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9 June 2000

After ten years of war - a Decade to Overcome Violence?
An ecumenical visit to El Salvador

by Charles Harper

On this particular Sunday 19 March, the mood is festive in San Salvador's Cathedral plaza. People stroll about examining the portraits of Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the city's beloved archbishop, cut down by an assassin's bullet on 24 March 1980.

Created by art students, the exhibition kicks off a week commemorating the martyrdom of "San Romero de América". Marches, speeches, concerts and liturgical celebrations are to follow in a popular tribute to this great man and his prophetic gifts to the nation.

They will evoke as well the sharp memory of the armed civil conflict and repressive violence that ripped El Salvador apart twenty years ago. On the sidewalk, among the easels, a handwritten cardboard sign surrounded by instruments and symbols of violence - a revolver, a child's tattered shoe, a bloodied blouse, an employment rejection slip, a broken Indigenous gourd - reads: "Practise and build a culture of non violence: reject violence in all its forms - physical, sexual, psychological, economic, social."

The display is striking not only for its message, but because it expresses a new reality: almost ten years after the signing of Peace Accords between the government and the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) violence is still omnipresent in El Salvador...

The war years, especially from 1979 onward, were terrible ones for the population. 80,000 combatants and civilians were killed. An estimated 500,000 people were forcibly displaced from their homes and villages. An equal number were forced into exile. Salvadorean troops, paramilitary personnel units and ground troops sowed terror among the population, perpetrating horrific massacres and indiscriminately bombing rural homes and communities from the air. Torture and forced disappearances were routine practice as were urban sabotage and the mining of highways.

People remember all too well the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, dragged from their beds at the Central American University in the early hours of 16 November 1989 and shot at close range by soldiers under the orders of Colonel Alfredo Benavides. Their names, and the names of other modern martyrs in El Salvador and around the world - Mauricio López, María Cristina Gómez, Emilio Zelaya, Marianella García Villa, Martin Luther King, Ita Ford and her Maryknoll sisters, Steve Biko, Dietrich Bonhoeffer - were evoked and celebrated throughout this week.

New Violence
The people in El Salvador are experiencing new forms of domestic and social violence. The list is long: increasing delinquency, fed by drug use and the drug trade; unemployment and underemployment; a flourishing small arms trade; the breakup of the family; domestic violence and sexual abuse, especially directed against women; an increase in the incidence of rape; child exploitation; unprotected youth; falling health standards and access to medical care; a debilitated and privatized education system; increased illiteracy; a perceived loss of traditional values and ethical responsibility; continued impunity of identified torturers and other perpetrators of crimes against humanity during the civil war; an upswing of religious conservatism tending to ignore social problems; disorderly urban expansion for profit and consequent overcrowding; radical deterioration of the environment; corruption among government officials and frustration with the "political class".

This "new violence" has two main roots. On the one hand, it is the terrible sequel of a brutal civil war and repression. The startling number of private guards - unemployed former army or FMLN combatants hired to protect houses, stores or factories - is one sign of that... and of the scarcity of jobs. Less visible but just as numerous are the families across El Salvador struggling with personal anguish related to the loss of loved ones, of life itself and of innocence.

The other root cause is the Salvadorean peasants' historic struggle for land - a titanic conflict between a landed or industrial elite and a vast rural and urban population that began in 1882. This struggle has not yet been resolved.

The 1992 UN-sponsored accords on land redistribution have not been implemented. Socio-economic inequality and injustice prevail. Poverty is on the increase. Unemployment is rising and many men emigrate to Mexico and the USA in search of work, providing an estimated 16% of the country's GNP in 1999!

The unexpected results of the recent municipal and legislative elections have nourished hopes that a balance of power between the ruling ARENA and opposition FMLN parties will ensure - at last - some socio-economic justice for the Salvadorean people.

The churches face the issues
El Salvador's church leaders' analysis of the country's post-war social, economic and political tensions points to a new determination to work with others in Salvadorean society to help resolve them.

A number of small church and community-based groups, like the Salvadorean Lutheran Synod with its programmes among communities of displaced persons and returning refugees, and the young Baptist Federation of El Salvador (FEBES), among others, are beginning to raise awareness on the serious problem of violence in Salvadorean society. Undoubtedly their work provides a vision and a constituency for campaigns and reflection on overcoming violence.

Fraterpraz, an effort of two ecumenical groups with a history of social promotion and defence of persecuted, marginalized and vulnerable groups, is to sponsor workshops for rural communities and local parishes on family violence, national and international legal instruments to protect women from domestic violence, women and mental health, and the biblical bases for promoting women's rights.

Alfalit, the regional ecumenical literacy network, has begun a programme of reflection and leadership training on violence in the context of marginalization, delinquency, health, the habitat and the environment. Together with the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI), the network aims to initiate an experimental literacy methodology and workshops for promoting a culture of non-violence and peace in Central America.

Yek Ineme, an ecumenical training centre in conflict resolution within rural and urban communities, draws upon traditional Indigenous approaches to conflict-resolution as well as biblical texts about justice and solidarity. It focuses on many problems, from allowing the personal wounds of war and the legacies of repression to be expressed, identified and overcome, to mediating in a village fight over access to fresh water. It trains peace counsellors (asesores de paz) to identify the roots of conflict and then mediate. Its emphasis on honest confrontation, emotional openness, healing, dialogue and mediation within traditional communities is innovative. Yek Ineme cooperates closely with other local NGOs as well as with the government-linked Human Rights Ombudsman, especially on cases involving apparent conflict between the law and cultural values.

The groups involved in these efforts are keenly interested in the Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010), as called by the churches at the WCC's Eighth Assembly. They want to communicate their findings, actions and aspirations throughout the coming months, as they link their work to the wider scope represented by the Decade.

...In the plaza, a group of young men and women prepare to enter the Cathedral for a Youth Mass to open the week in honour of Monseñor Romero. They hold aloft coloured palm branches created in Panchimalzo in El Salvador's interior. Two young women - Raquel and Irma - tell me that in their Indigenous village tradition, these "palm" branches are part of an old Mayan ritual celebrating the beginning of the planting season. The whole community prays for a good harvest that will ensure its survival and well-being.

A week later as I stand with friends on the packed parking lot of the Jesuit Central American University at an open-air folk concert - the last commemorative event celebrating the life of Romero - I reflect that the true hopes for a reconciled and just El Salvador are to be detected in the priorities of the new generation, represented by Irma and Raquel, survivors of the crucible of ancestral pain and new heirs of cherished aspirations.

Charles Harper (USA/Brazil) was secretary of WCC's Human Rights Resources Office for Latin America (HRROLA) from 1974 to 1990. He is the editor of the book Impunity : An Ethical Perspective based on six Latin American case studies, including El Salvador (WCC Publications, 1996). Harper attended Romero's funeral in 1980 as a WCC representative, but was unable to deliver the message from the WCC general secretary because the service was interrupted by explosions and gunfire that left 40 people dead.

A Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace (2001-2010) was called for by the delegates of the churches at the eighth assembly of the World Council of Churches, who recognized that violence is common to all their situations. They agreed to work together over ten years in a concerted effort to overcome violence and build peace - thus hopefully making a difference in homes, in local communities, within nations and across the world.

Photos from El Salvador are available from this site, or by telephone: (+41.22) 791.62.95.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.