The Refugee and Friend Who Opened My Eyes About El Salvador’s Civil War

(TFC) – Lacking the innocence and serenity most kids his age had an abundance of, Osmaro Aviles lived in constant fear and anxiety. The peaceful sky I slept under every night didn’t exist in his world. Helicopters replaced the stars and machine gun fire drowned out the sounds of nature. While I played with rocks I discovered as I walked peacefully around my neighborhood, Ozzy walked to a brick house riddled with bullet holes, and without a roof, to play around with shotgun shells left on the ground surrounding the home, on the rare occasion he was granted freedom to go outside.

When you are raised in the western world and have a normal life free of debilitating trauma like I did, you expect everyone else lives in the exact same world. The world is your oyster; it’s peaceful,fun, and full of wonder. Little did I know a kid my same age lived in a world full of turmoil, violence and secrecy, that robbed children of the very things many of us still take for granted.

Ozzy was born in El Salvador, a tiny Central American country on the Pacific coast, bordered by Guatemala to the north, and Honduras to the east. This January marks the 25th anniversary of a peace deal signed in Mexico to end a war between the government and guerrillas that cost the lives of 75,000 people, in a country with a population of just 5.5 million at the time of the war’s end.The political and social history of the country is not well known, whether it is based on the lack of oil in the country, or the absence of violent extremism brutally taking over territory. The current state of the country, and their brutal history is rarely discussed online, or in the media.

The twelve year civil war didn’t sprout from the ground out of the blue. Tensions didn’t appear from nowhere, or in a short amount of time. When coffee became the primary source of the country’s economy in the late 1880’s, the farmers who cultivated the crops were forced to work for wages currently seen in sweatshops.  After years of feeling robbed, by the small amount of wealthy El Salvadorans who took the majority of the riches coming from the crops,peasants rose up and started an uprising that was quickly squashed in 1932, when 30,000 El Salvadorans were murdered by the government in an act dubbed, “la matanza (the slaughter).” The sporadic violence perpetuated by paramilitary death squads continued through the 60’s and 70’s, however; the one event that set El Salvador on fire was the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a civil rights leader who bravely condemned the state sanctioned violence and was killed for it. At his funeral, a bomb was set off before gunfire erupted, which killed dozens; many who were trampled to death in the panic.

During the war the unluckiest El Salvadorans went missing; never to be found again. Mutilated bodies were seen along roadsides; indiscriminate bombings, rape and executions decimated the population, with one of the most egregious war crimes taking place in December 1981 in El Mozote, a predominately Catholic village the government linked to the liberation movement. Although many villagers were neutral or not involved in the leftist movement. Men were separated in various locations to be executed after being interrogated and tortured; women and young girls were raped before being executed by machine gun fire, and parents witnessed their babies being clubbed to death. After the massacre, the village was set on fire.

Another gross violation of humanity occurred on May 4, 1980 on the Sumpul River, which borders El Salvador and Honduras. As peasants attempted to cross the river into Honduras to escape the war, the Salvadoran Army fired on them, brutally killing men, women, and children who could not be mistaken for guerillas. When the Honduran Army intervened to stop the massacre, upwards of 600 Salvadorans ended up dead. In the aftermath as the dead bodies littered the river, vultures were seen picking at the bodies.

 

 

 

Those events weren’t the only crimes against humanity committed primarily by the government of El Salvador, who ruled for the wealthy, while robbing the poor. And not surprisingly, since the resistance was a socialist one, the American government happily funded the government who used American military training, and American taxpayer money to rape young women and children, tortured men, and destroyed villages. America’s obsession with eliminating communism compelled both the Carter and Reagan administrations to fund the El Salvadoran government; effectively condoning and supporting the heinous crimes. Even after our American churchwomen were brutally raped and murdered by paramilitary death squads, then President Carter halted aid to El Salvador, that was reinstated just months later. In the late nineties, the men convicted of the crimes finally admitted they brutalized the American women on direct orders from the El Salvadoran government.

Furthermore; just eight months after the assassination of Archbishop Romero, a military informant gave the American Embassy evidence the political killing was orchestrated by right wing leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, a major in the Salvadoran army who later funded the country’s right wing political party. When Reagan official Elliot Abrams; who was later convicted and pardoned for his role in the Iran Contra fiasco, testified to Congress, Abrams denied D’Aubuisson was an extremist. As evidence of war crimes committed by the El Salvadoran government pilled up, officials in the Carter, then Reagan administrations denied such war crimes existed, as they continued to funnel money into the country that equaled $4 billion throughout the entire war.

The Aviles family lived in an area that didn’t meet the fate of the people in El Mozote; but their world was no cake walk. Ozzy’s parents had to remind their children, “Never talk to anybody; never tell them a soldier came by the house,” in order to keep their kids safe. Neighbors were friendly, but never confided in each other out of fear any honesty would result in death. As Ozzy explained, “You really had to be cautious of what you were saying to soldiers because they’d think you were working with (the guerrillas), you’re covering them; you’re hiding them.”

The fear of retribution from soldiers hit Ozzy relatively close to home. In one instance, his neighbor, and the father of his brother’s friend had his house raided and ransacked by soldiers who accused the man of supporting the guerrillas. As his eyes peered towards his neighbor’s house, Ozzy witnessed members of the military digging up the front of the man’s house. At one point, the boots of a soldier were discovered on the property, (guerrillas clothed themselves in the clothes of deceased soldiers) an action the man soon regretted as soldiers tortured him for information, before brutally murdering him.

That image is one Ozzy still remembers to this day, but is not the only case where the presence of a civil war greeted him on the doorstep. On a rainy early morning Ozzy and his dad were awoken to a knock at the door. As he looked on, his father opened the door to see an unarmed soldier on the ground with a bloody stump where a leg once sat. When the soldier pleaded with his dad to help him, Ozzy’s dad bravely exited the home to walk to the military base to get soldiers to pick up the wounded comrade. If guerrillas saw them helping the soldier, death would have been the punishment, but thankfully Mariano and his family survived an event that became a footnote in their family history instead of a tragic experience that altered their life.

Thanks to the persistence of his mom Maria, who raised them while getting together all she needed to apply for refugee status. After multiple rejections, the Aviles family finally got approval and secretly packed all they could in a rush to head north to build a more peaceful life for their children.

“We were just ecstatic and super happy that we were finally safe, and you had this freedom where you were able to walk around and feel safe and secure, not like you have to watch your back all the time, or watch what you say,” a thankful Ozzy said decades after he first set foot in Canada. As his family flew to their new country, the children were given etch a sketches, a toy they never played with beforehand; which felt like a warming welcome for a family that didn’t have much of anything back in their homeland. “(I was) very happy because you felt people cared; you were safe. It was beautiful,” Ozzy recalled. When his family were welcomed into a shelter for new refugees he ate a bowl of cereal for the first time, and to this day, anytime he sees Special K at the store, or eats a new bowl, he remembers the special moment that told him his life changed for the better.

After a short stay in Winnipeg’s North End, the Aviles family moved to the Whitehouses, a subsidized housing complex in the south west side of the city that stood in the middle between the mansions of Wellington Crescent, and the now former housing for families of the armed forces, who had the better playground than the Whitehouses kids that my friends and I  trespassed on, at the protest of the military kids. When heavy rainfall flooded the neighborhood sandbox, the kids had pool parties in the communal kitty litter box; gleefully splashing around like the rain was a gift from heaven. Kids who grew up in the community didn’t have any money, so they depended on each other for the distraction of fun filled adolescence. During the summer we would spend every waking moment outside playing sports, or hanging out; only going home when we got hungry. We built lifelong friendships based on the realities that brought us together instead of the things that separated us. The lessons and values of that neighborhood sprouted inside our souls to forever be part of our morality.

The Aviles family moved around the corner from my family home into the house previously occupied by my friend Levi. On the first day I walked into Ozzy’s home his parents started the tradition of welcoming me with smiles, gratitude and the sweet aroma of pupusas that were seemingly made every day. Although I hung out primarily with Ozzy, his entire family was kind, gracious and a joy to be around. Every time I visited him in the Whitehouse I would walk down to the family basement and lay in the hammock that was designed with the El Salvadoran colors and flag. When we both entered high school it was at his house where he allowed me to chat with and hit on strange girls on MSN Messenger when he wasn’t beating me on last second Hail Mary plays in Madden.

As all these events became memories I cherish, I remained in the dark about the history of a friend’s homeland. I barely knew where El Salvador was, and was also completely ignorant regarding the history. I hesitated to ask questions about Ozzy’s homeland, out of fear I would rehash old nightmares, but I soon learned he wasn’t left traumatized over his experiences despite the insanity and bloodshed that nearly destroyed his home country.

A report by the United Nation’s Truth Commission  from 1993 noted, “Violence was a fire which swept over the fields of El Salvador; it burst into villages, cut off roads and destroyed highways and bridges, energy sources and transmission lines; it reached the cities and entered families, sacred areas and educational centres.” The commission thoroughly detailed dozens of cases of brutality through testimony, documentation, and previous reports. Although leftist guerrillas were found to be responsible for some of the bloodshed, the UN found the government of El Salvador, and groups linked to the State were responsible for almost 85 percent of the war crimes. In 1993, a controversial amnesty law was implemented in the country absolving war criminals of charges, and the families of those who lost their lives were left without justice.

Only last July, El Salvador’s Supreme Court overturned the law, noting in their decision the law was, “contrary to the access of justice.” Even with the ruling, the politics of passing the buck and partisanship has many in the country, and those with knowledge of the history questioning whether any convictions will finally give closure to the families. With descendants of both sides of the conflict in El Salvador’s government, justice may still be denied in a country rife with unresolved grievances. Coffee producers are still being stung with financial insecurity, along with other issues with the crops that struggles with sustainability. The country also has the highest homicide rate in the world where 64 out of every 100,000 people losing their life to murder.

Pixabay

Pixabay

As the anniversary of the end of the war approaches, El Salvador still struggles with the memory of the civil war and the lack of finality. Nazi’s continue to get prosecuted for crimes against the Jewish people, decades after World War Two. Hissene Habre was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for war crimes he committed as the dictator of Chad from 1982-1990. During his eight year reign Habre orchestrated the deaths of 40,000 people, with torture, and rape being wildly practiced. Even more gruesome, prisoners used the corpses of dead prisoners as pillows in overcrowded jails. In the case of a man dubbed the “African Pinochet,” victims of his barbarism were able to get justice nearly 20 years after he was forced into exile, with the government of Senegal hesitating to bring him to justice.

The case of Habre may have its differences than the carnage and decades old animosities in El Salvador, but the Chadians can now breathe a sigh of relief and feel the satisfaction of seeing the man responsible for raping them, and/or killing their loved ones has been punished. It’s a result El Salvadoran refugees and immigrants desperately await, like the ever grateful Ozzy, who took a terrible life in his homeland and started fresh in a country he absolutely adores. While we discussed the past and the present, like he always does, Ozzy put life in perspective. “Everyday I feel happy to live here. I am happy to have been born where I was born, but I wish it would have been under a peaceful country, but the government has been corrupt for many years. Even now it seems like the country cannot keep moving forward.”

Only time will tell if justice can be served, and if the crimes in El Salvador will continue to be silenced by a media and a public who only talk about the problems in El Salvador on slow news days.