Hope and Healing in El Salvador – Tom Gibb
Getting back in Touch.
Ex-guerrilla Captain Uzziel Peña is 41. He joined the guerrillas at the start of the war when he was only fifteen. He spent the next twelve years living a life of extremes. He fought in the intense battles and bombardments endured by guerrilla units in the countryside. He spent years in the city, conspiring, living a double life, inventing names and pasts, never sleeping in the same house from night to night. He was captured four times by the security forces and tortured.
When the war ended in 1992, he had the equivalent rank of captain. But he never formally demobilised, not trusting in the leaders and politicians running the peace process. Instead, plagued by doubts about the past and the future, he decided to embark on his own search to find peace.
Since then he has gradually dedicated more and more of his time to acting as an informal counsellor for veterans from both sides of the civil war. This was never the result of a conscious decision or design. Rather it evolved from a way of life, an instinctive search to find answers for the overbearing emotions left from the war, which he and other survivors felt.
The Civil War left a legacy of deep pain, an un-talked about and largely untreated malaise affecting not just veterans but which has been passed on through families, from generation to generation. It left a legacy of violence, with murder rates still as bad as during the war itself. However the war also demonstrated some of the extraordinary capacity of human beings to overcome extreme adversity, producing examples of immense courage, love and commitment.
Using instinctive tools of his own inventiveness and creation, Uzziel has been dealing on a daily basis with friends and former enemies whose feelings and emotions have eaten away their ability to cope with everyday life leading sometimes to isolation, anger, distrust, depression and disillusionment. Yet many of these people were, not many years ago, willing to lay down their lives for ideals or for their friends.
Uzziel’s “method” has been to use friendship and love to try to revive some of the strength of the past. This has primarily concentrated on nurturing the individual. But it also has a wider aim to harness some of the altruism which emerged during the war and redirect it towards the difficult task of building peace.
Without any plan or goal in mind, Uzziel has ended up building an informal network of veterans and their families who can help and support each other. Through what started as chance encounters he ended up deliberately seeking to creating ties between former enemies, seeking reconciliation as a crucial step in the process of healing. And not only reconciliation between former enemies, but also reconciling individuals with their past and the wider society.
There is no religion or ideology behind this network. The philosophy, as far as it goes, is to find ways to disarm the minds that fought the war, help people get back in touch with their humanity and reduce the levels of stress and violence in the society which are today undermining efforts to build peace. The same is true of this project. It aims to build upon the empirical start made by Uzziel, strengthening the informal network which already exists with new knowledge and new techniques.
The broad aim will be to reduce levels of stress in the society. It will centre on training for veterans, but will not deal exclusively with them. It will seek to turn hands which once killed into hands that can heal; to redirect minds trained to fight a war to help in the new task of reconciliation. A Twelve Year War and no Heroes.
The Civil War was only one chapter in a long and continuing history of violence. It was the culmination of decades of brutal dictatorship, punctuated by rebellions and massacres. Since the war ended El Salvador has continued to be plagued by earthquakes, Volcanic eruptions, floods, an economy dependant on mass migration to the United States which divides families and communities and almost the highest murder rate in the world.
Fought between left wing guerrillas and a government army, trained, armed and directed by the United States, the war claimed the lives of between one and two percent of the population most killed in cold blood. A quarter of the population left the country during or after the war. Tens of thousands were “disappeared.”
When the war ended in 1992 in a UN brokered settlement, there were around 10,000 guerrillas and 55,000 soldiers but the overall numbers who fought were much greater. While undoubtedly a massive human tragedy, the experience for individuals was much more complex.
For many it provided the opportunity to serve and develop loyalties that veterans now find very difficult to cultivate with civilians. It brought out the very worst of human nature – but also the very best. Some guerrillas demobilised. Weapons were presented to be destroyed at UN sponsored ceremonies.
These symbolic events, where guns were sawn in two, should have been followed by a comprehensive and ongoing program to help veterans disarm their brain and soul from the long years of war.
But that has still not happened. Instead the years of peace have been marked by shocking cases of brutality in which veterans from both sides have been sadly involved. Hand grenades thrown into parties, homicides, organised crime, domestic violence – the facts lead too often to depressed, drunken, drugged or psychotic veterans.
And yet little has been done to help these people regain their lives, to prevent rather simply punish after it is too late. The violence is not limited to Veterans, but has become generalised, moving to families, spreading through the political system and organised crime.
The most clear example of this spread of violence is the warfare between street gangs, estimated to be 20,000 strong. The gangs share a similar culture, using the same clothes, the same language and listening to the same music. There are no differences of ideology, religion or class. And yet they are deadly enemies, killing each other for territory and almost tribal loyalties.
This almost only explainable as copycat violence – the generation that grew up with the values of the war following the example of their parents. To survive the war and the “disasters” that have followed, Salvadorans have built up a series of defences. Most of these are the natural and very human responses to the type of conflict fought in El Salvador. Some of these traits are deeply damaging in terms of building a more peaceful, open society.
But at the same time they provide the strength for people to get on with their daily lives. Understanding this paradox is crucial to develop initiatives which will build on the positive aspects of the culture, and try to adapt the negative.
* El Salvador is a tiny country – the most densely populated in the Americas. The war split communities and families down the middle rather than setting communities against each other as has happened in ethnic or religious conflicts. Uzziel, for instance, found himself fighting on the opposite side from his brother who was a member of the paratroopers and now suffers from severe schizophrenia. Such situations were common. This is why we believe it important to have a joint project with veterans from both sides, building on the unique friendship built up between Uzziel and officers from the army, in particular Captain Barra Mendoza.
* Among the guerrillas especially, many were involved in the revolution since they were children. All their formative years were spent in war. It is not that they have lost or forgotten the values of a society at peace. They never knew them. Many gave up their individual identities to take on false names. They made up fake pasts to hide behind. Life became and still is, one long conspiracy. Mistrusting even close friends and family was a normal mechanism for survival. Trust could mean death. So it is not surprising that many now face acute difficulties in building up relationships within their families which rely on trust. During the war paranoia was normal and encouraged.
* Many went to war because of dreams of building some kind of Utopia or at least a better society afterwards. Such dreams have come crashing down. The war of ideas that lay behind the civil war ended up killing those very ideas and ideals, sending a whole generation into an empty vacuum. Many ended the war deeply cynical about their leaders and the values they had once been prepared to die for, not surprising given the nightmare of violence into which these ideals led them. They ended the war unable to distinguish the more positive aspects of their wartime beliefs from the propaganda and political interests of their leaders. Trying to rebuild values necessary to live in a normal society is still a desperately needed task. Veterans need to re-conquer some of the dreams and ideals that they lost, and feel again a sense of honour and dignity. Many would like to use the skills and abilities they learned during the war in a positive way for the wider society, but first need to put their own house in order, recuperating a sense of themselves, their mental and physical strength.
* Most of the killing in El Salvador was done in cold blood, leaving a vast legacy of guilt. Among the guerrillas suspected spies and sometimes political enemies were shot. Often a very small amount of suspicion would be a death sentence. There were widespread purges in some rebel units which were then hushed up at the end of the war. But this is worst in the army. In the cities it was the security forces which carried out the famous death squad war in which tens of thousands of people were murdered or “disappeared” – usually captured, tortured and killed. In the countryside the army carried out a scorched earth policy. Because most people of fighting age were able to hide the villagers they caught were old people, women and children. Many soldiers have stories of carrying out appalling massacres images which return to them constantly in their nightmares.
* The way the war ended in El Salvador accentuated the isolation of veterans. After the peace settlement there were no decorations, no parades, no marching proudly with uniforms, medals and flowers. All of a sudden veterans were exposed to fend for themselves. Indeed many of the guerrillas, mistrustful of the peace process never demobilised. Society wasn’t ready to deal with all the problems posed by veterans, neither were families. A truth commission was set up by the United Nations in 1992. But, with only a few months to collect evidence of a few bloody events in the war, it was designed more to close the whole chapter rather than start a public debate in which society as a whole could come to terms with its past. Just as many combatants have simply tried to forget pretending that the war never happened so has society following the motto “forgive and forget.”
* Finally, and perhaps most important, the country’s long traumatic history has created an internal strength, a kind of stoicism, sometimes verging on fatalism, which allows people to keep going with their lives. This is a defence mechanism, still necessary to confront many of the difficulties people face in their daily lives and which we believe it would be folly to change. It is a huge advantage which should be built upon rather than undermined. A project which goes to people in El Salvador and tells then that they are all suffering from Post War Trauma and need treatment could end up doing more harm than good, creating more problems and needs than it resolves by fomenting a mentality of victim and dependence. This would do little to restore people’s faith in themselves and their dignity. A chat at the sauna house – Uzziel’s informal network. Every week, soldiers and ex- guerrillas meet at a sauna house for an afternoon to relax and talk. This is been a tremendous mind saving activity, one of several which my cousin, Uzziel, developed, thanks to which many veterans have achieved a little internal peace, starting to build the ideal of an extensive family between veterans. Sometimes he simply accompanies one person, dedicating time to an individual. Sometimes he sets up groups of veterans to meet and talk about the past, either at the sauna or in the patio of someone’s house.
Earlier this year he organised a group of fifty people, mostly veterans and families to go to a small island off El Salvador and spend several days in a tiny fishing community. The community donated food and places to stay. The visit helped to reinforce and remember the value of solidarity with dignity. While most of the meetings are informal, the content is always complex. The problems that emerge include alcoholism, abortions, drug addiction, suicide, crime, rage, business, love, politics and philosophy.
Most veterans are very untrusting of other people. They trust Uzziel because he fought in the war. They share their story with him because they know his response to them would only nurture them, they trust he would have the right answer, the right comment, the right silence, the right embrace. All these people share similar complaints and difficulties adapting to peace.
Even in the simplest of everyday situations, life is difficult, with a massive world of violence separating them from the rest of the people. Some are dealing with their difficulties, but others are in denial. Some are slowly killing themselves seeking ways to castigate themselves.
The talks/conversations are aimed in the first place to help these people deal with everyday problems, helping them to stay a bit longer with their families (prevent couples from splitting up), some need a chat to understand and deal with domestic pressures, a talk might help them understand how to handle partners, kids, teenagers and parents. But he also tries to give veterans a wider perspective, so that each can build the self confidence to make their own choices. He nurtures them with amongst others, examples of Ghandi, Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Wilde, Zorro, Jesus, Mandela. And often there is material need.
Uzziel tries to find emergency funds either from his own funds or using a network of friends he has built up over the years, veterans and others with a better economic situation, some of whom have already benefited from this informal network of support among friends. In particular he looks to find opportunities for people to get work.
STRENGTHENING THE NETWORK.
The idea of this project is to strengthen this network through a series of ad hoc initiatives to provide training to veterans to work not only amongst themselves, but also in the wider population. This must, as Uzziel has started, be centred on building up the internal strength and abilities of the individuals involved, helping them to identify and develop their best qualities for the common good.
The uniting theme of these initiatives will be to reduce levels of stress in the society, improve mental well-being and provide broader horizons. They will range from introducing therapies for dealing with the aftermath of trauma to a wide range of community projects designed to strengthen the ability of communities to determine their own future and resolve conflicts.
The initiatives include:
1) Non-violent communication. Uzziel, Reynaldo Barra and Ariel all attended a non-violent communication course in Argentina in October 2005. We wish to adapt the technique for use in El Salvador, seeing this as a valuable tool to resolve conflicts both at a personal level and in the wider society. The technique, however, needs to be adapted to fit El Salvador’s culture and a pilot project carried out to do this.
2) The Bowen technique, Cranio- sacral therapy and other therapies which have been used elsewhere to help overcome both the mental and physical effects of trauma and stress. We wish to train veterans to become specialists in these techniques and introduce them into El Salvador. This is a long term project, probably of several years which will be explained in more detail below.
3) Spread the use of relaxation and other health activities in the wider population, including Tai-Chi and acupuncture. There are already some professionals in El Salvador using these. The idea would be to where possible use people inside the country, recruiting them to start training projects for veterans to themselves become trainers.
4) Art “therapies”. To develop projects for Art, Music, Dance and Theatre, where possible involving veterans. Uzziel has found that taking people to concerts as well as participative artistic projects provide an alternative means of expressing emotions and memories. It is through the senses – touch, vision and hearing – that people can often get back in touch with their humanity and overcome the numbness created by pain.
5) Radio and television projects. After the war Tom Gibb gave a series of short radio courses to people from the countryside, many of them veterans, who were starting community radio stations. Some of these have since taken off and are running successfully. We would aim to provide further training for veterans involved in other initiatives to be able to make and produce radio and television programmes which deal with issues of reducing stress and help promote the other initiatives involved in this project.
6) Historical memory. As a more long term aim the project will seek to break the silence and taboo surrounding the war in Salvadoran society by collecting and publishing testimonies of veterans and encouraging people to talk more openly about the past. In some instances this could give invaluable help for the wider society to heal its wounds. For instance many veterans have information about crimes committed during the war, burial sites from massacres, the whereabouts of missing children, and the fate of the disappeared. They would be willing to share these if the mechanisms to protect their identities were established. More important we believe in the need to build up and publish a non-partisan, collective history of the war with the aim of changing not only Veterans attitudes towards the wider society, but also the attitudes of the wider society towards the Veterans. Only by breaking the taboo can we create a climate in which it will be easier for veterans to break out of their isolation.
7) Mental health. Introduce alternative therapies to psychoanalysis and anti-depressives for dealing with trauma related problems among psychiatrists and other mental health professionals in El Salvador. In the long term we would like veterans to have much more involvement in preventing, diagnosing and treating mental health problems related to the war. Too often veterans with problems are simply filled up with anti-depressives. This could be in the form of group or individual therapies, introducing Cognitive therapy into El Salvador. However we believe that in the first instance a careful pilot study needs to be done.
Opening up the wounds of the past could be counterproductive. We have been in touch with Dr Enriquez de Rosa, a trauma expert in Argentina who has worked with veterans from the Malvinas/Falklands war to help devise a strategy to this end. The idea will not be to set up a formal veteran’s organisation. In the past these have tended to be too easily subverted to political interests or used to raise funds for political and other ambitions. Rather the idea will be to do as much as possible without needing to raise funds outside the country.
On projects which require fund-raising, particularly training projects with outside experts travelling to El Salvador, the fund raising will be done directly for each project and the budgets administered directly by those providing the training People involved in the project. Uzziel and Captain Reynaldo Barra Mendoza Uzziel and Captain Barra Mendoza were once enemies. Now they are close friends. The unique potential of this project is built on this friendship which has cut across the divisions of the civil war to find healing.
Captain Barra joined the US backed army also at the start of the war in 1980. While still a cadet he was assigned to the elite Atlacatl battalion in 1982. Of his graduating class at the military academy half did not survive the war. Another quarter have ended up with severe psychological problems. He fought through the war, ending up with the rank of Captain. The two met when they were both recruited to provide security for a private expedition to look for treasure in a sunken ship off the coast of South America. The expedition never got off the ground, but Uzziel and the Captain have remained close friends since. They have both found they have far more in common than differences.
The friendship has often not been understood by others. Sometimes they have had to hide their pasts. But slowly they have tried to break these barriers down. The contacts of Captain Barra have allowed Uzziel to build up a network which cuts across the divisions of the war.
Ariel was a member of the guerrillas, joining half way through the war while still at high school. She also never formally demobilised. At the end of the war she worked for some time with one of the Women’s organisations in El Salvador which broke away from the guerrillas. Since the end of the war she has lived outside El Salvador, working as an artist and freelance camera person with the BBC.
Tom Gibb reported for BBC and NPR from El Salvador in the 1980s. He and Ariel, now a film-maker, married at the end of the war.