In the morning, we had breakfast. We had cantaloupe and pineapple, orange juice and papaya, all of it fresh, and lots of coffee_good but not exceptional. Then we rented a car and drove through the brilliant sunshine to the place Salvadorans know so well_the morgue. Two men had been executed the night before.
The bodies were laid out on the floor. One had been shot in the front of the neck, the other in the back and they had been dumped on a street in a poor section of town. One was bearded and wore jeans. The other, cleanshaven, wore blue work clothes, suggesting to morgue officials that he had been a janitor.
A morgue official worked at his desk. Behind him, a group of men stood over the bodies, pointing, talking, sometimes kneeling down to see something closer. The morgue official, a golf cap on his head, simply made entries into a ledger, ignoring the macabre spectacle behind him. We all have our work to do.
It is said that the death squads are more active now. It is said that the guerrillas are attempting to re-establish their urban organization and so the death squads are retaliating. A human rights worker said that two bodies were dumped into the parking lot of the Siesta Hotel, an arrogant conclusion to otherwise unexceptional murders. Human rights groups claim that since 1979 about 47,000 people have died this way, either killed or "disappeared"--a word that is not a description but an act: He was disappeared. These were my first bodies and so I braced myself for the confrontation. I apologized beforehand for what I might do, for getting sick or passing out or God-knows-what, but none of that happened. Instead, I got shaky, cold and shaky, which is to say terrorized--not terrified--a sort of flu of the soul. It has to do with the capriciousness of the violence, the ordinariness of it, and also the knowledge that in this war the killers do not always wear uniforms. The front is anywhere you go.
I apologize for writing this way. I am new here, new to the terror and so it makes an impression. I remember, though, that there are grand matters of policy at stake in El Salvador, a fight between the United States and Russia, a contest between capitalism and communism. I know there are aid bills to discuss and, of course, concerns about the security of the Panama Canal and, by extension and maybe hyperbole, El Paso, Tex.
But at the moment, none of that matters. What does matter are the bodies on the floor of the morgue, the blood running out of them, and the realization that no political murders are ever solved--not those of the American nuns and certainly not that of a janitor. The only people with a true appreciation of the situation are those like the morgue official who sits at a desk and the bureaucrats in Washington and maybe Moscow who sit at theirs. For them Salvadoran terrorism just means more paperwork. Afterwards, we went to the office of the Human Rights Commission. This is not the official one, which has government members, but the independent one. It is located behind the offices of the archbishopric and contains four or five desks. Men and women worked at typewriters, filling out forms about human rights abuses. One of them took out two red photo albums. They contained photos of the dead, many of them mutilated, some of them headless, some of them burned. The typewriters clacked away.
Outside in the shade, women worked at embroidering place mats. They were the mothers of the dead and the disappeared and they sell the place mats to raise money for their cause. One place mat said, "Committee of Mothers and Families of Political Disappeared Murdered Victims."
They sell plaques, too. They are made by political prisoners and have the carved likeness of Archbishop Oscar Romero on them. He was murdered in 1980 as he said mass. At the time for me, it was just another news story. Now, though, it means that no one is safe--certainly not a janitor, not even an archbishop.
In the afternoon, we return to the hotel for lunch. I thought I would not be able to eat, but surprisingly I not only can, I am hungry. I have chicken and rice, also pineapple and cantaloupe and more coffee--good but not exceptional--and then I go to write.
We all have our work to do.