An ugly truth

“So, what’s the difference between your fast and a little kid who holds her breath until her face turns blue to get her way?” the woman asked.

She was on her way to a church service and had stopped to talk as I sat in Pritchard Park with a dozen other women and men, beneath a banner that said, “Fast and Pray to Close the SOA.” It was the second day of a two-day public fast calling for the closing of the infamous School of the Americas.

I had to laugh. So this was how a woman on the street perceived our efforts. Our local group, WNC SOAWatch, was acting in solidarity with Fast 2000, a nationwide call to fast from April 6-19. Many hundreds of people in at least 40 states participated in all or part of the two-week juice fast.

All weekend, we talked to passersby about the human-rights abuses promoted by the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. Besides raising public awareness, we sought to deepen our own commitment to persisting in nonviolent action for as long as it takes to shut down the SOA and end U.S. training of foreign soldiers in counterinsurgency-warfare techniques — including assassination, torture, intimidation and murder. Official investigations have held numerous SOA graduates responsible for widespread human-rights violations throughout Latin America over the last 50 years.

Asheville has a sister-city relationship with the Mexican town of San Cristobal de las Casas, located just a short distance from the Chiapas village where School of the Americas-trained soldiers massacred women and children.

I had strongly resisted joining the public fast, even for two days. I had a garden to plant, places to go, and much-needed wage work to finish. Besides, I wasn’t convinced that my forgoing regular meals would make much difference. It was the sincerity of the mostly younger activists that finally persuaded me. They renewed my flagging hope, and I wanted to get to know them better.

Asheville resident Megan Reilly-Buser is a former lay missionary in Guatemala. She and her husband, Steve Buser — a psychiatrist and counselor to veterans suffering posttraumatic stress — had just returned from a visit to Guatemala and El Salvador. They fasted for the whole two weeks. On Sunday, just before the local Food Not Bombs group arrived with a simple meal to break our weekend fast, Megan shared the story of a Salvadoran friend, whose testimony she had helped translate as part of the woman’s application for asylum.

“My friend was eight months pregnant when she was apprehended by the military for interrogation. She was raped, cut, electrocuted and burned repeatedly with cigarettes. Soldiers placed her under a box spring and walked on top of her pregnant belly. The physical torture and psychological torment continued for about two weeks.”

Megan trembled as she read the testimony; I recoiled from the words, weaving a shield of denial around them. What was I to do with this awful truth? Long ago, I had chosen to withdraw my financial support from the military by living on a limited income, as a means of war-tax resistance. I had crossed the line at Fort Benning three times, risking as much as six months in jail to make my dissent clear. I had written the letters to legislators, made the phone calls, organized, marched, prayed. What more could I do?

But as I sat in Pritchard Park beneath a lovely tree, whose fragrant pink blossoms had persisted despite the previous night’s bitter cold, I had to fight the numbing denial that would shut out the words. I had to listen.

The Salvadoran woman had been made to watch as others were severely tortured; she was forced to drink human blood; she was thrown into a basement where the still-twitching body parts of other torture victims were strewn about the floor. And, against all odds, she had survived to tell about the torture. Left for dead on a trash heap outside town, she was rescued when the cries of her newborn child drew villagers to the dumpsite. Her child did not long survive; its face bore the imprint of a box spring. The mother fell into a catatonic state that persisted for three or four months.

But I had no such excuse for giving in to the numbness, for not seeing the awful truth of our foreign policy in Central America. By the end of the story, my appetite — which had been steadily asserting itself throughout the weekend — had vanished. “What’s another hungry day?” I asked myself.

Brevard resident Linda Mashburn also fasted for two weeks, compelled by her experiences during four different trips to Guatemala.

“I have been the guest of a cooperative of widows, all of whom lost their husbands during the scorched-earth campaign of Gens. Romeo Lucas Garcia, Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, and Hector Gramajo (Guatemalan defense minister during the 1980s), all SOA graduates,” Mashburn told the gathering. Callejas, she said, “was selected as an elite member of the SOA Hall of Fame, yet while he was chief of Guatemalan intelligence, he oversaw the disappearance, torture and assassination of thousands of political opponents.” And a U.S. court found Gramajo guilty of the 1991 rape and torture of Diana Ortiz, an American nun working in Guatemala, teaching Mayan children to read and write. As defense minister, said Mashburn, he authored the policy that destroyed hundreds of Mayan villages, massacring more than 200,000 Guatemalans to get at the supposedly 5,000 “leftist” guerrillas in the countryside.

Then the grim litany took a more personal turn: “Three times, I have been the houseguest of a Mayan widow, Sebastiana, who not only lost her husband but all four of her sons in 1982, during the height of the violence. The Methodist Church in the village of Chontala, where Sebastiana lives, was taken over by the military and used as a torture center. A pit was dug in the earth floor of the church to bury the bodies. When the military decided they had no further use for the church, they rounded up much of the population of this Mayan village, especially the men and boys, locked them in the church, and set fire to it with explosives. The women were left to watch and listen to the screams. of their husbands and sons.”

The stories were horrible to hear. But these women are credible bearers of this awful truth, and I knew I had to listen.

“If all of this brutality were only in the past, we would not be committed to fasting or risking arrest,” Mashburn told the crowd. “Right now, the SOA is training large numbers of Colombian military leaders.” Two recent documents — including a U.S. State Department Human Rights Report released in March — cite seven Colombian SOA graduates for kidnapping, murder, massacres and setting up paramilitary groups, she said. “We also know that Mexico is sending large numbers of military officers for training at the SOA, who will return to serve in Chiapas — another site of human-rights abuses.”

But Mashburn’s final words were perhaps the most chilling of all. “I find it important to keep speaking these truths … publicly, because one important lesson brought home to me through my German ancestry is that, “Silence can kill.'”

At dusk, I bicycled home in the chill winds, built a warm fire, and settled in for the night. By then, I was beginning to understand what 12 more days of fasting would teach me: This fast to close the SOA isn’t about coercion. It isn’t like holding your breath to get what you want; rather, it’s a humble admission of our complicity, as U.S. citizens, in these atrocities. It’s a surrender, in faith, to a deeper wisdom that we hope may emerge in the process, providing the clarity and the courage for further action. Though we may not always know what to do with these awful truths of our times, or what the best course of action is, we cannot close our ears to the truth.

I also know that much of the national interest “protected” by these SOA-trained soldiers involves access to natural resources. So, for me, this fast has also been a way to relinquish a bit of the privilege that I, as a North American, have so long indulged in — and at such a high cost to my sisters and brothers to the south.

All weekend, we gathered at Pritchard Park from dawn to dusk. Hail, snow flurries, freezing rain and wind buffeted the tarp we’d rigged for shelter. Scores of local homeless people skirted our gathering, sometimes coming forward to talk or share the cider or broth that supporters had brought. Thinking of how many meals these unsheltered citizens must miss, of their daily exposure to the elements and the misperceptions of others, helped put my own discomforts into perspective.

We combined our public fast with a petition urging the Asheville City Council to pass a resolution calling for the closure of the School of the Americas. Asheville has declared itself an International Peace Zone; we ask the city to take this designation seriously, adding its collective voice to those of other cities that have taken this step.

Missing a few meals, experiencing a twinge of hunger now and then, has kept me mindful. And I am convinced that the truth — however painful — will persist through the cold and bitter winters of repression, to blossom and inspire the action we all must take to close this school for torturers.

[Two bills now before Congress call for closing the U.S. Army School of the Americas: HR-732 in the House and S-873 in the Senate.]

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