School days

It was tedious, a dry scraping-and-crunching sound: The sound military-issue boots make as the soldiers wearing them trudge up and down a pile of crosses. There was another sound, too — a light wooden patter at the top of the pile as each soldier dropped a fresh armload of crosses, bearing the names of more babies, more sons and daughters, more fathers and mothers. The dead have no voices, of course, but these sounds were eloquent enough. Each sound had a name:

Felix Portillo, 29
Maria Isabel Amaya Claros, 8 months
Rosa Candida Pereira, 14

It was getting colder as the sun set on Columbus, Ga. Besides the soldiers and the drivers of the trucks who would cart these thousands of crosses off to the dump, there were only my 8-year-old daughter and me. We watched in silence as they pulled the last crosses left by demonstrators, along with a garland of paper cranes and a few bright ribbons, from the fence that guards Fort Benning, home of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas), where the U.S. Army teaches counterinsurgency techniques to Latin American officers.

More than 10,000 people had gathered here to demand the closure of the school, whose graduates have been implicated in virtually every major human-rights violation in Latin America.

From the epic violence of the El Mozote massacre, in which some 900 people were killed — including children tossed in the air and caught on bayonets — to the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who exhorted the Salvadoran military to stop destroying its own people, SOA graduates have been found responsible.

For two days, demonstrators heard testimony from advocates for torture survivors, listened to the music of the Maya, and attended the hours-long (and still far from complete) roll call of the dead. One name after another, and after every name came a sonorous “Presente” –“I am here” — from the crowd. Thousands marched up to Fort Benning’s fence and left their crosses there, each inscribed with a victim’s name; one man left the jacket he’d worn as a sergeant, another a hand-written apology for what U.S. policy has done to Latin America, until the fence was festooned with innumerable mementos.

The idea is to create a testament not only to the awful destruction represented by the school, but also to hope; thus, ribbons and flowers are wound into the links. But this year as every year, the stark white of the crosses dominates this memorial.

The demonstrators were gone; it was utterly quiet now, except for the sound of soldiers’ boots on the growing pile. The soldiers kept their faces carefully neutral, and if asked how they felt, I imagine they’d have feigned indifference. I didn’t bother asking.

Maria Argueta, 30
Otilia Hernandez, 30
Transito Ramirez, 22

I’ve defined “counterinsurgency” for my daughter several times — being 8, she forgets the details — but I remember seeing children her age in Colombia, survivors displaced or orphaned by the U.S.-aided counterinsurgency effort, who knew the true meaning of this word, and it seems important that she know it, too.

“People in Colombia,” I told her recently, “have to take care of themselves because their government only cares about money and power, and it’ll hurt them, if it has to, to get more. In order to take care of themselves, these people have to be organized, to work together. Just like it’s easier for a family to build a house if they have their friends helping, instead of trying to build it themselves.”

In Soacha, a refugee camp full of displaced Afro-Colombians on the outskirts of Bogota (the Colombian capital), the shacks were built of brick, mud and whatever else was available. It was cold and drizzling when I visited this summer. A mother confided to us that children sometimes disappeared from the camp, turning up days later on the other side of Bogota with their eyes and tongues torn out. Paramilitary graffiti was spray-painted everywhere.

Thousands were living in this camp. The first arrivals had been displaced from their ancestral homes in the resource-rich northwest after a horrific wave of military and paramilitary violence there in 1995 and ’96 that left 2,000 people dead. Even as survivors were struggling southward to Bogota, Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio Rojas, commander of the 17th Brigade, told a visitor that “the region is now safe and you can invest.”

The Colombian military is increasingly dedicated to protecting foreign business interests, like those of the U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum. Colombia has the worst human-rights record in the Western hemisphere; it’s also the SOA’s biggest customer.

I’ve never told my daughter about the children of Soacha, of course. Best to keep it simple.

“If a lot of workers are being paid too little for their work, or the work is too dangerous, they organize; that’s called unionizing,” I told her. “If people are being hurt or killed or driven off their land by men with guns, some of them will work together to look out for everyone, and help support the ones in trouble; that’s called human-rights work. And of course, people speak out against the evils of their government and try to teach each other about them. That’s free speech.”

Leonardo Marquez del Cid, 40
Faustina Chavarria Luna, 15
Ambrosio Guevara, 1

“But when the people do any of these things, the Colombian military — plus their helpers, the paramilitaries — try to scare everyone into being nice and quiet by killing them, or hurting them very badly. That’s a big part of counterinsurgency.

“Our government teaches them how to do this. It teaches people from the Colombian military to look for people who are organized and break them down. It teaches people from all over Latin America.”

It’s a struggle to keep it simple and to accept the fact that these ideas — so foreign to her world of warm meals, laughing schoolmates and a soft bed — will have to be repeated again and again. The same holds true for all of us, of course. We have the luxury of being able to forget, even as we drive in cars fueled by Colombian oil, secured by the atrocities the U.S. Army teaches SOA graduates to commit.

But it’s an important lesson, more urgent than math homework and reading logs. Watching as the soldiers tossed yet more crosses onto the pile, it felt more urgent than paying bills, than buying food, than any of the thousands of things that occupy my time outside of this one moment.

I’ve done a good job teaching her, I think. She knew what the crosses meant.

“What are they going to do with them?” she whispered.

“They’re going to throw them away.”

“In the trash?”

“Yes.”

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