Cultures Collide

Chris Harrison – PART 2

Esta historia se escribe en Español = This story is also written in Spanish here.

Editor’s Note:  If you have not read last month’s story, you will want to do that.  It dealt with Chris’s conventional upbringing in a small U.K. village and his intellectual yearning about the political climate in Central America which led him to El Salvador, not once, but twice during the country’s civil war.  During that time while volunteering with Jesuit Refugee Services, his thinking and actions transformed from intellectual curiosity into a pragmatic transformation as he performed the necessary daily nitty gritty details of working within a refugee camp and later accompanying groups returning to re-build their villages.  All the while he was witnessing both resilient campesinos and the country’s intellectuals handling their situation, his own spiritual transformation altered, forever changing his life.  Personally, knowing some of the famous martyred UCA priests before their night of doom in 1989 leaves an indelible memory.  Chris describes his time in El Salvador as the single most transformative time of his life by a hundredfold. 

But first, the incident leading Chris to return home to the U.K. before he planned.  JAIL!

It was 6 PM on a rainy day in August of 1987 when a company of 4th Brigade military troops attacked the community we were helping to rebuild.  El Higueral was a small community consisting of fourteen tin shacks with about forty people using a very basic 1930s water supply from a pipe running downhill from a local mountain stream and pitch pine for light.  The army had destroyed the fruit trees to deny its food source for the people.  The army riddled the one hut with bullets, killing the two people inside and scattering others while they continued shooting. 

I went outside to show my white face which probably saved my life.  They searched my hut, tied me up by my thumbs, took my wallet and glasses, hit me with the butt of their rifle, slapped my head, and threw me face down in the dirt, along with Joan, a Scottish woman, and a 14-year-old local girl, Gloria, who had run into my hut.  After their commander arrived, he berated his soldiers, “You don’t do that to gringos!” Joan had no Spanish skills.  She had been sent by the Edinburgh archdiocese to do some media coverage and check on the funds that a parish had sent to help re-build the community and provide for the first planting of crops.  She was not prepared for any of this, so I was translating for her.  At one point while we were lying face down in the dirt, she asked, “Are they going to kill us?”  I tried to reassure her that, “If they haven’t by now, I don’t think they will.”

When I went back outside, a young – probably 14-year-old soldier- aimed his gun at my chest and then emptied his entire magazine of about 30 rounds at close range (but not at me!).  Soldiers tried to detain another villager whom they tied up, but his incessant nonsense talking was more than this group wanted to deal with; they ended up releasing him. These people used great ploys when they were faced with danger.  His was his mouth!  They took the three of us to an empty hut and questioned me about why we were there, what are connections were with the guerrillas, why I had medications.  I explained, “People get hurt.”  We had simple antiseptics for cuts and scratches that constantly happen in the mountain to prevent infection.  We had a few suture kits, pain-killers and all the other usual stuff that you’d find in a bathroom medicine cabinet, but no injectables, or anything sophisticated.  I well remember the fun and games that we used to have tracking down medicines.    You never knew what would be available and what was on the red-flag list whereby the pharmacists had to report a purchase to the police.    I once avoided arrest by the skin of my teeth, after trying to buy a large quantity of Neosporin and Dilantin (– I finally remembered the other name!) ointment to treat a large open wound that we were having difficulty getting surgically treated. They confiscated all meds, looted my hut, and instructed that we were leaving before the guerrillas returned to rescue us.  For some reason they seemed to think I was associated with the FMLN.

It was a pitch dark, drizzly night when at 10 PM the soldiers began marching us down the mountain.  Young Gloria was tied to an officer, Joan and I were holding hands for stability, the soldiers walked single file slipping and sliding in the mud while carrying their heavy machine guns and equipment.  They became disoriented and some slid down a ravine screaming for help from their reconnaissance group similar to American Green Berets.  We knew the terrain better than they did and navigated the way toward the road.  They didn’t trust us thinking we were luring them into a trap; however, they had no choice but to trust us.  Helicopters do not fly at night. As the rain became heavy, (more that they were lost and scared in the pitch black of the rainy night!) they built lean-tos out of rain ponchos as a tarp to rest until daylight.  We hiked across a river to a highway where they were able to call the helicopters in to fly us out. The colonel came out to look us over, and media arrived.  I told them innocent people had been killed.  We were taken by Jeep to the Treasury Police (an internal security force) headquarters barracks in San Salvador where the Joint Chief of Staff’s office is located.  In order to disorient us, they drove us around in a minibus with dark windows for ten minutes only to discover when we got out that we were only fifty yards from the main gate.

El Paraíso, not Paisnal –  it’s the village where the 4th Brigade base was located. The base was destroyed by the FMLN on a number of occasions, causing hundreds of casualties.  It’s in Chalatenango, not San Salvador.

The army press officers arrived on the helo that picked us up.  The colonel was at the El Paraíso base where we made a brief stop on our way to SS.  In SS we landed at the building housing the JCS’s office and were later driven from there to the Treasury Police.

We were processed by being fingerprinted, photographed, etc. before being sent to our cells where the interrogations began.  Joan was served tea and biscuits (so she said!) while I was interrogated five or six different times from 9 AM-6PM by two different guys playing “good cop”/bad cop.” I wasn’t having any of it.  At that point I was still fairly certain that we would not be harmed because, if word got out that harm came to a North American (international) mission volunteer, funding for military training and arms from the U.S. and Panama would have been cut off.  (This was before the Jesuit priests, and a Swiss guy were murdered.). Finally, two of the interrogators appeared testing how malleable I was and tried to scare me.  They presented a piece of paper covered by a second one.  It showed only a signature line.  When I asked what it was, one of them replied, “Oh, just sign it; it simply says we haven’t hurt you; we have treated you fairly with respect.”  I told them I would need to read it before I would sign it.  They removed the second paper, and that is exactly what it was – a declaration of my human rights not having been violated – so I did sign the statement.  I did not know at the time that Tutela Legal was already aware of our kidnapping.  They are one of several groups who advocate against human rights violations by placing ads in the media.

Tutela is closed now, I think.  It was a legal office of the Archdiocese, set up by Mons. Romero to investigate extrajudicial killings and detentions back in the late 1970s.

Joan had not been interrogated and was required to sign nothing (I don’t know whether she did, or not).  After a couple of weeks of protection by the embassy and archdiocese, she returned to Scotland.  She returned to El Salvador later (to complete her task for the Archbishop of Edinburgh).  Fourteen-year-old Gloria was placed in a women’s jail for three months.  She promptly returned to the mountain to resume her role.  I was told she was treated fairly.

In order to be released from prison, you must be released into someone’s custody and care.  I had met and been helpful to the British ambassador a year before when he arrived in the country and been to many social events with him.  He helped arrange for my release as well as the Washington Post correspondent. 

When I was taken to Colonel Benavides, then head of intelligence, I told him I was merely doing my job.  He assured me that I was safe and not to worry; he would make sure nothing happened to me, just relax. (Given that I was accompanied by the British ambassador, he couldn’t really say anything else!). I received an official letter of exoneration from the Armed Forces High Command.  {Col. Benavides later became head of the country’s military school.  He is believed to be deeply involved in planning the mass murder of the Jesuit priests (and housekeeper/daughter) on the UCA campus.  Whether he was the intellectual author of the incident remains in question.}

The army’s press conference portrayed Joan and me as being hardened internationalist, communist, terrorist doctors who may have been running a secret guerrilla hospital.  Except for our names every word in the statement was a lie. (they got our ages right, too!  ☺)

I was receiving frequent overt death threats in the press and on the military radio station.  It was a “shock jock” type program where supposedly private civilians could call in, but it was widely accepted that the military were making the harassing calls and we foreign religious and relief workers were often their target. Yes, I had received a total exoneration, but that meant nothing.  30,000 innocent people who had done nothing wrong either were killed by death squads.  All they needed to do was suspect you to place you on a death threat list.

The accusation and jail incident was a blemish marked on my ID card we were required to carry and show often.  This made remaining in the country too difficult for those folks we were accompanying, as well as for my colleagues. 

When I said “my card was marked”, I was being metaphorical.  Nothing was written, but my name was prominent in the media and the security forces knew who I was.

I stayed in the ambassador’s house for my safety and traveled in the embassy’s armour limo for a week.  I then moved into a house in the city, and one day when returning from the supermarket, I found a 4 X 4 without plates, darkened windows, a guy wearing white shirt and black pants (the uniform of the National Police) coming away from my door carrying an Uzi, and a second guy was standing outside the vehicle.  Since I was standing behind a tree, they had not spotted me and left, but I was very uncomfortable; and after reporting it to my boss, I quickly moved to a new location.   My boss also suggested I take a week of vacation and visit the lakes in Guatemala to decompress and relax. 

Following his advice, I was in a bar in Antigua, Guatemala, run by an American I knew when a bar fight broke out behind me.  Quickly I held down the gun-wielding guy until the owner could grab his pistol away from him.  That was the final straw.  I told my boss, “I can’t even have a relaxing beer without being threatened.”

I was not in the right state of mind to continue my work and told my boss I needed to get away for a bit.  I returned to England.  After two years of constant stress, I was pretty exhausted.

I chose to return home.  This was not the high I had hoped to leave on.

Editor’s Note:  In part 3 of Chris’s story, read about the precipitating stress and trauma he dealt with while serving in El Salvador and how it eventually led to his PTSD symptoms.  Discover what kind of professional treatment he received for it and how it still manifests itself at times.

Thirty years later Chris reflects on the positive experiences he had in El Salvador, the people who impacted him, and what he has discovered about himself.


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