I am waiting in Las Isletas, a tiny village in central El Salvador, about to interview Francisco Ramos, known to his friends as Chico. Most homes here are made from old sheets of corrugated iron, branches and plastic sheeting. We are meeting in a small brick house, one of the few with electricity. To my horror the recording device only works with the fan off. Surrounded by horror, Chico escaped El Salvador in the early eighties and was eventually granted refugee status in Australia. As I look at my surroundings, I wonder what makes someone leave twenty-five years of comfort, safety and luxury in Australia to come back to a poverty stricken country that killed most of his family. Dripping with sweat, and caked in dust that feels like it could still be settling from the civil war, I begin our conversation.
Chico was born close by in another small village, Las Pampas, in 1962. One of ten children, he considers his upbringing very fortunate compared to most. His family had a few acres and were able to grow and sell vegetables. Most people were earning hunger wages, picking cotton, coffee, or cutting sugarcane. This hasn´t changed.
Throughout the sixties and seventies discontent among the country’s poor was rising in response to extreme economic inequality, lack of political representation and violent government repression. As a child, Chico remembers seeing soldiers marching through his village leaving the heads of peasants on posts as a warning against rebellion. It was a military government, he explains, one had to be a Colonel or a General to become a minister, even ministers of education and health were army men.
In 1975, the Popular Revolutionary Block was created. Chico recalls increasingly brutal State repression. The military, or civilian-dressed ‘death squads,’ began entering schools to “disappear” teachers and students, and villagers were tortured and killed in front of their children to instil fear. This being the era of the Cold War, state violence was framed as part of the greater fight against communism. In the twelve year civil war that followed, the Salvadoran regime and its infamous National Guard received over seven billion dollars in US support, in the form of training, weapons and propaganda. Chico believes they were supporting a ruthless self-serving oligarchy.
Fearful that he was too well-known as a leftist and in the face of massacres on the streets and huge numbers of disappearances, Chico fled his home town as an eighteen year old for the capital, San Salvador. Within days he was captured by the National Guard and beaten for three days before being released with the help of a lawyer and a workers’ union. The next day, realising he was no longer safe, he headed into the volcanic mountains of San Vicente and joined the Popular Liberation Force, a guerrilla group located there. “It wasn’t my choice,” he says, “If they’re going to kill me, they’re going to kill me with my arms.”
In the mountains he found inexperience and a lack of basic supplies. A “European man” arrived to organise the fighters. They were broken into groups of thirty, with each group electing a leader. To his dismay, Chico was elected a leader. The next day they began their military training and political education. There was little time for practice before the army began attacking their mountain hideouts.
After six months, an order came from high command that Chico was no longer leader of his group, but was in charge of political issues, morale and psychological support for all the guerrillas in the area. After two years he was promoted to the War Party to help with overall strategy. Here he studied social and guerrilla movements from around the world, and particularly from Vietnam.
Chico can’t forget the ferocity of the enemy. “They were so much better prepared – trained at the School of the Americas by the United States and they didn’t just have guns, but tanks, planes and helicopters.” He says it took him about ten years in Australia to get over the trauma of experiences like seeing bodies everywhere after the massacres and having to run during the night to another position. Chico always thinks of his comrades, both fallen and living, who came together to try to change society. They used to say, “We might not see it, but our children are going to enjoy it.”
Centralised power and propaganda is an immense force anywhere, but is particularly potent in places of poverty where illiteracy rates are high and citizens are rarely able to leave their village. The regime labelled the rebels all sorts of frightening things, including ´´non-humans without morals who ate old people and burned bibles.´´ But, Chico argues, “we were freedom fighters, fighting for our children’s future, a real democracy, and we were the ones who respected human rights.”
The Report of the United Nations Truth Commission on El Salvador, which was created by the 1992 peace accord to investigate human rights abuses and identify the perpetrators, supports Chico’s claim. The Commission registered more than twenty-two thousand complaints of serious acts of violence that occurred in El Salvador during the war. Agents of the State, or groups allied to them, were implicated in 85 per cent of these complaints, whilst the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the guerrilla coalition, was implicated in just five per cent.
Chico’s expression is distant as he describes losses unimaginable to me. He lost four siblings who were involved in the struggle, including a brother who was hanged by soldiers for distributing leaflets and a sister who was killed by the National Guard whilst seven months pregnant. Though they were not active in the war, his father and another brother were judged guilty by association. His father was dragged from his vegetable stall in the Usulutan market by a civilian-clothed ‘death squad’ onto a pick-up truck and never seen again. Three days later, Chico’s brother went drunken and crying to his father´s empty stall and suffered the same fate.
After the disappearance of her husband, Chico’s mother resorted to washing clothes for food and sleeping in the slums of San Salvador. Around this time, a message came from high command that they must prepare for a long war, possibly thirty years, because “the US and the CIA were not going to lose this one like Cuba and Nicaragua”. They were told to prepare holes and tunnels like the Vietnamese had.
“At this time I decided my mother had lost enough, that I couldn’t leave her like this,” Chico explains. He decided to again go to San Salvador, find a job to support his mother and help the guerrillas in secret. Once there however he quickly discovered that too many people knew he was a leftist and it would only be a matter of time before he was killed.
He had a cousin who worked for the army, so he contacted his aunt and asked for help. She said, “We must put family first”, and his cousin, though technically the enemy, organised his documents and escorted him through the army check points to the airport and waited until he had safely boarded a plane to Mexico City.
Salvadoran escapees used to meet every Sunday at the Cultural House in Mexico City, which is where Chico learned of a United Nations humanitarian program to take Salvadoran refugees to countries such as Canada, Russia or Australia. He did some research and found that “Australia wasn’t as cold as the other countries´´.
Between 1980 and 1991 the Australian Government accepted ten thousand Salvadoran refugees under a Special Humanitarian Program, though it never publicly questioned the United States for arming and training the Salvadoran military and the death squads that were forcing people to flee.
With a group of other Salvadoran refugees, Chico arrived in Melbourne in December 1984 and was collected at the airport and taken to a Hostel. The first few days were spent completing immigration and welfare papers, and beginning English classes.
Chico´s first impression of Australia was of a safe country with a high standard of living and welfare for its people. But he didn’t speak a word of English, in fact, he admits, “I hated English because of the US involvement in El Salvador.” Today he loves speaking English. His favourite phrase is, ´´You´re not wrong´´, with an incredibly over the top Australian drawl. He describes Australia as a fair country, and tells me, “you should be proud of your parents and grandparents for this, things that we should have done here before but we didn’t have that choice.”
Though his dream was to become a journalist, Chico went to TAFE and became a painter and decorator, enabling him to start his own business, and support his family. He worked hard, and in 1996 was able to buy his own house in St Albans.
Chico lived in Australia for twenty-five years and built a comfortable life, but never forgot the struggle he left behind. He was one of the founders of the Committee of Solidarity between Australia and El Salvador and has been assisting aid and development programs from Australia. But two years ago, Chico decided to leave his privileged Australian life and moved back to poverty stricken rural El Salvador. “As a man from the left I consider that it’s a shame that while we have plenty there are people who have practically nothing, not even something to eat,” he explains.
The peace accord that is currently in place has “planted a little seed of democracy,” but El Salvador remains a poor country where supermarket prices are comparable to Australia, though a sugar cane cutter earns five dollars a day. Chico believes his country must tackle inequality and help democracy grow. He has funded and instigated several food production projects and small business co-operatives, because, “if people have food in their stomach they can think much better – they can digest medication if they are sick, they can go to school.”
Chico is a community leader and has become an integral part of the local community. He has bought a simple fishing boat, “La Australiana,” that employs three people and helps feed local communities. He has set up a chicken farm that employs three people and benefits several families. He has started an alcoholics anonymous group and recently he helped establish a plant nursery co-operative involving five local women.
But war doesn’t disappear when it ends. The civil war brought not only 80,000 deaths, but widespread terror and dislocation. As with any extended civil war, it left a population entangled in untruth. In 1993, five days after the publication of the Truth Commission’s report, the Legislative Assembly, controlled by the far-right party ARENA, approved an amnesty law covering all violent acts committed during the conflict years. The law ensures that people who forced twelve year olds to become government soldiers and who ordered the massacres of women and children, priests and funerals-goers are still in positions of power.
Chico believes that the amnesty law should be repealed and that “it was made by ARENA to protect their own.” Indeed, the Truth Commission stated that the founder of ARENA, Roberto D’Aubuisson, orchestrated the infamous killing of Archbishop Romero in 1980. It also confirmed that US-trained government troops massacred the entire village of El Mozote, machine-gunning hundreds of children locked in a church after their parents had been tortured and killed. He believes that public trials are an essential part of saying “never again”, and that the current culture of impunity is why El Salvador is one of the world’s most violent countries.
The courage and resilience of the rebels who fought from the disadvantaged position of poverty was remarkable and undoubtedly built the strength and perseverance of the present leftist movement and its rise to government. In 2009, Chico’s beloved FMLN, transformed from a guerrilla group to a political party after the peace accord, became the country’s first democratically elected leftist government. Many commentators labelled the victory a triumph of hope over fear.
I had saved the hardest question for last, but Chico won’t tell me which country is home.
“I love Australia. When I had nothing over my head, no shelter, no food, no place to be with security – Australia came and opened its hands. But El Salvador is where I was born and where people need my help.”