WHEN you have been warned to ‘take care’ with unusual frequency and seriousness and a New York TV cameraman warns that it’s ‘worse than Vietnam’, arriving at night in El Salvador takes on a very special kind of feeling. It doesn’t help that only a handful of other people seem to be getting off the aircraft.
The only feature of the long 50 km drive to the capital San Salvador was the bridge crossing the highway bearing the legend ‘El Salvador welcomes tourists’. Meanwhile, soldiers with automatic weapons crouched behind protective sandbags.
At the luxurious Camino Real Hotel the elite of El Salvador mix with the international press. The disco roars until the early hours of the morning while sinister characters with sunglasses keep a 24 hour watch on the hotel lobby. The taxis that wait at the front of the hotel are all said to be driven by police spies.
Pre-arranged meetings with members of the Human Rights Commission and the Salvadoran Ecumenical Association for Human Rights become clandestine. People use false names, enter a hotel by one door and leave by another.
At an Esso garage that might have been at home in suburban Melbourne, the interpreter surreptitiously nudged me and whispered that the people at the next pump were ‘death squad’ members. There were two Ford Cherokee pick-up trucks. A gum-chewing tough stood filling the tank of his van. A pistol tucked casually into his trouser waist-band added credibility to what otherwise seemed a melodramatic claim. But then a brother of the interpreter had been killed by the ‘death squad’. I soon found that almost all of those actively involved in working for the poor had had colleagues, brothers or sisters and immediate family members killed.
In central San Salvador one can rise early with the elite and go jogging.., jogging past the groups of soldiers on every other corner.. .jogging past the slums which have pushed into the very heart of the city and spilled along the sides of drainage canals.
The international shopping centre pipes music through the bright arcades and stores filled with colour televisions and the latest fashions. At the rear of the complex, malnourished children sit in the doorways of dirt-floor shanties. A press accreditation and a military pass open the way to the countryside and through the blockades. Evidence of the war is not far away. Bombed - out trucks, bridges and electricity installations liner the countryside.
On the lower reaches of Mount Cojutepeque we were taken to the site of an army massacre. A frightened child explained how the soldiers came and took his uncle and other people. The ground was littered with clothes and pieces of bodies. Some had been partially buried in shallow graves. Small children and women were among the 180 victims. We visited towns swollen by displaced peasants too scared to live on their farms.
In El Salvador you meet young soldiers whose boyish smiles can be disarming. You meet intense, sincere and generous Americans who explain how they can’t stand by and let El Salvador’s people fall into the hands of the Russian and Cuban communists. You meet priests and nuns, doctors and nurses who have made a commitment to work for the poor and who will not be intimidated by the terror of the soldiers and the Right.
Monsigneur Uriosti, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, explained his commitment this Monsigneur Uriosti, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, explained his commitment this way: ‘We are Christians and we have hope that God is guiding us like the people going through the desert after being slaves in Egypt, through so many difficulties. And some day we shall have this spiritual liberty and political liberty and all that the people need in this country’.