War is an ugly, ugly thing. People commit crimes against their brothers and neighbors that most of us could never imagine, and people’s ideals become their masters rather than compassion. After a war is over, the process of exposing and discovering the wounds left on people and the land seems to go on forever, and there are those that are not able to move on.
Here in El Salvador, many of the people who we meet have shared their stories with us, stories of watching their sister raped, tortured, and killed, or of watching a soldier tear an infant from its mother, toss it into the air, and catch it on the end of his bayonet. These stories make your stomach lurch and haunt your dreams, and that’s only having experienced them second hand. The war here ended a mere 21 years ago with the Peace Accords in 1992, and nobody who was alive at that time was left untouched by that experience.
It gets to be tiring, traveling from place to place, hearing the same story of repression, uprising, increased repression, and then the valiant but sacrificial persistence of the guerilla fighters. Tiring, but important. Because one of the things I’m learning is how the atrocities and losses of war brought the pueblo of this country together. The “left” can take on all different forms, and everyone has their ideas about what is the right way to organize economic systems, distribute funds, and create a social agenda. But with the war people were united because they had a shared experience of suffering, and it was worth it to put differences aside in order to achieve peace.
And now, 21 years after the war, it remains the glue that holds people together. If not first hand memories, they remember it was their mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles who were brutally tortured and murdered, just for insisting that they as peasants also deserved a dignified way of life.
In the United States, we are protected from war and from many of the negative effects of our political structure. We don’t really have to suffer much, for the most part. So where does our motivation to do anything progressive come from? War is awful, but it burns onto people’s hearts the rawness of suffering that drives changes. And the thing is there will always need to be changes – democracy only works with an actively engaged population. But with our comfort and apathy we have disengaged from that process, and I’m afraid that things are spiraling out of control. So we have to look for it, look for the ways that corruption, greed, and selfishness drives decisions made in the United States, look for the dark corners where suffering has been hidden away and expose it, because there is always something better to fight for.