Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembering on Remembrance Day

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada. I think gratefully of all the men and women who sacrificed so much to protect rights and freedoms for others. That includes my father (who fought in World War II) and my uncle Joseph (whom I never knew, since he died in World War II; my middle name is Joseph).

I had a brief experience with war in El Salvador in 1989. I was living there and working “undercover” with the Independent Human Rights Commission of El Salvador. By “undercover,” I mean that only a few members of that Human Rights Commission knew I was working with/for them. I had obtained permission from the Armed Forces of El Salvador to be in the country as a journalist “covering” the war for a small newspaper in San Francisco. (Yes, I know it sounds like a TV show, but it's true.)

I had a “beeper” on my belt that was linked to the Independent Human Rights Commission. If it beeped once, I knew that I had to be in front of the Baptist Hospital in thirty minutes to receive instructions. Two beeps meant having to go to McDonald’s. Three beeps meant going to Mr. Donut (that was my favorite; I liked their coffee).

That experience came to an end when the government of El Salvador expelled me from their country the day after attending the public funeral for the six Jesuit priests (and two women helpers) massacred on November 16, 1989. I feel sure that my movements in the days following that massacre helped to “blow my cover.” And I almost didn't manage to get out of the country; that’s another story that was almost surreal.
I don’t often speak of those terrible war experiences, but here are two paragraphs from a longer description of that experience (I titled it “Stranger and Scarier than Fiction”) that I wrote for my family:

“The members of the Human Rights Commission had to go into hiding, and my beeper began to sound often. Sometimes I was asked to book a hotel room with a fictitious name (I could be sure that it was for someone on the blacklist of the death squads). Sometimes I would bring food or a message to someone in hiding (I remember bringing a note to an address and giving it to the president of the national university). Sometimes I would be sent to an area where the fighting was intense, so that I could photograph how many non-combatant civilians—men, women, and children—were being killed (my photos always showed more victims than the government would admit).

“On one occasion I was caught in crossfire between the army and the guerrillas. Yes, it is possible to hug the ground. However, I knew that Oscar (a young man on the Human Rights Commission) and I had decided that morning that if I didn't contact him by 10 AM, then something must be wrong, and he would leave his hiding place at my house. I also knew that the armed forces had checkpoints all over the neighborhood: he would surely be detained (and, just as surely, disappeared) if he did leave the house. I tried crawling down the street; the movement seemed to only attract more bullets. At 9:45 I had no choice but to jump up and run (and I mean run!) to a public phone located at the far street corner. The bullets came so close to me during that race that I am still not sure if I heard them or if I saw them or if I felt them as they crossed the bridge of my nose. The phone worked, in spite of the bullets pinging off the pole. I was sure that my house telephone (like that of all foreign journalists) was being intercepted, so I communicated to Oscar (without using his name) that he could rest tranquilly at the house since the neighborhood was being ‘protected’ by soldiers at every entrance or departure point. Oscar understood: he stayed put.”

Thank you to all who offer their lives to the struggle for justice and freedom and human rights.

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