One of my passions in life is history. I am sure many of you may know of my love of the English Reformation, and more probably may feel a sudden dread when I come to rant about such an important period of history! My interest in something that happened around 500 years ago in the grand scheme of things today could seem insignificant, but I still have an interest and passion to continue learning, to continue reading. What I am trying to emphasise, therefore, is that history not only remembers the past, but offers us answers to how we may live out the future.
So what does my interest in the English Reformation mean in regard to my time here in El Salvador? Unfortunately the Civil War is an important period of the Salvadoran history, and like my interest in the English Reformation it has the right to be remembered.
For me, the importance of remembering has surfaced whilst being in Arcatao for the last three days, a place so remote with regards to El Salvador as a whole, but so important with regards to what happened during the El Salvadoran Civil War. The atrocities that happened in this town during the war have scarred the community, and will undoubtedly remain for a long time to come.
Similar to Guarjila, the people of Arcatao have experienced leaving their home as refugees for safety and have returned only to have found ruins, and similar to Guarjila it is now a community moving forward in the face of what has happened in the past.
The last few days in Arcatao have partly been a time of learning and experiencing the past. The people we have met have all openly spoken to us about their own personal experiences during the war – it’s been humbling, and the passion in their voices whilst they have spoken is only too clear to hear.
In Arcatao there have been a few accounts in which I have experienced this humbleness, this passion, this living history. The Historical Memory Society in its work embraces these traits and characteristics through a variety of ways. Through its book which accounts for the testimonies of those survivors, its small but highly affective museum, the work it carries out through exhumations, and finally the sanctuary it is building for the martyrs of Arcatao, the history of this very special place is brought to life.
Nicolás Rivera Lopez is just one of many people who has the memory of what happened in Arcatao lodged in his memory. As a member of the society he has an active participation in all four projects and I was fortunate to be with him in the museum where he told us about his own personal story which was one of loss and pain, he concluded by saying, ‘as a community we will never recover from our traumas, we will die with them.’
For me, a statement such as this is something that I have long and hard thought about. I hope not to look at it at face value, but rather in the hope that, through the work he does, he can find some sort of justice and solace for the people who were so brutally treated through such a bloody conflict.
Similarly again, I was privileged enough to have met another survivor of the war, Victor, who was a Guerrilla fighter for the duration of the conflict and now is the main builder in the construction of the Chapel which commemorates those martyrs who died. The pride I believe he has gained through his work on the chapel is also marred with the memories I am sure he has through the building of such a task.
He told us ‘This church is so we can remember those who fell in combat and those who died in the war. It is to keep the history alive. Many people who died won’t be buried here as we don’t know where their bodies are. I feel happy making these tombs because this gives meaning to the history. We want to remember those who died, so we can live.’
In these two accounts the history of the massacres of Arcatao is being respected in such a manner that it will never be consigned to a book, but rather will be seen visibly for generations and felt through the emotions of characters such as Nicolás and Victor.
I don’t however just want this blog to sound like Arcatao is a community that seeks to commemorate the past in the work that it does today, but rather is also a place that looks to move forward. This forwardness was shared with us by the parish priest Fr Miguel.
Fr Miguel Vasquez SJ first came to Arcatao in 1986 and has experienced the atrocities the town had to face during the war. He is a much loved man and more than that, is an incredible one too. For Fr Miguel remembering those who died during the war is apparent, but he also looks to the future, he looks to help the young people of Arcatao since for him ‘they are the future.’
In this way, a new history of Arcatao is to develop, one that is not scarred by the war, but filled with hope through the opportunities that a good education and sound upbringing within strong institutions can offer. This is not to say that the past history of Arcatao is to be forgotten, on the contrary, it is a history that is honoured by the young people of the town.
The youth group of Arcatao is a clear example of what was meant by Fr Miguel when he spoke of the youth being the future. It is a group that is thriving, that not only has a lot of enjoyment, but is also rooted in a strong faith. Headed by a small committee, within which a number are benefitting from the parish’s university programme, there is an emphasis on achieving the best you can, for each and every person.
For me personally, the times that I spent with the youth group whilst in Arcatao were so enriching and fun in differing ways that I will remember them fondly for a long time. The drama they showed us of the history of Arcatao was powerful, whilst it also emphasised what an important part of their lives this story has been.
Similarly I journeyed with a few of the group members on the “camino”, a journey into the mountains that was done by many people during the war when fleeing from the Salvadoran army. Here I saw the underground caves, houses and a hospital that were built during the conflict, and felt a real sense of living history, as if we were all walking in the footsteps of those brave people during the massacres of the war.
However, on another level, I got to enjoy playing football and participating in a social evening with the youth group. All in all, my time with the youth group symbolised a future for Arcatao that was forward moving, whilst honouring the past with the due respect it deserved.
I began this blog writing about my love of history and the English Reformation. What I have seen here in Arcatao is a community that emphasises the importance of remembering and, by working together, finds ways in which the past can be honoured and somehow be understood.
Arcatao is a town which will be scarred forever by the wounds of the war, but rather than being a place that is full of hatred and anger, it is a town that emphasises peace and justice, and seeks to bring about a positive change for all living there today. The people of Arcatao are proud of their town, and more significantly feel it is their obligation to tell the history of such a place to all who visit.
I want to finish off this blog with something I was told by a young person of the town, Jaime, the son of Nicolás. He told us that those ‘people who forget history are condemned to repeat it.’ What a stark message, but maybe this is all too true. How often is our world caught up with greed, violence and anger? And how often does it seem that the lessons of the past are forgotten and instead of learning from these mistakes we only seem to repeat them?
As Christians we are called to love and to be peacemakers. In a place like Arcatao this message could all too easily be ignored but rather, on the contrary, it is embraced by all.
We’re now recruiting for next year’s Step into the Gap programme. Closing date for applications is 31 March 2014. More information here