suffering, strength, and the s.o.a.

By Anton Flores-Maisonet

For the last four years, my vocational life has been devoted to walking alongside some of the poorest residents of Latin America, often times found right here in LaGrange.  As co-founder of a ministry called Alterna, I seek to offer compassionate accompaniment to immigrants here in Georgia and to many of their family members in Latin America where I travel at least once a year.

In 2008 during one of my visits to the highlands of Guatemala, I trekked to the remote village of El Mamonal.  The reason I was drawn to this out-of-the-way aldea was to meet with a young widow and her four small children to express our community’s condolences.  In the prior Holy Week, on Good Friday to be exact, this family’s husband and father died from a traumatic head injury sustained while working at a LaGrange area business.

On this sojourn of mercy, I also met the man’s mourning mother.  It was already past dusk when this inconsolable matriarch asked me to trek with her through a recently rain-soaked terrain to visit her two sons’ gravesites.  Yes, two sons.  For, you see, this woman’s resiliency had been twice placed on the crucible of faith.  Just a few years earlier another son had died in LaGrange; this time it was a drowning in West Point Lake.  This first son’s death was a tragic act of heroism: one where he laid down his own life in the noble saving of a little girl who nearly met his same misfortune.

Side by side, this mother and I stood weeping. The rising moon dimly lit the simple crypts where the names of the faithfully departed were unprofessionally etched, most likely by utilizing the end of a branch or even a finger while the concrete was still wet. I embraced the mother of a dear friend and further embraced that I was a stranger in a strange land under strange circumstances seeking to show a genuine compassion that knows no borders.

Christian tradition teaches us that unjust suffering is redemptive.  Jesus’ unjust suffering on a cross gave way to redemption, even to a thief by his side as well as to his and our enemies.

What can the life of Rufina Amaya, a poor campesina from El Salvador, teach us about suffering and redemption?

To understand the redemptive message of Rufina Amaya, we need to grasp a cultural doctrine that is pervasive in Latin America, especially by the poor who have an internalized sense of oppression.  The doctrine is called fatalism.  Fatalism contends that human beings do not have free will but are consequently subject to external, usually supernatural and often negative, forces; forces like God or evil spirits or curses.  This fatalism often leads the indoctrinated poor to have a defeated resolve towards suffering; accepting one’s lot in life as though it were God’s will or divine retribution for past sins.

It is the unjust suffering of Rufina Amaya as she confronted fate, fatalities, and a fatalistic society that makes her testimony so powerfully redemptive.

“They killed four of my children: my nine-year-old, my six-year-old, my three-year-old, and my eight-month-old daughter.”

How does a person endure losing one’s entire family at the hands of one’s own military?  How did Doña Rufina bear witnessing the decapitation of her husband much less the cries of her nine year old son, Cristian, as she sat paralyzed by fear and impotence while he cried out in anguish, “Mama, they’re killing me. They’ve killed my sister. They’re going to kill me…”  How did she bear it?

This massacre, the most ghastly of modern Latin American history, took place in the village of El Mozote in the country named after the Suffering Redeemer, the Savior – El Salvador.  On December 11, 1981 the Atlacatl Battalion, a rapid-response unit of the Salvadoran military descended upon the peaceful yet isolated village of El Mozote.  What would this battalion want in El Mozote?

At this time, the battalion’s military mission was to identify and eliminate counter insurgents in this region of northeastern El Salvador.  The guerilla organization Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) had set up training operations in this vicinity and it was the battalion’s job to dismantle such subversion.  After a clash with nearby guerrillas, the highly skilled battalion entered El Mozote and commenced a three-day reign of terror on the village of El Mozote.  In the end, approximately 700 residents of El Mozote would be slaughtered.  Rufina Amaya would be this atrocity’s sole survivor.

During the deplorable bloodshed Rufina Amaya was somehow able to find shelter in an area dense with bushes and apple trees.  It is from that hiding place that she was forced to endure a very horrific and personal tragedy.  During this time she cried, no whispered, to her Salvador, reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over again.  “Deliver us from evil.  Deliver us from evil.  Deliver us… from evil.”

Doña Rufina recounted, “I spent seven days and nights alone in the hills with nothing to eat or drink. I couldn’t find anyone else; the soldiers had killed everyone.”

During those days of December 1981, Amaya’s campesino neighbors and extended family were interrogated and tortured.  Young girls were raped.  And many of the children were corralled into the village’s sanctuary – a place designated as sacred, a place often regarded as a place of refuge – but on this day the sanctuary offered no refuge as the broken bodies and shed blood of the children of El Mozote were strewn on the altar of abusive power and military might.  In total, hundreds of men, women, and children were martyred in El Mozote, but Rufina lived to tell her and their story.

Against the grain of fatalism, swimming upstream against the currents of machismo, and prophetically speaking to the emptiness of imperialism, Doña Rufina summoned a voice from deep within her blistered soul, a voice that reverberates even today with a resilient resonance that would seem to be reserved for those who have a redemptive testimony that rises from the pains of unjust suffering.

“God allowed me to live,” Rufina Amaya said, “so that I can testify how the Army killed the men and women and burned their bodies. I didn’t see them kill the children, but I heard the children’s screams.”

And testify she did.  Within a month of the massacre, Amaya’s testimony spread around the globe after reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post clandestinely entered El Salvador in order to interview her and uncover exactly what occurred at this gruesome site.

Yes, Salvadoran officials immediately sought to deflect the glare of the international community by calling the claims “totally false” and the fabrication of “subversives.”  But Rufina Amaya stood her ground; in the face of searing loss and with powerful voices seeking to silence this peasant woman, she displayed a nonviolent force more powerful than any gross injustice.  Amaya followed in the footsteps of a nonviolent cloud of witnesses and, as Gandhi described, she clung to the truth.

These are the lives of two women, two mothers – one in Guatemala and one in El Salvador.  Just as the life of the woman in Guatemala and her two deceased sons has a local connection, so does the life and legacy of Rufina Amaya.

The Altacatl Battalion that committed the unimaginable, not just in El Mozote in 1981 but, again, in 1989 when they brutally assassinated six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in El Salvador has a link to a nearby military base.  The local link to this story is that the officers and members of that battalion were trained at the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) located at Fort Benning in Columbus.  This event, along with other documented and alleged human rights violations and crimes, is the reason why each November, on the anniversary of the 1989 atrocity, thousands of U.S. citizens converge at the gates of Fort Benning.  Together they cry out, “No mas, no more” and call on the federal government to close the SOA/WHINSEC.

This November, remember the unjust suffering of Rufina Amaya who passed away in 2007.  Remember how she clung to the truth.  Remember and reflect.  Let’s be a part of a story still in need of redemption.  Let’s listen, learn, and lead the way to a nonviolent future.  Join us at the SOA vigil November 19-21 and find other ways to act for justice in Latin America.

The Escalante brothers. Presente!

Rufina Amaya and family.  Presente!

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