no longer silent–we could hear their chants, muffled by the distance: “Asesinos! Responsables de las masacres de nuestro pueblo!

It became clear that no foreigners would be allowed to travel farther north as long as the stand-off continued. The Boulder group, on a tight schedule, had to return to the capital in the morning, thwarted by a political situation they didn’t really understand. But I was asked to stay. Gloria, a young community leader who often acted as an envoy to Linares, came back to the house in the simmering afternoon, her customary soft smile gone, her hands trembling as she smoothed a sweat-soaked cotton shift.

“They are threatening to arrest more of our people,” she said. “Come with me. We need a witness to what may happen.”

We walked to the base, a few blocks away. At once, grabbing my hand, Gloria pulled me through the knot of campesinos bunched together at the barricaded entrance, right up into the faces of the armed soldiers confronting them.

It was one of those moments when you feel as if everything you’ve lived until that point was only the thinnest, most superficial layer of experience, and suddenly you are plunged into depths you cannot negotiate, currents that tear you away from the known shore. The scene looked small and almost insignificant from the outside–a knot of angry people in front of a wall–and yet it was enormous within, as enormous as the war.

Sheltered behind the line of recruits were several officers, easily recognizable because they were taller and whiter-skinned than anybody else. They sneered and catcalled in response to the crowd’s angry chants. As I came up one called out: “Ah, here is one of your leaders now. Here are the communists who manipulate you.”

The men and women at the gate stood practically nose to nose with a line of quivering, sweating boy-soldiers holding sub-machine guns clutched across their chests. The campesinos looked far less terrified than the soldiers. I found myself staring into the yellow eyes of a boy who had been on guard in the square the night before as I sat waiting futilely for an audience with Colonel Linares. We had talked about Texas, where he’d spent some time working before he was caught by la migra and thrown back to El Salvador. He knew some English; we had joked over the pronunciation of words he confused, like “three” and “tree,” “think” and “sink.” Now for a split second his face wore an indescribable expression as he stared back at me, then his pale eyes went blank and he looked at nothing, clutching his rifle.

I remember feeling awkwardness more than anything else. I began sweating uncontrollably in the fierce sun. I was wearing ridiculously huge reflector sunglasses with orange plastic frames that someone had leant me. A young soldier in fatigues, his face hidden behind a video camera as if it were a carnival mask, poked and peered with it into the crowd. It was impossible to be sure if the camera were running or not, if he actually knew how to operate it or was just bluffing. “Take off the glasses,” one of the officers taunted, “Let us see you! What are you afraid of?”

There was a soft tap on my shoulder and I whirled around, as bodies shifted away from me. A young soldier, naked to the waist, stood behind me with a live boa constrictor draped around his neck, making passes with it at the crowd, grinning madly. The moment seemed to stretch forever: faces were frozen in twisted, distorted expressions of anger, fear, contempt. Finally the soldier retreated, laughing.

From the peasants I felt determination barely masking an intense weariness, a grim wonder, after ten years of war, at how long, how many more times they might be forced to play out such brutal charades.

To me the whole situation felt marked by a sense of unreality, and yet it persisted in occurring. Captain Tejada, a young officer who had been running interference for Linares in my attempts to see him, suddenly drove out of the base in his jeep. Glaring at the scene before him, he saw me and recognized me immediately, despite my eyewear. He stopped, and I, seeing nothing else to do, walked up out of the crowd and leaned casually on his jeep door. “There seems to be some trouble here,” I remarked stupidly. “What is going on?”

“These people are protesting without reason. We have already released two of their men. The one man we are still holding is a leader of the Samuelitos,” he explained in a rote, staccato voice. “He trains children in the use of weapons for the terrorists. He is guilty, definitely guilty. He will go before the judge tomorrow, be convicted and sent to prison. We are democratic. That’s the democratic way,” he added ponderously.

He drove off and I turned back into the crowd. Gloria looked at me quizzically, but I shrugged and shook my head. I had no influence to bring to bear in such a situation. Perhaps they would not arrest or kill anyone in front of me, but even of this there was no guarantee. I felt I had failed.

The day wore on, the stalemate continued. Exhausted campesinos began to sit down, their backs to the wall of the base. Evening shadows lengthened, the air cooled slightly. Brief dramas took place in the street: murmurs rose up from the crowd as a drunken townswoman wearing a filthy but still sultry pink dress staggered by on the arm of another grinning soldier. Her eyes wore a drugged veil; tears had streaked her clownish makeup.

When night fell, one of the peasant organizers came to take me away. “It’s too dangerous for you to be here now,” he said. It was a bitter irony; the people I couldn’t protect ending by protecting me. The crowd was settling in to spend the night at the walls of the base. Many children and old people had already curled up to sleep on the ground. I left them there.

That night was full of muffled noises, unremembered dreams. A scorpion dropped from the ceiling in my room. It dropped on Isidra, an old campesina who was sleeping there too. She rose with a scream, throwing it off, and killed it. It left a spreading dark stain on the floor.

The next day I knew nothing till noon, when Sister Anselma, a Franciscan nun from the convent in Gotera arrived to say that the square was empty, the people gone. She had no idea where they had gone; they seemed to have vanished. We were preparing to drive back over in her jeep when Gloria entered, breathless, and began speaking:

“In the morning they marched out of the base, hundreds of soldiers. They came with machine guns and took up positions all around us, on three sides of the square. The loudspeakers were playing martial music. A voice came on to say: ‘People of Gotera. Clear the square. The protesters are subversives. We are not responsible for what will happen to those who do not disperse.’ Then the music came back on, louder.

No one moved. We all stayed, and watched the soldiers setting up their guns on tripods, pointing at us. We kept chanting. Then a man and a woman not in uniform came out of the base and shouted at us again to disperse. When we did not they began throwing cans of some kind of powder at us. Whom the powder touched it burned and stung. We couldn’t breathe. We broke then, and ran past the soldiers’ lines. Everyone was coughing, choking. We had to attend to the children and old people. It took about half an hour to bring everyone back together – people were scattered all over the town. Then we went back to the square.

The soldiers were gone. We stood there for another ten minutes or so, and suddenly there was our compañero Efraim walking out, alone, returned to us. They let him go.

Now everyone is going back home, across the Torola. We will walk back together.”

She looked at me. “Your group is gone. That’s a shame. But do you want to come with us now?”

I wanted nothing more. I grabbed a bag of clothes and followed her. In the streets clusters of campesinos walked together, talking and laughing softly, heading north out of town. The townspeople stood silently in their doorways and watched them go. Sporadically someone would shout: “Que vivan los martyres !” or “Que viva la comunidad !” But mostly they passed quietly.

There were still the checkpoints. The people knew I was not allowed to pass, and that if the soldiers spotted me they would turn me back. So they clustered closely around me as we walked through the roadblocks. Someone gave me a shawl; I covered my head and face. Someone else took my obviously foreign-made duffel bag, and laughing, handed me a baby in exchange. And on we walked, four hundred of us, for a mile out of town to the waiting trucks.

There was one last obstacle. One unexpected checkpoint the returning trucks had to pass. We were hidden behind the high slatted sides of a cattle truck. The soldiers stopped us and ordered everyone to get down. Even the shawl and the baby wouldn’t have protected me from such a search.

I don’t know how much was really at stake – I think we all knew how much, or how little, my presence was worth in the vast war game. There might have been reprisals for the incident, though, and they would not have fallen most heavily on me.

Whatever their reasons, the people did a remarkable thing then. When the soldier gave the order, they refused to obey. No one moved from the truck. He repeated it and still no one moved. Finally someone said: “Leave us alone. We are tired. We are going home.”

There was silence. Then this soldier I never saw grunted: “All right, then,” and the truck went on. It rolled up the serpentine road into the green mountains, through the strange conical limestone hills of northern Morazán. Their names were famous for battles the FMLN had fought there: Cacahuatique, Gigante, Cerro Viejo. And the people began to laugh and sing softly as the truck carried them home.


This memoir appeared in Americas Review in 1997 and was recorded on KPFA radio for a November 11, 1999 commemoration of the launching of the FMLN offensive in 1989, which led to a negotiated end to 12 years of civil war in El Salvador.