Lives Remembered

Michelle Arène (1952-2010 ): In tallying atrocities, kindness counted most

Michelle Arene, right, with Marianella Garcia Villas in El Salvador, circa 1979.
Michelle Arene, right, with Marianella Garcia Villas in El Salvador, circa 1979. (Courtesy Arene Family)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010

In those days of disappearance and death 30 years ago in El Salvador, the place to go for answers to the hardest questions was a modest concrete house at the corner of Avenida España and 15 Calle Oriente, in the capital city, San Salvador.

Visitors would spill out the front door, fill the garden: peasants in straw hats and thick-soled sandals; women in big aprons with lots of pockets; city workers in slacks and T-shirts. All with questions.

My husband, have they found his body? My son, how did he die?

In a first-floor bedroom converted into an office, an unassuming 27-year-old woman with large eye-glasses greeted each one. Michelle Arène listened, took notes, gently prodded for more information.

Sometimes an answer lay in one of her photo albums. A picture of a mutilated corpse provided bitter closure. Sometimes there was no answer -- but at least someone had been there to listen, and make a record.

The mission of the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador -- where Arène worked from 1978 to 1983 -- was to disseminate evidence of atrocities. Arène's decision to also spend those moments with relatives of victims brought a touch of kindness and humanity to an otherwise horrific task.

"It makes me think, in retrospect, that she was a confessor of a society," said Jeannette Noltenius, who worked in El Salvador for the U.S. Agency for International Development. "Each story needed to be told and respected. This is the kind of person she was."

The daughter of a cellist and a ballerina, Arène had studied in Paris and was teaching French at the University of El Salvador when civil war broke out in 1979. She had a brief love affair with a law student who sympathized with the leftist guerrillas. She went to work with her close friend Marianella García Villas, who co-founded the rights commission as a watchdog over the violence committed by government forces and right-wing death squads.

Arène stayed behind the scenes, collating information, translating, planning fact-finding trips, keeping the office running. She also took testimony from witnesses.

"She was considered a 'dangerous woman' by those who persecuted us," said Roberto Cuéllar, legal adviser to Archbishop Oscar Romero, who also monitored abuses. Romero was assassinated in 1980.

At least two members of the commission were murdered, and two disappeared. Men were seen following Arène, so Noltenius let her stay in a safe apartment. To cope with the stress and deflect the fear, Arène "focused on the task at hand," said her younger sister, Teresa Arène. "As long as the documents were in order, as long as she could control at least that aspect of it, then she could control her emotions, then the meaning of the work was possible."

One of her two younger brothers, Alberto Arène, was politically active, and his name appeared on a death list. Before Alberto departed for the United States in 1980, Michelle gave him a briefcase crammed with case records. Alberto delivered the briefcase to Francesca Jessup in the Washington office of Amnesty International.

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