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Hennesseys remind us of U.S. complicity

Railing against the military at any age might seem like picking a fight one is sure to lose. But that didn’t stop Franciscan Sr. Dorothy Hennessey, 88, and her sister, Franciscan Sr. Gwen Hennessey, 69. Last July the women were trekked off to serve six months in federal prison for their November 2000 protest of the U.S. Army’s Fort Benning, Ga.-based School of the Americas, renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

As the United States pursues terrorists across the globe, the women of fleet-footed spirit and others like them aspire to hold their country to the noble standards of its birth and denounce U.S. complicity in its own terrorism.

Thank God for these patriots and the consciences they have honed through decades of faithful contemplation. And thank God for memory, the cornerstone of conscience. It forges history and has the final word.

A brief essay in the Jan. 13 New York Times Magazine nudged consciences once again. “Here in America,” the essay began, “we know what our victims need. The intense desire to name and acknowledge those who died in the largest terrorist attack on American soil, the need to bring the guilty to justice, the families’ urgency to possess a shard of bone to bury -- these things Americans understand, instinctively, as the foundations of healing. Yet they have been denied the families of those killed in what is probably the largest act of terror in recent Latin American history, the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador.”

The El Mozote massacre occurred during El Salvador’s civil war and was committed by the U.S.-trained and U.S.-financed Atlacatl Battalion. Documented eyewitness accounts corroborate these facts: On the afternoon of Dec. 10, 1981, units of the Atlacatl Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion arrived in the village of El Mozote. The village consisted of about 20 houses situated on open ground around a square. Facing onto the square was a church. Not far from the village was a school, the Grupo Escolar.

When the soldiers arrived in the village they ordered everyone out of their houses and into the square; they made them lie face down, searched them and asked them about the guerrillas. They then ordered them to lock themselves in their houses until the next day, warning that anyone coming out would be shot. The soldiers remained in the village during the night.

Early next morning, the soldiers reassembled the entire population in the square. They separated the men from the women and children and locked everyone up in different groups in the church, the convent and various houses. During the morning, they proceeded to interrogate, torture and execute the men in various locations. Around noon, they began taking the women in groups, separating them from their children and machine-gunning them. Finally, they killed the children. A group of children who had been locked in the convent were machine-gunned through the windows. After exterminating the entire population, estimated at between 700 and 926 people, the soldiers set fire to the buildings.

Despite public complaints of a massacre and the ease with which it could have been verified, the Salvadoran authorities did not order an investigation and consistently denied that the massacre had taken place. At the time, Thomas Enders, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, and others in the Reagan administration dismissed reports by Ray Bonner of The New York Times and Alma Guillermopietro of The Washington Post. “There is no evidence to confirm that [Salvadoran] government forces systematically massacred civilians … or that the number of civilians killed even remotely approached the 733 or 926 victims cited in the press.”

Despite U.S. denials, Argentinean forensic scientists in the years that followed the war began unearthing graves, adding substantial documentation by human rights organizations and by the United Nations that confirmed the ghastly dimensions of the massacre. Still, after nearly 20 years, the remains of almost 600 of the dead have not been unearthed.

In all, 70,000 Salvadorans were killed during the 30-year civil war, the greater proportion at the hands of U.S.-backed death squads. During more than three decades of U.S.-backed military dictatorships in neighboring Guatemala, 200,000 were killed. Many of the military leaders there were trained at the School of the Americas. U.N. human rights reports referred to those atrocities as genocide.

Several years back, President Clinton made a brief apology in Guatemala for the U.S. complicity in the horrors that occurred during that country’s civil war. However, El Mozote reminds us that much more must be done in the way of apology and full disclosure by the U.S. government. Truth commissions in Guatemala, El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America have helped those cultures to come to a certain honest, if not perfect, understanding of the horrors that occurred. As we have said before, (NCR, May 19, 2000): We need our own truth commission and full disclosure of the CIA, military and other government agency documents that will shed light on our role in Central America in recent decades.

Meanwhile, we rest with the comfort that memory and conscience remain alive among us, not least because of the activity of the Hennessey sisters and people like them.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002