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Thursday, January 4, 2007

Nueva Esperanza and La Quesera: Christmas 2006 Reflections by Gigi Gruenke

When our Salvador Partners came together at the end of 2006 for our dinner party on December 28th, we began by lighting a candle as a sign of solidarity with our friends in El Salvador. We especially remembered those who were also gathering in La Quesera in the Bajo Lempa on that same day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, for the 25th anniversary commemoration of the October 1981 massacre of their loved ones.

Several women from the CBC Salvador Partners group had been to La Quesera in May 2006 with Julia Garcia, one of the survivors of the massacre, and Gigi Gruenke, a Maryknoll Lay Missioner and licensed clinical social worker who works in the Bajo Lempa with the massacre survivors group from La Quesera. Gigi is a SHARE Board member and a friend of CBC. During a visit with our congregation in 2005, she told us about the work of forensic anthropologists who were investigating the massacre and the survivors group's plans to dedicate a memorial site and properly bury the remains of their friends and family members who had died so many years ago.

Gigi sends the following personal reflections on the events that took place at Nueva Esperanza and at the massacre memorial site in La Quesera...

December 23, 2006

These days leading to Christmas have offered a greater than usual contrast in rural El Salvador . In November and December of 2004 a team of Argentinean anthropologists exhumed 41 remains of victims of the La Quesera Massacre which occurred in this area in 1981. Suddenly, late last week the first set of 18 remains were released by a local judge. On Thursday of this week we received the final 23 remains. Thirty-seven hastily but adequately crafted small coffins were delivered to Nueva Esperanza on Thursday and Friday.

I began this past Thursday hanging Christmas wreaths in our kiosk because the pastoral group was to meet there at midday for its Christmas celebration. Soon, distributed amidst the wreaths were the 34 boxes bearing labels indicating location of discovery and the number of skeletons they contained. Where would we have the Christmas party? We organized the boxes, stored them in an empty room and awaited the small coffins. The first group arrived midday. They needed to be painted with a sealer and then varnished. During the Christmas luncheon I ran off in the truck to get paint thinner for the varnish. Gasoline was out of the question as the electricity was turned off for the day and filling stations weren´t pumping! I finally found thinner at the second hardware store I visited, after I waited for their lunch pause to end.

After everyone departed from the Christmas celebration, prepping the coffins began in earnest. Five of us worked as fast as we could before the sun would set shortly after 5:30 pm. There was still no electricity but even had there been, the multitude of evening insects would have been unwelcome guests both for the sticky coffins, and painters!

On Friday morning four of us were faced with prepping the additional coffins and staining all 37. Thanks to our 95+ degree temperatures the coffins were dry by the evening. In the early afternoon Sister Nohemy and I carefully removed the human remains from each cardboard box, where they had been stored these 2 years, and placed them in the coffins with identifications inside and on the lids. The children´s remains, which are usually in the worst condition as their bones disintegrate more quickly, were the saddest. Often, several children´s remains are stored together because it is impossible to distinguish them form each other. The clothing and artifacts are most special: these are still recognizable and tangible.

In the afternoon, I created a computer generated message reading “ After 25 years we are remembering the victims of the La Quesera Massacre with their families”. I found just the right sized embroidered tablecloth at our local sewing project in Nueva Esperanza on which to place this message. At the same time Lupe and her cousin were covering the names on the coffins with wide transparent protective tape. By 5 p.m. this part of the preparation was finished. The coffins were placed in a circle in the kiosk and at 7 p.m. the families arrived.

These people had waited 25 years to give their loved ones the privilege of being vigiled and properly buried, despite the horror of their manner of death. They picked up the light coffins with tender love and conviction and the procession advanced into the church next door. We had covered a long line of low benches arranged in the form of a cross with white sheets. Our best math indicated that it would be a tight squeeze and we didn´t have any extra benches. Amidst the overwhelming emotion, I rejoiced when the 34th coffin nestled onto a bench. (We didn´t need all 37 due to multiple remains placed in single coffins.) But, what emotion: there was hardly a person in the church whose family hadn´t lost members violently in the Salvadoran civil war. They all identified with the joy that comes with the recovery of remains. I kept pondering the 41 sets of remains in those 34 coffins knowing that this was the first time I had vigiled more than one person at a time… that I had even seen more than one dead person at a time. And these 41 are such a small portion of the 600 people who died in that massacre and the 75,000 civilians who were killed during the war.

The long delayed funeral mass with our pastor Father Pedro presiding was deeply moving. Pedro said that Maria Julia Hernandez, director of Tutela Legal, the Archdiocesan Human Rights Office, was the Joseph of Arimathea for these victims. It was she who involved the Argentinean anthropologists and who has been and will continue to argue for a legal recognition of this massacre. Her efforts make this mass and burial possible just as Joseph made that of Jesus´possible. Maria Julia along with staff members were at the mass and vigil that continued into the night. The massacre survivors group spent the day making 400 tamales to share with all in attendance, along with coffee.

And so the day ended and the new day, December 23rd ,crept in. At 4 a .m. with the crowing chickens in full chorus, we turned off the Christmas tree lights in the church, bid goodbye to the crib and processed the 34 coffins back to the room in our center where they will remain until December 28 ,the feast of the Holy Innocents. On that day some 400 people will join for the official 25th commemoration of the massacre on the Loma de Pájaros, where many of the victims were killed. Between now and then all will celebrate a Christmas which the survivors say is unlike any they have experienced since 1981. They feel at peace.

January 3, 2007

I have been processing the anniversary and burial events on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents for a week. It´s time to write.

At 3 a .m. on December 28 the first truck ascended into the hills in the northern part of our parish, the area where 25 years ago between 600-800 children, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts were brutally massacred. In this first truck were the cooks (survivors and friends) who would prepare soup, meat from the bull butchered the preceding day, rice and tortillas for the anticipated 400 guests. At 5 a .m. came trucks with the 34 small coffins, the sound system which would be connected to a gasoline fueled generator, and my truck carrying the theater group composed of local youth. At 7 a .m. trucks carrying survivors, people from the rural communities forming our parish and guests from San Salvador and other cities began the 12 kilometer trek which involved crossing 4 little streams and ascending into the hills.

All gathered at La Loma del Pájaro, a bare hill with a monument, mural and the vault where the human remains would be placed. This sight where a portion of the massacre took place, had been arduously prepared for the 25th commemoration and burial of the 41 human remains exhumed two years ago. A large ramada covered with palm leaves had been constructed to provide shade; the mural the people painted guided by Ann Stickel of Costa Rica was freshly touched up (my team´s work); the tomb cleaned; and bamboo benches constructed to hold the coffins and some of the people in attendance.

Soon the coffins were placed in the form of cross on the bamboo benches and covered with fresh bougainvillea. The massacre survivors were seated up front. Univision TV was there along with Co-Latino newspaper and several local radio stations. The event was also reported on by Reuters News Service and can be found at news/newsdesk/N28212161.htm. A local group of young Salvadorans was present to prepare a documentary.

The theater piece presented by the local youth under the direction of their gifted director Aryeh Shell from Oakland , California , brought the survivors and so many others of us to tears as events of October 1981 were both symbolically and actually recalled. The presentation was both sensitive and profound. People asked me afterwards if these were university students. No, this talent lives in our local rural youth, some offspring of massacre survivors.

A mass followed the dramatic presentation, presided by Bishop Orlando Cabrera, our local bishop. During the offertory the 41 sets of remains were offered to God and on behalf of these survivors´ struggle that the truth be told and accountability be established. Kernels of corn were presented by the survivors. These will later be planted as a sign that life overcomes death. Following the mass Dr. Maria Julio Hernández of Tutela Legal spoke, reviewing the process of the exhumations and the legal demands for accountability and reparations on the part of the Salvadoran government. If no action is taken within the country, the case will be presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

After the 400 people were served lunch the burial rite began. The area was roped off so there could be a passageway for the families as they carried their loved ones´ coffins. First, the remains were blessed with holy water as Father Pedro read the church´s beautiful burial rite. Then, we sang with all our hearts as surviving family members lowered the flower covered coffins into the large vault. Finally, Sister Nohemy handed don Salvador the locks to the two openings and he sealed the tomb. We then stood in silence with those people who survived and who had worked so faithfully and courageously to arrive at this moment…as they wept, finally wept goodbye to their loved ones.