CHRIS HARRISON – PART 3
Quick review – Part 1 – Chris, from the U.K., volunteered for Jesuit Refugee Services spending two years in El Salvador in Calle Real Refugee Camp, followed by helping to re-build communities Salvadorans returned to during and at end of their civil war.
Part 2 – Chris is accused by the military of being an FMLN sympathizer, kidnapped, and taken to jail in El Salvador, where he is interrogated and later released but receives constant death threats. Eventually his stress and exhaustion force him to make the decision to return to England.
NOW, Part 3 – What kinds of stressful situations led up to Chris’s exhaustion and need to return home? How did he deal with the aftermath of two years in a war-torn country? How does this affect one’s psyche? How do you return to a world that you have trouble relating to? How do you fit in?
Like all of us who have spent time working in developing countries that have left an impression on us, we eventually return home when a different reality hits. We are eager to share our experiences, but no one can relate to that culture, much less war experiences. It’s a double whammy when struggling to process it all ourselves without support from friends and family. Those we attempt to share with shrink away from the gruesome atrocities we describe or yawn in indifference at a world they cannot understand, or worse yet, don’t care about. But we do.
Missionaries serving in international settings experience this “reverse culture shock” collision of cultures as they try to fit back into the society they left but their souls are left behind on another continent. Craig Storti wrote The Art of Coming Home about the whole re-entry phenomenon. What defines the successful transition back from one culture to another is how the person incorporates his international experience into his present life while maintaining attachments and support to those left behind. The collision of the cultures is a tricky balance.
Experiencing PTSD was not something Chris expected would be a lingering result of his volunteer effort in El Salvador.
Despite the difficulties under which Chris served, he learned how resilient he was during times of extreme duress. He also maintains that the genuine gentle spirit of the Salvadoran people uplifted him during it all and continue to mean more to him than any and all the notorious folks he has ever met.
By accompanying the people during their long civil war, vigilance is part of your daily life. You learn quickly not to ask questions lest they be misconstrued or taken out of context. I learned that lesson the hard way when one night I was awakened and taken to a commander and grilled about an innocent response I made to a question someone asked; it was taken as my predicting the outcome of the war – a real no-no. Suspicions of anyone were high. Infiltration was common. Two of the El Higueral guys were executed simply for being suspected recruits. You never knew if the vehicle in which you drove or rode was bugged. You were constantly on high alert.
You got used to persistently looking over your shoulder. You became accustomed to bullets and bombs flying nearby. Explosions happened too often and too close to count. Once, about 500 yards from the highway, the military was detonating IEDs. Three trucks were blown up outside camp and thirty were killed. Another time while I was riding a motorbike in San Salvador, a bomb blew up an electric post twenty yards behind me and narrowly missed falling on me. I turned around thinking it was my lucky day. When I returned on the same route, a car bomb went off at the same place. I just thought in terms of probabilities and logistics of their not hitting me. Those were the visible close calls.
To me the scariest moments were the ones in the dark that I was unable to foresee or navigate around. In the mountains it grows pitch dark around 6:30 or 7 PM. You are unable to see your hand in front of you. Walking out at night and bumping into a shadow which turns out to be a guerrilla wearing a black jumpsuit pretending he is not there or stumbling across a military train of supplies passing by was commonly frightful. I might be exploring in thick vegetation and suddenly hear the click of a soldier loading a magazine of ammo into his weapon.
You had to keep your wits about you in order to react quickly and nonchalantly. Sometimes I would remove my sombrero offering a friendly wave rather than reacting in a frightened manner. Once I was out walking when I came out of the thick brush into a large clearing to find a military helicopter suddenly appear over the mountaintop hovering directly overhead. Because we North Americans were still relatively safe at that point, I removed my sombrero, waved, and as luck would have it, happened to be wearing a large crucifix that day. The pilot must have taken me for a priest because he crossed himself. I played along and blessed him back. WHEW!
Most of us had trusted confidantes to help cushion the stress. They were necessary to help us unwind and process the reality in which we found ourselves. Those close relationships were true for most of the volunteers and members of NGOs, or parishes.
After I returned home, I suppressed my PTSD, did wild and strange things, and self-medicated. I felt no fear. After all, I learned when bullets start flying and things become difficult, you carry on to survive. I didn’t collapse. I was always an introvert, but forced myself to be more of an extrovert. I was always resilient.
When one returns home from an overseas assignment and tries to relate the experiences to others, they simply cannot grasp it. You have to be there. Probably those serving in the military can best relate to the phenomenon of “reverse culture shock.” I had heard from Vietnam vets how difficult it is to explain life in another culture. When the listener’s eyes glaze over in disinterest, you simply give up. The two worlds collide. How do I fit in?
Priorities were so different now that I had spent time in a developing country. Upon returning to the U.K., the news seemed so trivial. It was all about the rising gasoline prices or housing prices. And I would just blow up about the ads for pet food. “For God’s sake! Do you realize people in the world are DYING?!” I would scream at the telly. I felt more anger and remorse. I felt bad that many people I knew left for the mountains and ended up dead. Others were unprepared for what they got caught up in and became deeply traumatized by it all.
Soon after I returned home, the British Intelligence Office contacted me offering me a job. They wanted me to recruit agents for them, ie. subvert, blackmail, cajole people into doing questionable things. That didn’t sit well with me. I declined the offer. One of my memories of David Cornwell (writer John le Carre) was he felt no one should ever work for the intelligence services unless they can handle the amorality that it requires. “Turning people and running agents damages your soul” while fervently, though not convincingly, denying that he personally had ever been a spy.
I simply dropped it and tried to return to my old life as a computer consultant. However, I left the country for Italy to do so. Being contacted by the intelligence people was enough to evoke some of those same fearful experiences I had wanted to suppress.
Being bombarded with stress was causing PTSD to build; however, when you are in the situation of needing to survive and help others survive, you manage to suppress it. You have neither the time nor the headspace to grieve, mourn, or even the luxury of feeling.
By the end of 1994, the PTSD hit me hard. I began partying hard, self-medicating, and spiraled out of control. I recognized that I needed help and went to my GP. The very next day two mental health specialists appeared at my door, very worried about me and gave me the name of a psychiatrist specializing in trauma. Treatment was a combination of individual and group therapy. This turned out to be a very positive treatment plan for me. In my area there had recently been a coal-mining accident with a roof cave-in. Guys in my group had frantically worked to get their buddies out of the mine. Their situations were so much worse than mine. I was traveling back and forth between Italy and the U.K. for the treatment sessions.
I still have concerns about large places where unpredictability is an issue. I find myself becoming hyper-vigilant in train stations and airports. There are lots of people milling around, and I have no control of the situation. Once I’m in the train or in the plane, I relax. Experiences re-surface all the time; even now 30+ years later something will trigger a memory such as reading about a police shooting, and I am right back in El Salvador living it.
At one point I was invited to be a part of the disarmament and re-structure of El Salvador after the war. I could not do it; it somehow did not seem to be the right thing for me to be involved in.
Advocacy and solidarity groups were located in London, which, had I lived there, I might have become involved in. But there was nothing like that in my area.
I had been deeply affected by people I interacted with in El Salvador and reflected about them often. So many names come to mind when I consider those who have influenced my thinking and journey in life. Maria Julia Hernandez, a brave and fearless woman, spent her life advocating for human rights for victims of civil war in El Salvador by founding Tutela Legal, was one such life model.
The world is more aware of now Saint Oscar Romero, who defiantly spoke out against social injustice and violence amid the Salvadoran civil war.
I was also blessed to meet and become positively influenced by many Jesuit priests and sisters while I was serving in El Salvador. Interacting with many of the religious folks like the “Suchi sisters” was a very positive experience. Some were among the famous martyred priests at UCA in 1989. Others survived and continued to work on behalf of the poor. Ignacio Ellacuria, Segundo Montes, Nacho Martin-Baro, Jon Sobrino, Jon Cortina, Peggy O’Neill, and others never wavered in their compassion and commitment. Dean Brackley, another Jesuit, agreed to take the reins at UCA following those 1989 murders. He described working with campesinos as, “first it breaks your heart, then you fall in love, then you’re ruined for life.” Esteban Velasquez was a Jesuit priest who introduced me to him. He also was a strong advocate for the poor and oppressed.
My IT work itself provides opportunities to improve services in communication and service delivery structures as well as train people in developing countries. Those are vital for their countries’ growth and development. For example, when I worked for the postal service, we installed and trained in a system similar to DLS for overnight delivery. This meant installing equipment with bar codes for shipping and training people to scan the merchandise. I began traveling the world where I could do IT work easily on a contract basis from country to country. I would be working in the Far East one day and get a call to go to Cuba the following day. The South American countries were generally assigned to me because of my Spanish fluency. I spent a great deal of time working in the African nations and Europe. I am fortunate that my work pays well which gives me opportunities to support projects I endorse for needy people and groups both locally and internationally.
In El Salvador seeing how simply people can live, I returned with an anti-materialistic attitude. I try to share my assets with others generously.
Locally we have a homelessness and food insecurity issues. I support the food bank and homeless shelters. Internationally it is important to me to help provide financial support for scholarships to families of some Salvadorans I know. I also join in some group efforts out of Boston which have provided funding for a community center, bakery and school. They also ship Salvadoran coffee to the U.S. to sell at premium prices.
It has been a joy to return to the villages in El Salvador that I helped re-settle and to see the improvements made since I lived there in the 1980s. I have been pleasantly surprised by the reconciliation I have experienced in subsequent trips to El Salvador. I have felt neither fears nor dangers. The village that had 40 basic shacks now has 400 nice adobe homes, electricity, a school, church, animals, and crops. I see hope in its people always. They are a country of hope because they are wonderful people.
My worries are more with international influences on El Salvador. The mining interests continue to threaten their environment. Large international companies want to remove, destroy, and leave with minerals to make profits for themselves. If local groups fight, the big companies go to court in the U.S. It’s been the same throughout other poor Latin American countries. I worry about the impact of the country’s dependence on the U.S. government. There is a plan for extending the Pan-American Highway through the north of the country into Chalatenango department. That will forever change the lifestyles of those people and damage the mountain environment. Another worry is keeping the gangs at bay. Some communities have been fairly successful, others not so much.
I describe myself as an internationalist. I become angry at my own country because of its insular decision on Brexit. The pettiness and idiocy of this current situation to revert back to empire days which never suited us before and is even less relevant now infuriates me.
I also become angry when nearly everything I read about the Salvadoran civil war is slanted to either the religious or political experience. Very little is written about the everyday, nitty gritty life of how everyday villagers and others worked undercover and calmly in the face of opposition. For example, I read an obituary of a woman I knew which described her only as a faithful servant of Christ when I could have written 50 pages of powerful stories about how she helped people in the face of danger. Those stories will never be told because of the trouble they would have stirred up. I find that less than sincere and am frustrated at the dishonesty of it. People are still killed if their full stories are revealed rather than the official version. A greater truth which better represents the accomplishments of some of these heroes is hidden, and that is unfortunate to their legacy.
As much as possible, I remain connected to El Salvador through contacts I maintain, through media and various obscure news sources I search hard to find, as well as supporting numerous projects that help the country continue to develop. The incredible Salvadoran people deserve as much support and encouragement as we internationals can provide. At all levels they have impacted and transformed my life forever.
Despite the hardships of jail time, giardia and dengue fever, dodging rocket fire during a war, and living in primitive conditions, the time I spent with the community-centered, loving, welcoming Salvadoran people will forever be the single most transformative time of my life.
I have always been interested in development. I’d rather visit a fleapit in an African nation than a beach resort. A consequence of my Salvadoran experience is that it’s made me more resilient and at ease with myself. I had to make quick judgments to save my life. I’m not scared. I simply take a rational approach and figure, “It can’t be that bad.”
It seems the whole experience led me towards more simple expressions and deeds rather than words. I’ve never been a joiner. I’ve never been one for religious liturgy or doctrine, but cohabitating with lovely, humble people and sharing their values further turned me away from hierarchies, elitism, and corruption inherent to so many religious groups and organizations. I continue to pray in Spanish.
I’ve been privileged to meet well-known leaders, politicians, business persons, film and music celebrities, and public figures from around the world. There is barely one I would care to spend time with. My preference is to be with any average Salvadoran peasant.