By **John Sevigny**
The outer fringes of San Salvador today are filled with modern gas stations; American fast food restaurants; palm trees reportedly shipped in from South Florida, and Central American movers and shakers in late-model cars, paid for with credit. Entire families rush around to spend what little money they earn on products that look American or European, but also look suspiciously Chinese.
Downtown is another world. On dirty streets and in La Plaza Libertad, men and women sell fruit, cut-rate double-A batteries, desserts, and pupusas, the national equivalent of Mexico’s taco. Beggars are everywhere and visitors are constantly warned to watch their backs and their wallets.
But amidst the upward mobility of the outer, Pizza-Hut-and-Tony-Romas suburbs, and the relentless, grinding poverty of “el centro” the ghosts of a U.S.-funded war that claimed 75,000 lives, haunt every intersection, neighborhood, and café. Nobody likes to talk about it, but talk about it they do, realizing, as everyone in San Salvador does, that despite peace accords signed in 1992, the country wears terrible, unhealed wounds, both psychological and physical.
Not everyone is ready to accept that situation.
From a tiny office in an unremarkable neighborhood near the University of El Salvador, a blind man with burns and scars on his face, his right arm a stump ending at the elbow, works to teach blind, former guerillas of the war between the government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), how to create books in Braille and use computers and telephones.
It is said that at the peak of the war, the U.S. Government sent more than a million dollars a day to El Salvador to prop up a wildly unpopular government.
Efrain Gonzalez Serrano, with his wide sunglasses that catch the glimmer of the crystalline Salvadoran sunlight leaking in through the windows, spent an hour talking to me about offensives and counter-offensives; battles on all-but-forgotten hills in the distant hinterlands of this small nation; and complains, delicately, that while government veterans have access to military hospitals, disabled former guerillas get by on a pension of one hundred US dollars a month, not much, even in a comparatively inexpensive country such as this one.
“There’s no resentment toward the government soldiers,” he says, “but there are differences because they have access, for example, to military hospitals and other things to which we do not have access.”
Indeed it is more than just generalized socio-psychological trauma, or the injuries of a few, that make the twelve-year-war impossible to forget. Tens of thousands who fought for the FMLN, or for the army, have permanent reminders war carved on their very bodies.
Gonzalez, now 44, was left blind and without half of his right arm after being struck by a mortar in 1989 during what can scarcely be called a battle: it pitted his column of 20, poorly armed guerillas, and a few other similar sized columns, against 12,000 government troops armed and trained by CIA agents dispatched to the country by President Ronald Reagan, whose judgment on such matters, was questionable at best.
To shore up support for a war in a tiny country few Americans had heard of, Reagan publically raised the specter of Marxist-leaning, Salvadoran guerillas reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. It was as if San Antonio, Texas was in the crosshairs of the uprising. Reagan, who was increasingly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and was a long-time victim of strange and simplistic ideologies may have actually believed that. But to believe that Salvadoran guerillas planned to cross Guatemala and then Mexico to get to the States, shows geographical and practical ignorance.
Gonzalez joined the anti-government struggle when he was only 11, and graduated to the militia, in which he worked as and explosives expert building landmines out of everything from soft-drink bottles to tin cans when he was 13. He became a fully recognized guerilla soldier in the FMLN when he was just 14. At 18, the mortar shell ended the war for him, at least in the most immediate sense.
“I remember reaching around to find my arm, and I remember the Red Cross taking me to a hospital.”
The statistics of the living casualties of a misguided proxy war forgotten by most are staggering. According to the Salvadoran government, 18,500 disabled Salvadoran veterans receive pensions. Half of the victims are blind.
It is said that at the peak of the war, the U.S. Government sent more than a million dollars a day to El Salvador to prop up a wildly unpopular government, increasingly accused of mind-boggling human rights abuses. It’s safe to say that in the wake of so many other unpopular, U.S. led wars, from Kuwait and Iraq to Afghanistan, people in the States hardly think about the lasting damage done to people in El Salvador.
Nonetheless, the U.S. does send aid to this country, a couple hundred million dollars a year.
As Congressman Joe Moakley, Democratic Congressman until 2001 said in justifying non-military aid to El Salvador: “Indirectly, we’re responsible for a lot of damage that’s been done in that country. We spent six billion dollars down there helping to destroy the place we should spend a couple of dollars putting it back together again.”
But with or without Yanqui dollars, the healing here continues, slowly.
Ironically, those who fought for the guerilla movement, and those who were soldiers in the Salvadoran army now find themselves in a similar struggle: to better the lives of those who survived a war that is now ancient history for anyone younger than 16.
According to the Salvadoran government, 18,500 disabled Salvadoran veterans receive pensions. Half of the victims are blind.
“The guerillas and the government veterans are going through the same thing,” said Miroslava Rosales, a freelance reporter here. “But younger people don’t even know they exist.”
As evidence that the war is in some ways forgotten by the young, the tomb of Monsignor Oscar Romero, the Roman Catholic bishop who clamored for peace and justice—until he was gunned down during a mass in 1980—goes nearly unvisited, which is symbolically sad but says little about what’s really going on here, almost 20 years after the peace accords were signed.
Ironically, it has taken terrible injuries and generations of suffering to bring together once bloodthirsty and bitter enemies.
For now, Gonzalez dreams of writing poetry and fiction—not necessarily memoirs of the war, but as he says, “my own thoughts and the way I see things.” More important to him still are the small steps he has made—learning how to use a radio to serve as a dispatcher for city taxis, and more importantly, through his organization, Cooperativo Buen Futuro, donating 45 books, written in brail, to a public library here. As the blind veterans—men and women both—age, the books will serve as valuable tools for a nation still struggling to come to grips with its past. And to heal itself by whatever means necessary.
Copyright 2011 John Sevigny
John Sevigny is a photographer, teacher, writer, and curator, who lives in Mexico. Visit his blog here.