She has had a life of losses -- her two brothers, her career, her sexuality, her country. For Emelina de Garcia, a heroine of El Salvador and whose life is a portrait of her times, all is gone_except her courage. It is stunning courage, all but incomprehensible to Americans for whom El Salvador's civil war is remote and unthreatening.
A few days ago at Georgetown University, de Garcia accepted the first Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award on behalf of the CO-MADRES (the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Political Prisoners, Disappeared and Murdered, of El Salvador). Garcia, 42, a nurse who now lives in exile in Mexico, joined the human-rights organization in 1978 on the advice of the then-Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. He thought that the newly formed group -- which today has about 500 members, mostly women and poor -- could help de Garcia find one of her missing sons.
This was William. At 14, he was taken away by the National Guard. For more than three months, he was jailed and tortured. As de Garcia recalls it, her son's crime was "carrying a Bible that he used to give catechism classes."
Few Salvadoran families are without stories like this. Rarely, though, do the stories get told to American audiences. We focus on El Salvador, when we focus at all, on issues, not people. As a result, we have become so accustomed to the indescribable brutality that has claimed 40,000 lives and terrorized an entire country that the heinous results of policy decisions made in Washington are obscured.
De Garcia's courage is in her determination to tell her story. It is horrendous, and when she told it before an audience of 700 at Georgetown University, few were unmoved.
In 1981, which was three years after de Garcia finally found her son, two of her brothers were arrested by the Treasury Police. Of one, she said, "We found his head and one arm in a park in San Vicente." Of the other, "He is still 'disappeared.' "
A month later, in October 1981, the terror came closer. "More than 20 men, heavily armed, came to my house at midday. They wore civilian shirts and military pants. They forced me to open the door and began to beat my husband, threatening to kill him. They kept me in another room, with my three children -- Blanca, 12, Rosalia, 10 and Juan Carlos, 6. They asked us where we kept the arsenal of weapons left by a priest . I told them we had no weapons. With each question they beat me in the ribs with their rifles. One of the men beat me with his bare fists.
"They searched the entire house, and all they found was a photograph of Archbishop Romero, who had been killed six months before. They also found a jar of syringes that I used to give injections to people in my neighborhood. They said that was proof that I collaborated with the guerrillas."
While de Garcia was being beaten, one of the men ripped the clothes from Blanca and was about to rape her. A shot rang out and the rapist was distracted. The child fled: "The neighbors saw her running naked into the street and realized that something terrible was going on. The men were furious that my daughter had escaped, and so they threw me down on the floor. I was raped in front of my two children by eight of those men. Finally, four of them picked me up and inserted a rifle butt into my vagina. I began to bleed.
"Then they ordered me to get up and walk, but I couldn't. They kicked me and pushed me into a pickup truck. The driver wore a military uniform. The neighbors surrounded the truck and began yelling, demanding that they leave me alone. Finally, the men pushed me off the truck into the street, shouting that they would come back for me soon."
With $100 from the CO-MADRES and a loan of $150 from a friend, de Garcia and her family fled to Mexico. She is now in the United States speaking to groups like those at Georgetown University who see a direct link between military aid from Washington and the victimization of Salvadorans like Emelina de Garcia. Had the United States -- first the Carter administration, then Reagan's, Congress and the Pentagon -- listened to pleas of leaders like Oscar Romero and groups like the CO-MADRES, we could have done much to establish peace by now in El Salvador. They wanted food, farm equipment, loans for housing -- not weaponry. In 1984, military aid totaled $195 million -- as much as the combined layout of the three previous years.
After World War II, Americans could say of the millions who died under Nazi terror, "We'd have done something, but we didn't know." About El Salvador, we do know. One Emelina de Garcia after another has been here to tell us.