I landed in San Salvador 8 weeks ago today, and while I hate to speak in clichés and say that this has been an “unforgettable journey”, I don’t know what else to say. It is common knowlege that the human species as a whole is very adaptable, and I personally consider adaptability to be something I’m good at. I haven’t been all over the world, but I have traveled a fair amount (both domestically and in other countries) and I feel like I can be relatively comfortable and “at home” in many situations. But I have to admit I’m surprised at how comfortable I have come in this hot, hectic, smoggy city where I stick out about as much as anyone could. I am looking forward to going back to my life in Eugene, my house, girlfriend, pets, etc., but I will miss El Salvador and I definitely plan to return.
As I write this I have 7 more days of work with Pro Búsqueda and approximately 9 more days in San Salvador. The work so far with this NGO has been a balance between the mundane and the surreal-both very important but very different for me. I spent the first week working with the Executive Director on fundraising and political outreach (focusing on US organizations and the US embassy) and in my downtime did translation of grant proposals and the Association’s website (i.e. the mundane). Then the first weekend I was invited to come to one of the psycho-social workshops that they hold for victims and their families (the surreal). I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect but was quick to say yes, and while I have done many things I could write about I will focus on this workshop:
I originally decided to intern here to learn more about the legal reparations that Pro Búsqueda seeks on behalf of the victims of forced disappearance and to investigate the problems they encounter related to the corruption and impunity in the Salvadoran government, especially the judicial system. But after a week of reading and translating documents I was repeatedly reminded of the broad nature of the work they do and how multi-disciplinary human rights work is. From an academic standpoint, I admit I was not particularly interested in fundraising or psychosocial workshops, but what I previously knew only on an intellectual level soon became very real to me: these victims need far more than a lawyer.
What I definitely didn’t expect was that this was the women’s workshop (focusing on issues such as domestic violence, gender-based education and stereotyping, sexual and emotional abuse, etc.) and that I was the only male in the room (there was a mens workshop the previous week). I sat for 6 hours with three victims of forced disappearance and about 10 other family members of missing children that had either already been found or were still being searched for. The ages ranged from a 10 year old whose several aunts were kidnapped (and the pain was taking a continual toll on her family) to a 60+ year old Assemblywoman in the national legislature whose child was taken almost 30 years ago. The three women who were themselves victims, who had been “found” by Pro Búsqueda, were in their 30s and, while their stories were somewhat different, they had all been taken at gunpoint by uniformed soldiers from their parents when they were young. It was led by a Psychologist who works with Pro Búsqueda and several PB employees and we went through different checklists and discussions about gender stereotypes and how gender-related problems affected each of them in their efforts to live a “normal” life and deal with the physical or emotional wounds they have. At first almost all of them (me included) seemed a little unclear about how I fit into the group, but as we got going the room became comfortable and everyone seemed willing to share.
Being a white, middle class, 28 year old male who lives in Eugene, OR, it at first felt odd to answer questions like “how often are sexually explicit or derrogatory jokes made at you and how do you feel they impact your self esteem?” Not to mention that these are sensitive issues and I want to choose my words very carefully, which is much harder for me in Spanish. But things quickly became more comfortable and I found it to be extremely valuable. The problems inherent in these types of cases are astronomical and multi-faceted: many of these women have been looking for their children for over 25 years and have run into road blocks and in many cases actual verbal abuse from all levels of their own government: everything from thick layers of red tape to literally being told they should stop making up fantasies and get back in the house where they belong. Along with that, the “found” children suffer not only from the lack of reparations or even legal recognition of the abuse they suffered from their own government, but also from serious psychological and identity-related issues, being torn by who they now know they were and who they have been brought up to be. I could write much more about this experience, and hope to some day, but in reality it was just one day in an seemingly unending string of surprises that has made up this trip. I am as of yet unsure whether my summer here is more beneficial for my legal education or my international studies degree, but I do know one thing: However I use these experiences in the future, I am certain that I made the right choice by coming here.
Last week, I took a two day trip up into the mountains of Chalatenango (north of El Salvador), which is a region where many of the dissappearances took place and where the Director of Pro Búsqueda is from (I stayed with her 80 year old mother and two sisters). The office was closed last Friday and this Monday for the Agostinas vacations, and I took the chance to visit Nicaragua for the weekend: two nights in León and one in Managua. I enjoyed Nicaragua but was surprised how happy and safe I felt coming “home” to San Salvador. My father lands here next week, and I will be ending this trip by traveling with him to Guatemala and flying home in early September. Because I´m doing the joint J.D./M.A. program, I will spend the 2011-2012 school year working on a Master’s degree with the International Studies department at UO, with a focus on human rights, corruption, and impunity. So that means my classes don´t start until the end of September!