"Martyrs in El Salvador"
By Leo J. O'Donovan
Washington Post

November 16, 1999; Page A31

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Ten years ago in the early morning darkness of Nov. 16, army soldiers burst into the Jesuit residence at the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador and brutally killed six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her young daughter. It was not the first assassination of church leaders: 18 Catholic priests, including Father Rutilio Grande and Archbishop Oscar Romero, and four North American churchwomen have been killed in El Salvador since the late 1970s--more than in any other nation in the world. And the murder of priests and nuns continues to scar the history of other countries, including India, Guatemala and most recently East Timor.

While we still grieve their loss, the 10th anniversary of the Jesuit assassinations offers an important opportunity to reflect on the enduring legacy of the martyrs.

Far from silencing those dedicated to promoting justice, peace and the alleviation of misery for all in the human family, the Jesuit murders spurred the people of El Salvador--and the world--to witness a higher truth. Shortly after the murders, a U.N. Truth Commission was formed to investigate the killings. Although the government initially claimed that FMLN guerrillas had committed the murders, the Truth Commission determined that the government had in fact ordered the killings.

In an appalling step five days after the report was released, the Salvadoran National Assembly gave amnesty to those convicted. But through the U.N. Truth Commission, an essential truth about state violence in El Salvador was uncovered, as well as the deeply disturbing fact that 19 of the 26 Salvadoran officers involved in the slayings had been trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.

The murders--and the unfolding truth about who committed them--helped significantly undermine the power and prestige of the armed forces and provided impetus for the peace process. Signed on Jan.16, 1992, the peace accords ended a war that had cost the lives of 75,000 citizens and represent the triumph of another of the Jesuits' essential goals--peace through dialogue.

While still fragile, the peace in El Salvador has enabled some political and judicial reform and provides the critical foundation for future advances. Since the end of the civil war, there have been two open, democratic elections, featuring candidates from both the National Republican Alliance Party (ARENA) and the opposing National Liberation Party (FMLN).

The macroeconomic indicators show that inflation is at its lowest level in nearly three decades. Newly elected President Francisco Flores of the ARENA Party has promised continued economic improvement and a vitally needed reduction of poverty. But many grave challenges face him and the people of El Salvador.

Approximately 40 percent of Salvadorans live in dire poverty. More than a third of citizens lack safe drinking water and adequate housing. And more than half the population lacks adequate health care. Education for all, a fundamental goal shared by the slain Jesuits, also continues to elude the country--more than 30 percent of Salvadorans are illiterate.

Violence continues to be a national scourge. A joint U.N. commission in 1994 reported that while military death squads had ceased to operate after the peace accords, criminal gangs or illegal armed groups were committing summary executions, posing death threats and carrying out other acts of intimidation for political motives. The Washington Office on Latin America reports that violent crime continues to threaten the still tender democratic political order. Unless the government can address the problem of citizen security, while respecting human and civil rights, the country may slip back into a state of war. Continuing the work of the martyred Jesuits is more important than ever.

As we look ahead, the Jesuit martyrs offer us a lasting model of courageous service to humanity. At a time when torture, intimidation and death-squad executions of civilians were daily occurrences, my Jesuit brothers regularly endured threats to their safety and well-being. During the civil war, the UCA campus and the Jesuit residence were bombed at least 16 times. But the Jesuits' teaching and research, their pastoral work, and their advocacy of social reform continued despite all challenge. They knew and accepted the great personal risk their work entailed--the risk of their lives.

In the days prior to his death Father Ignacio Ellacuria, president of UCA, had refused the opportunity to remain in his home country, Spain, and wait out the period of unrest in El Salvador. Father Ignatio Martin-Baro, academic vice president, was asked, "Why don't you leave here, Father? It is dangerous." He responded: "Because we have much to do; there is much work." The spirit and conviction of these men endures through the efforts of those who bravely stepped forward to take their places, including Father Charles Beirne, S.J., who took over Martin-Baro's position in the aftermath of the assassinations and Father Chema Tojeira, S.J., who now serves as Father Ellacuria's successor. Their spirit endures in the human rights volunteers from around the world--people from organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, Amnesty International and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights--all active in El Salvador.

It lives in the Salvadoran people. And the spirit of the Jesuit martyrs endures as we in distant countries around the globe learn from their example of steadfast commitment to the poor, to education and to a future built on freedom and justice, not oppression and bloodshed.

The writer is president of Georgetown University.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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