Her story was chilling --the men with guns who pounded at the door, her husband's flight into the night, bleeding bodies in the streets. The young woman's eyes, the color of ripe olives, had filled with tears as she spoke, but now there was a steely, determined flash.
"I want to say something else. I would like you to know they killed two members of my family. One night they came to the house of my uncle and took him. The next day he appeared killed in the streets.
"And then, after a week, his son was killed. They did a lot of things to him. He was only 14 years old. They violated him. He was tortured and he appeared like any animal that was killed in the streets. It was the torture that they do," she said, with the matter-of-factness of one who has known terror as commonplace.
"They break these parts of the fingers," she said, touching her knuckles. Her hands go to her head, "and then the electric shock on the head. And on the genitals."
He was shot?
"Si. And also he was cut in pieces."
And only 14?
"Fourteen is very old in El Salvador."
Juan and Concepcio'n (not their real names) are only one couple among the thousands of Salvadorans who live in the Washington area with memories of death and terror. As they recalled the past in the study of Luther Place Memorial Church, agitation showed.
They fear deportation. They will give no specifics of their past -- nothing that would lead to identity.
They feel they owe their lives -- and the lives of their two children -- to, as Juan said simply, "Sanctuary."
That night, a tall, skinny man named Jack Elder stood among refugees and church people in the brownstone and stained-glass church built after the Civil War as a memorial to peace. The church at Thomas Circle is a few blocks from the White House and hard by 14th Street's hooker haven. Outside, a prostitute defied the night's chill, trolling in bathing suit and boots. Inside, homeless women slept or mumbled to themselves on pallets spread in hallways and study rooms.
In front of the altar, Elder, 41, spoke of the prison term he faces.
"I go confident that I go not alone. There is a spirit that says we refuse to surrender these inalienable rights." There were hugs and kisses, tears and laughter; a bonding of the relative handful in the Nation's Capital who care -- or even know -- about the Sanctuary Movement.
The world of do-gooding, these days, is a world of competing sorrows. For activists, Sanctuary and the Salvadorans are but a part of a world that includes bag ladies and grate men -- or children, cut from lunch programs, who know hunger. Jack Elder had traveled here from Texas in an attempt to make Congress, the national press and, his dimmest of hopes, the White House more aware.
In two weeks Elder will be sentenced. Maximum time, while improbable, could be 30 years. His crime? He was found guilty of conspiracy -- of helping two Salvadorans enter the United States illegally, and of driving two aliens from the Mexican border to his shelter 20 minutes away in San Benito, Tex.
Elder's shelter is Casa Oscar Romero, named for the archbishop who was shot through the heart while saying mass in San Salvador in 1980. For months, border guards and Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) agents looked the other way. Many nights, Texas border guards themselves would bring Salvadoran strays -- women and children -- to Casa Romero.
But times are changing. In places like Tucson, undercover agents are going to church. They record churchgoers who talk about helping people flee from El Salvador. In January the Justice Department announced the indictments of 16 Sanctuary activists -- including nuns, priests and a minister -- and more than 60 arrests in a crackdown on church groups accused of smuggling illegal Central American aliens.
The government had also tried in an earlier case with Elder, but a jury refused to convict him. Last month, a Texas federal jury did. The Movement
In the long ago, Elder was a Goldwater Republican, served in Vietnam and voted for Richard Nixon. No Gandhi or King, he seems embarrassed at the attention he now receives; soft-spoken words fade fast behind his thick mustache. The Sanctuary Movement, in fact, has no leader. About 200 churches now actively aid fleeing Salvadorans; another 1,000 congregations lend support. Indignation over recent arrests is garnering more followers.
The movement emphasizes not only the plight of Salvadorans, but also a U.S. policy thought to be at the heart of such suffering. They oppose American weapons and money used by the Salvadoran government to fight leftist guerrillas in what many view as a civil war. "If we are concerned about life and justice, we cannot separate ourselves from such politics and policies that are killing people in Central America," says Elder. "The obscene amounts of aid -- to a country the size of Massachusetts! What are we obsessed with that we cannot face this madness?" State Department statistics for 1984 show that economic and military aid to El Salvador came to $526 million.
Statistics bespeak the ravages of war. Since 1979, about 50,000 civilians have been killed. A quarter-million have fled to neighboring countries; another half-million have gone to displaced-person camps, virtually prisoners in their own country. Reminiscent of Vietnam, some areas are "free fire zones" where anyone may be killed on sight. Most of the estimated 300,000 to 500,000 illegal Salvadorans in this country came in the last five war-torn years, facing armed border patrols and deportation.
Says Elder, "I think we owe something more than that to people fleeing from a country being soaked in blood by American aid. " One Salvadoran Saga
Juan and Concepcio'n's saga -- months of separation and fear and wandering -- began nearly five years ago. They speak through an interpreter. A government construction worker, Juan was also a union organizer, "one of five persons chosen to represent all the workers before government management. We were reported to the military as agitators. So our names appear on the list."
The "list" refers to the death squad list.
Soon the men came, he says. "That day I didn't go to work." Juan swallows hard, remembering. "Only two on the list were there that day. They knelt before the men with guns and asked to please let them go because they have their family and children. They said they are only working for the rights of workers. But it was all in vain. They took them to a place where there are the bridges and put them under the bridges and just shot them." The bodies flowed into the river. "A friend told me not to come to work because they were killed. I just didn't get near that place anymore. I abandoned my work place -- and also my home and my children."
Juan's eyes start to water. Concepcio'n does not look at him, and almost absent-mindedly wipes the tears that flow down her face. "They also come to the house," she says. "They were asking to tell where Juan was and they would say if I didn't tell them they would kill the children. They came three times. First time it was just a regular car but they had guns. That is how we can tell. They always have guns."
In the early '80s, hundreds of civilians were killed or "were disappeared" every month. Despite some improvement under President Jose Napoleon Duarte, continuing atrocities have been documented by nearly every human rights organization. After a lull of several months, assassinations by right-wing death squads and government security forces are on the rise again, according to the human rights office of the Roman Catholic Church and U.S. officials. A U.S. Embassy preliminary tally indicated that 36 civilians were killed in political violence in the first two weeks of January, compared with 16 in the last two weeks of December.
Juan used his savings to flee to a neighboring country and stayed in "like a concentration camp."
"It was very difficult without him," says Concepcio'n. "The children really needed him. I worked in houses and was always bad treated." Juan returned after 11 months and stayed six months, hiding in friends' houses. But it "was the same. The psychological thing." His hands flash out in a quick start. "A minute sound would wake me easily. And also to see every single day the amount of dead people in the street. The corpses." Juan's eyes grow wide. "They would hang people up on posts." His hands touch his chest, remembering "the signs on them that read 'traitors to the country.' "
With another male friend, Juan crossed into Mexico, giving up all their money to the people who promised to help them.
"We were abandoned," Juan remembers. "After five days without eating and sleeping on the streets, we found a Catholic church and were able to get in contact with a friend in Houston, Texas, and he sent me some money to help me get to the border."
Juan was lucky, one of those who crossed the border undetected. Four months later, Concepcio'n "just sold everything she had left" and got an aunt to look after her children, then 4 and 5. "I didn't tell them anything. I said I was going out to get food and I would be back." Her eyes fill with tears.
"But I didn't come back."
She went by bus to Mexico, worked four months to pay the cayote -- the term for those who help them cross the border -- and then joined Juan in Los Angeles. He assembled furniture, she worked as a domestic. "I lived in the home and after a while they let Juan come to live with me." Through friends, contact was made with Sanctuary people who then paid for and made the contact to bring their two children, now 8 and 7, to the States.
"It has been very difficult on the children. They had not seen their father for two years, their mother for several months.
"We are seeing the effects," says Concepcio'n. "At the beginning, they didn't even know Juan. " The Argument
The sorrow of it all, say the Sanctuary people, is that their movement does not have to be. They contend that fleeing Salvadorans should be admitted under the 1980 Refugee Act, which states that those with a "well founded fear of persecution" are bona fide refugees. However, the Reagan administration rejects that interpretation and insists that Salvadorans are coming for "economic" reasons.
Critics charge discriminatory selection -- that those fleeing regimes the administration opposes are allowed in. In fiscal 1984, 13,373 Salvadorans applied for political asylum -- and 13,045 were denied it. Meanwhile, 51,960 Asians, many fleeing Vietnam and Cambodia, were processed through refugee camps and admitted legally. So were 11,000 from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.
As a stopgap, Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) have introduced a bill that would suspend the deportation of Salvadorans for two years. "Extended voluntary departure" -- or EVD -- prevents deportation of aliens to a country deemed too dangerous. It has been granted 15 times since 1960, and currently protects Poles, Ethiopians, Afghans and Ugandans.
"Why do we give temporary haven to the Poles and not the Salvadorans?" asks Moakley.
Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, argues that a major consideration is that granting EVD status to Salvadorans would create a "significant increase in illegal aliens" hoping to stay under EVD. "That is not the case with Poland."
Abrams also says, "It is logical to expect lower rates of approvals for countries near us who have traditionally sent large numbers of economic migrants." (The rate, however, for Nicaraguans granted asylum was considerably higher in l984 than for nearby Salvadorans -- 12 percent versus 2.5 percent.) Says Abrams, "Now, an overriding factor in changing current policy would be that if they had to go back, are they being tortured, killed, persecuted. We are confident they are not.
"We are confident the Refugee Act is being properly applied, but if the Sanctuary people think it is not, instead of violating the law, they should take cases they consider the most outrageous abuses by us and go to court. The fact that your uncle may have been killed doesn't mean that gives you necessarily a right to live in the United States. The key is targeting -- is someone after you? If you lived in a village that was bombed, that does not necessarily mean that someone is out after you."
The political asylum project of the American Civil Liberties Union argues that a double standard is at work. "Persons fleeing countries whose governments we don't support have to show at the most a well-founded fear of persecution," says the ACLU's Carol Wolchok. "And the criteria for granting EVD has never been based on whether a person would be harmed or killed if deported," says Wolchok. "It has always been a very general reasoning, that conditions are 'generally' unsafe and 'potentially' life threatening. This different standard is a red herring."
As for legally testing the administration's application of the Refugee Act, Wolchok says wearily, "A number of public interest groups have been doing this. One class action suit attacking the procedures of INS has been three years in the works. These cases have not even begun to be tried. And even in the rare cases when Salvadorans win, the government has appealed -- and remains likely to do so. It is incredibly expensive and difficult. These people stay all day outside in the desert in remote detention centers.
"I have a client who was disappeared for one month. His case is pending now. He fled after he received threats. A coworker didn't take the threats seriously and was killed. So the INS says, 'Well, who are the people threatening you?' No one has names and documentation! And all they say is 'You haven't met the burden of proof.' "
Abrams insists that a State Department "unscientific" attempt to track down the fate of 482 deported Salvadorans (3,890 were deported last year) found only one death, by leftist guerrillas. (The report also stated that 72 were not interviewed because "it was too dangerous" to travel to their homes, in areas of "active fighting.")
El Salvador -- where atrocities are committed by both the extreme left and extreme right -- hardly lends itself to census-taking of the living or dead. Wolchok describes a nearly impenetrable curtain when the ACLU asylum project attempted to trace deportees. "INS gave us the names of 8,000. In many cases the names are wrong or incomplete. We traced 52 killed, 47 disappeared and 13 arrested, but that doesn't mean the other 7,800 are okay," she says, her voice rising.
"They may all be dead. We don't know anything about them. In our computer we have 15,000 killed we don't even have names for -- 'five dead bodies, decapitated; three people on the side of the road, mutilated.' We can't say the deported aren't some of these dead."
Documents tell grisly tales: Santana Chirino-Amaya deported. And then the notice in the San Salvador paper. "Santana Chirino Amaya, 24 years of age, was found 'decapitado' near Amalupapa, San Vicente. He was orginally from that city." His headless body was found one month after he was deported. Jack Elder's Conversion
Elder, a vegetarian, picks his way through a spinach salad and traces the convolutions that led to the Casa Romero sanctuary in a dusty Texas border town. His father owned a tool-and-die shop in Connecticut ("I came from as middle class a family as you can get") and he grew up Catholic and conservative.
At Catholic University he was a Young Republican who voted for Barry Goldwater. In 1968 he voted for Nixon because "I was drafted under LBJ and wasn't going to vote for him." Elder still considers himself a conservative and says, with a smile, that he holds dear many of the things "Reagan professes to cherish. Traditional values are very important to me. My children four sons, aged 11 years to 18 months are educated at home, for example."
Along the way, Elder discovered that he "wouldn't be very comfortable in the corporate world devoting myself to making money." But there were no dreams of glory as a high school student in Hamden, Conn. He draws a blank when asked about his teen-age life. "I must have blanked it out. I'm somewhat surprised I'm not afraid of the microphone anymore. I spent most of my lunch hours in the corner of the cafeteria." Elder, who once stuttered slightly, adds, "I'm not very communicative with people."
But Elder, shy and reserved around strangers, will spontaneously hug the Salvadoran refugees who came to see him at Luther Place Memorial Church.
Elder says his parents are trying to "understand" his life now but that it is hard for them. He lives with his wife, a nurse, and children in a trailer next to the shelter, which has housed 100 illegal aliens a month. His Spanish is fluent; his friends are the Mexicans and Central Americans who populate San Benito. And he sees the conspiracy law as valid in cases involving gun-running and drugs.
"The tragedy," he says, "is that ours is an unnecessary confrontation, but a necessary and vital one, as long as the government refuses to let these people in under the 1980 Refugee Act.
"What bothers me is the fact that to question administration policies in America is tantamount to treason. Maybe it's my middle-class background, but I don't take very well to people lying to me and justifying lethal-type decisions on the basis of those lies. Lies such as Salvador is 'perfecting its democracy,' 'land reform following the elections is significant,' 'human rights abuses are being diminished.'
"I find it astounding. What we're talking about is overthrowing a Latin American country. We're denying people 'self-determination' when it is such a cherished American value. To me, the answer is to resist in a very small way."
Elder first became involved with Central America while in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica for two years. When he was drafted six months later, "I neither had the counseling nor the inner strength to resist." He was a lab technician in a hospital unit at the northern end of Cam Ranh, South Vietnam. "I began to see a connection between the Peace Corps and the military. In effect it was the same policy. 'We're interested not in your liberation but your pacification.' " The Future
An intense man, Elder says "it's hard to relax these days. I leave Washington, my odyssey of sorts, with a certain sadness. Some people have been very frank on the Hill, admitting to me in fact a tremendous lack of personal courage in confronting the administration. Too many of them associate sending those millions of dollars with shoring up Duarte, rather than the horror that it is causing. Well, we are not giving up the fight. I sleep well at night, knowing we are on the side of right."
Elliott Abrams concedes that convictions were necessary from the administration's point of view. "It was important to bring one or two cases to make the point 'it really is illegal, guys.' The churches have to now weigh a lot of things if they are going to participate.
"Church members may just be trying to save lives, but the organizers are directing a campaign against U.S. policy in Central America. If you compare '85 to '81, it's a better place. But you never hear such nuances from Sanctuary Movement people.
"All they ever say is that El Salvador is a charnel house."
Meanwhile, Juan and Concepcio'n continue to weave their odyssey.
They live packed together with 85,000 other Salvadorans, mostly illegal, in the Washington area. They look for work and struggle with English, carrying their memories and worries. "How long must these people worry about their brother or their father or their uncle who they know nothing about for two years?" asks Elder. "How long must they be separated from their families?"
Juan is not working now. "For me and for others, the problem is the language." Concepcio'n cleans houses twice a week, getting $35 from one and $25 from another.
How do they see things at home under Duarte?
"The hope is never lost," says Juan, "but we don't have concrete hope. Seeing the reports every day on TV, the military aid is keeping everything going. Duarte has no power really; civilians are still being killed, the death squads continue. The majority of our people are the working class and they suffer the most under this oppression. We see that they are still trying some degree of participation back home. For example, all these workers' strikes."
What does he think these workers hope to accomplish?
"What is expected is a government that is authentic democratic," says Juan. "For years it is the same. Every time, a worker is denied the rights."
For all the horror -- death squads and decapitation, torture and terror, bombs and bloodshed -- the longing as displaced persons is strong in Juan and Concepcio'n.
Asked what they miss most about home, they raise their hands in a palms-up shrug, as if to say they do not think any American would understand. "Todo," they say.