Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Wailing Wall

This is the wall at the back of the yard of my cielo's family's old house in El Salvador, where they lived in 1980-81. When my cielo has told me the stories, the wall has sounded about 12 feet tall. But it comes up to about my chest, on this side.

She was a child, then, and the wall and the house seemed huge to her then. The memories, those have loomed large, as well.

The house, thick walls and ten rooms, sits at the edge of the city, on the main road out of town in that direction. The big house was a great gift for her family, with 7 kids able to have a little elbow room. Outside the yard was full of fruit trees; one of my favorite of my cielo's stories is how she and her brothers and sisters would climb the trees and eat the fruits when they were supposed to be fasting. There are good memories there, of trees and basketball and chickens running about and "swimming" in the enormous washing sink.

There are painful memories, too.

Behind the wall are coffee plantations which run up into the hills and disappear into the mountains. The guerrillas would sneak down out of the mountains and confront the military, coming out the main road from the city, practically at my cielo's front door. Over the back wall, they could see the guerillas sneaking through the coffee trees, and on their back dragging the bloodied and tortured bodies of their comrades. On the road in front, my cielo has told me stories of the military dumping dead bodies into trucks, of her mother facing down the guns to bring her children safely inside, of planes dropping bombs while she huddled in a bathtub with her sisters.

She remembers the day Oscar Romero was assassinated. Her father would not turn away from the radio.

On the night of the first offensive, January 10th, 1981, when the guerrillas all over the country swooped out of the mountains into the main cities, my cielo's sister R. was picked up in town and held overnight, begged by the guerrillas to join them. She didn't. The Red Cross finally secured her release; she climbed over the wall in front of the house, having walked from town barefoot, arriving at dawn.

Because of the location of the house, my cielo's family was caught in the middle of the civil war. Guerrillas would try to climb the back wall to seek safety in the house. But my cielo's parents refused to take sides. Nevertheless, the military thought my cielo's parents were supporting the guerrillas, and left bombs at the front door, broke in while the family was away and searched the house for hidden gun stashes, and, finally, left a death threat for her father.

He had 72 hours to leave the country, or he would be killed.

The next day he told the family to pack a bag each, and he left. He returned with a gringo driving a truck. They loaded up the truck, leaving almost everything behind, and fled for Guatemala. This time, when she told me the story, she said that the kids did not actually know they were leaving to never come back; her parents did not want to frighten the kids. She told me this time that she would have packed differently, had she known; she would have, at least, taken her Raggedy Ann.

(Many years later, one of my cielo's sisters, while doing research at the now-UBL in Costa Rica, would discover that the man who drove the truck was with Amnesty International, and that AI had been tracking their family. Astounding.)

Since 1981, they have only returned once, briefly, a couple of years later when my cielo's grandmother died. The war was still going on, the wounds too fresh and the fear too real for the quick look to have much impact.

So essentially, this was the first return for my cielo, her sister R., her younger brother I. Her parents had been there in January with another of my cielo's brothers, discovering that the church her parents started was still going in the house (but not now).

As we walked into the yard, I felt as if I were on sacred ground. I was overwhelmed to be standing in the place I had heard of so many times, the place that used to terrify my cielo in her nightmares, the place she thought she was when I would wake her up from those nightmares.

More than my own feelings, though, I simply wanted to be present with her family -- my family, as they made clear, especially after this bright, hot, Sunday morning -- in this profound moment. I wanted to bear witness to their pain and their survival and their thanksgiving, listen to whatever stories they needed to tell. We walked around the yard, walked to the wall and wept. My cielo went into the house and was able to show me a few places that she remembered. Then the family gathered to pray. They had confronted this painful memory and were thankful for their survival, thankful they could tell the story. Thankful for God's faithfulness... thankfulness both prayed and sung with tears, tight-wrapped bodies slowly loosening as the memories were released, not to haunt them any more.