The worst moment, she remembers, was when her captors taped her head.
"They've wrapped my head completely and they've pulled back my head, and I thought, 'They're going to cut my head off,' " says Cynthia Morin, slightly incredulous now. "I thought, 'They've taped my face so they don't have to look at me. They're going to cut my head off.' But they don't."
She goes on with her story: a 31-year old American nurse working at a Guatemalan refugee camp in Honduras, she was stopped June 9 by four Honduran soldiers. She had a passport, a driver's license, nurse's registration, a credit card and $300. The soldiers did not ask her for identification.
Instead, while Morin looked on, the soldiers questioned her companion--a Guatemalan doctor--searched him and examined his passport. His hands were tied behind his back, and he and Morin were led down a nearby gorge and into a creek. The soldiers separated the two, taking the doctor down the creek out of sight of Morin but not out of earshot. Morin watched as soldiers took out clubs, sticks and ropes. She heard her companion moan for about five minutes. After about an hour, she was led away from the creek. The body of Oscar Giron, the Guatemalan doctor, was found last weekend near that creek.
For Morin, the ordeal lasted two days. She was bound at the wrists for 18 hours, sexually molested twice, and questioned by police. Morin never was charged with anything, although Honduran officials said they had found a note in her passport from a Guatemalan guerrilla. She denied ever having seen it. When she was finally released to an American vice consul, embassy officials advised her to go home. They said they could not guarantee her safety.
She didn't want to leave Honduras, but "I didn't want to do anything that would endanger me," she says, settling back on a couch in the apartment of a publicist for CONCERN, the organization she worked for in Honduras. Her right wrist bears a faint reddish line, the result of her bonds. There is still numbness in her hand, she says.
Last week, the Honduran government arraigned six soldiers before a military court and began an investigation of the incident. "I'd like to see them," Morin says stone-faced, puffing on a cigarette.
She returned to the United States on June 21 and has been telling her story to the media, to members of Congress, to the State Department. Her pre-Honduras life is a textbook history of the '60s--the naif who, certain of her mission, shed a safe girlhood to seek a world of riot-torn neighborhoods, juvenile delinquents, poor people and eventually Central American refugees.
"When I'm talking with my friends, it gets the heaviest," says Morin. "When I'm with my friends I talk about my feelings. I felt the loss of the refugees. I was in a restaurant in New York with friends last night and I don't know how it came up, but I started talking about Oscar. And then I talk about that feeling of living and knowing someone else died. I don't know if you can call it guilt. I loved him in many ways. In those countries, you get very close to people in this work. You're very raw and vulnerable. I think that's where my suffering comes from. I don't know how else to put it--someone died and I lived." A Long Way From Home
When she was 19, she quit UCLA. "I wanted to establish my own identity," she says. "My parents would have put me through a bachelor's degree, or maybe further. But I wanted to do it myself. I wanted to cut my own path. I wanted to see the world."
She got a job on an egg farm in Santa Cruz.
After that, she worked in a convalescent home, and in a clinic that did "cheapie divorces--I worked with black women who couldn't afford lawyers. I did everything. I did interviews, I went to court with them. The lawyer filed the papers."
She saved $3,000 in a year and a half and went off to Central America alone, traveling from Mexico City down both coasts, staying in hotels or just hanging her hammock somewhere. She studied Spanish in Cuernavaca and lived with a Mexican family.
During the five years between quitting UCLA and returning to get a bachelor's degree in anthropology, she worked with juvenile delinquents, emotionally disturbed children, family planning, she says, ticking them off on her fingers. "All my jobs have been social service jobs."
It all made sense to her, this pushing out into a world away from home. She grew up middle class in a Catholic family of seven children, with a house in Encino, Calif., a swimming pool, good schools, music lessons and braces. She was a fine cello player, practicing two hours a day. Poor people were the people to whom her mother gave old clothes.
"I felt I was living in a tiny, naive world," she says, head propped up on an elbow. "In high school, I went down to Watts. I went to consciousness-raising meetings. Blacks were very hostile. They were like, 'What are you whiteys doing down here? What do you think you're doing?' I was like, 'Wow.' " She falls back against the sofa, and grins. "I knew something was going on here. My parents were saying, 'Uh, Cynthia, we think your life is in danger.' I was like, 'REALLY?! Is it?' "
Her parents still allowed her to go to the meetings in Watts. "We sat in a circle and the blacks stood in the middle. It was like, 'God I really do stand for a lot of oppressive things.' It was a lot of naive, white stuff. Of course, I could go back to my house with my pool."
"I was smack in the middle of the '60s," she says. "I was 17 in 1968." Heaven in Honduras
She was primed for the job in Honduras. "I was ready to go. I had someone to take my house. My dog was in San Luis Obispo. I'd traveled in Latin America at the age of 23 all by myself. I'm just the independent venturer type. When this came up, I thought, 'Ideal.' I speak the language. I'm emotionally ready to go. The refugee problem has a lot of stress involved. People are starving. The need is tremendous--for medical help, for personnel help."
She had become a registered nurse--to concentrate on international health problems--and was working in the intensive care unit at Saint Joseph's in Burbank. "I had considered everything from Eskimos in Alaska to Indians to refugees in Africa to Appalachia," she says.
At a conference in Berkeley on refugees, she met Dr. Davida Coady, U.S. head of CONCERN, an international hunger relief and development organization founded in Ireland in 1968. "I followed Davida around at the conference, bugging her, saying, 'I want to go, I want to go.' "
She left for the El Tesoro Refugee Camp in Honduras April 13.
"I remember thinking, 'I can't imagine what a refugee camp will be like.' "
The camp, which had no electricity, housed 550 Guatemalans who had fled their own country, where guerrilla rebel forces fighting the Guatemalan military have grown stronger and the warfare has increased. Morin worked from 5:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night. She delivered babies, worked on a nutrition project and helped coordinate the camp. "I was in heaven," she says. "I was doing what I wanted to do." Fear and Fighting
"When they first put me in the jeep," she says, "and they covered my head with a towel, I protested. I said, 'You can't do this.' " She holds up her hands, palms out. " 'I have my rights.' "
She characterized her relations with police near the refugee camp as good. "Honduras is relatively tranquil," she says. "It's not known for civil rights violations. It has a lot of refugee camps."
But when the soldiers put her in an unmarked blue Toyota Landcruiser and pushed her down to the floor as another car sped by, the initial flicker of fear ran through her. "I thought, 'If they're doing this to me, and I'm an American, they've killed him.' "
Later that evening, when she was taken to an open-air enclosure, she fought off the first of two rape attempts. "I thought I had absolutely nothing to lose and I wasn't going to cooperate . . . I knew they were going to do exactly what they wanted to whether I cooperated or not. If they were going to shoot me, they'd shoot me." Besides, she says, "I was a gringo and I was protected by that. If I was Honduran, I'd be dead."
There was more traveling in another vehicle. "I think throughout the night, I thought about dying," she says. "I thought, 'I hope I can die with dignity.' I wasn't going to be a martyr, but I guess I was afraid of being afraid."
At one point, in the jeep, the soldiers touched her feet. "I thought, 'They're going to pull out my toenails.' " She grins in amazement at the notion. Instead, they were simply putting on her sandals. "But still I was afraid they were trying to make me look as normal as possible and then kill me and dump me on the side of the road . . . I had so much time to think about what they would do."
When she was finally taken to police investigative headquarters in San Pedro Sula for questioning 18 hours after the ordeal began, she was offered food, a Coke and an opportunity to use the bathroom.
"Very initially, when I came out, my feelings were of bitterness," she says about her release in Tegucigalpa the morning of the 11th, "but that was initially. Then I felt relieved to be alive. And I identified with the refugees. Their entire lifetimes are experiences of this kind of brutality. The people I work with have lost their families. Can you imagine leaving everything behind and walking for miles with your children in your arms?" Determination
Morin says she plans to continue doing international health work. "This is my main interest," she says.
"I might continue with CONCERN in Tijuana. They have a program there." She says she'll go down and look it over.
She leaves today.