CSB student in El Salvador reflects on earthquake's aftermath

by Emily Keifenheim

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KEIFENHEIM

SPECIAL--Faced with economic, political and educational adversity, El Salvador has been a country struggling to find answers. Only recently, with the 1992 peace accords, has the country begun to find relief from its violent 12-year civil war. Yet many inequities still need to be addressed before this continually developing country can find peace and achieve a real sense of national solidarity.

On Saturday, Jan. 13, at 11:35 a.m., an earthquake rating 7.6 on the Richter scale centered in the Pacific Ocean south of El Salvador devastated the country, changing its goal from one of slow development and recovery after the war to one of survival. The country is in a state of national disaster with 681 dead, 3,440 injured and 123,310 without homes. The death toll is likely to rise higher if the legislature approves a measure that would declare dead those still listed as "disappeared."

At the time of the earthquake, I--along with 11 other students and one professor from the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University--were in the Church of the Divine Providence, the same chapel in which Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in 1980.

As the ground shook beneath our feet for 48 seconds, we clung to the pews and watched as the glass chandeliers swung dangerously above our heads. Meanwhile, Sister Rosa, who had been telling us the story of Archbishop Romero's life, bowed her head to pray for all those that would perish in this natural disaster. For most of us it was our first experience with an earthquake, and for all of us it was one we will never forget.

We had arrived in San Salvador on Friday, Jan. 12 to take part in a three-week January term class entitled, "Building Peace in El Salvador." Our group had come as a SHARE Foundation delegation to study the current grassroots movements and the ongoing struggle for solidarity in El Salvador.

As a non-profit organization, SHARE's three main focuses are to promote political advocacy, encourage local development with a gender perspective, and sister in grassroots projects. Together, with local leaders and community members, we were going to discuss and witness the continuing peace process. By taking part in these meetings, we hoped to promote international solidarity. However, after only one day, we were forced to drastically change our itinerary.

After the earthquake, El Salvador was in a state of need and our original goal no longer seemed appropriate. Finding food, clothes and shelter for those in need became the immediate objective.

Together with members of the SHARE Foundation, we visited Tecoluca, one of the municipalities badly damaged by the quake. During our hour-and-a-half tour of the town, we only saw one house that was inhabitable. More than 1,500 homes were destroyed and 6,500 were damaged in the town and its rural communities. Miraculously, none of the town's citizens died, and only 25 were injured. Most likely this was due to the fact that the earthquake occurred during lunchtime, and people were able to safely flee from their homes into the streets.

Immediately after the disaster, the people of Tecoluca united and organized committees to determine a plan to rebuild their community. Unfortunately, although the people are ready to begin the lengthy process, they don't have access to material resources. Basics such as mattresses, blankets, medicine and canvas for tents are among the most immediate needs. None of the houses can be used as shelter since some of the 10,000 aftershocks-some rating as high as 5 on the Richter scale-continue to cause damage.

Ironically, the town had only one year left of its long-term plan for post-war development when the disaster occurred. The town's whole infrastructure was ruined and residents will be forced to start over once again. Until Tecoluca receives financial aid, however, they cannot even begin redevelopment.

Later in the week, we visited Zaragoza, another community strongly affected by the recent natural disaster. As we talked with the mayor five days after the earthquake, the first truck of clean water since the incident came into town. Sadly, it would not be enough to sustain a community of 24,000 people.

Again, the people of this town had nowhere to go since their homes and places of employment had been destroyed. The mayor told us that although the town had not yet received any aid, they were hoping to obtain enough money to pay for the removal of the damaged homes and enough tin to make temporary shelters.

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A group of students from the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University listen to the testimony of a Tecoluca citizen while witnessing the damage caused by the Jan. 13 earthquake in El Salvador. (Photo submitted)

Additionally, the town is faced with the problem of removing waste brought to them by a neighboring town. All week government trucks had been dumping the upturned earth and rotting materials cleared from Santa Tecla's disastrous landslide into the town of Zaragoza. The people of Zaragoza have no equipment available to dispose of the waste, and they are worried that it could cause an outbreak of cholera or dysentery. Fortunately, they were able to survive the earthquake, but the aftermath is threatening the sustainability of this town.

Tecoluca and Zaragoza are only two of the many cities struggling to find sufficient funds in order to rebuild. So far, neither community has received any relief from the 'government and the prospects look grim. Often, the division of resources is extremely political and only the towns supporting the current government receive help. Furthermore, many communities are ignored simply because they weren't given any media attention. People who were already stricken with poverty before the earthquake have even less now. Without aid, they will have to endure the upcoming rainy season without food or shelter. Patiently, the people must wait for material resources before they can begin to rebuild.

Throughout my experience in El Salvador, what has surprised me the most is the attitude of the community members I have met. Although they have recently undergone a traumatic experience, they are still filled with hope and faith in God. Stoically, they told us their stories and showed us their small pile of worldly possessions in their backyards. After our tour of Tecoluca, although they had little to eat themselves, they treated us to a feast. As we left the town, the little kids who would be forced to sleep in the streets that night smiled bravely and waved goodbye.

Originally, the intent of our class was to understand and promote international solidarity. Although the course changed due to uncontrollable circumstances, we were able to meet the class objective in a different way. None of us will ever forget the experience we shared with our Salvadoran friends. Even if all we can do is share what we learned with others, at least we know the people of El Salvador will always be in our thoughts and prayers.

(Keifenheim is a sophomore English major at the College of Saint Benedict, St. Joseph. She is a member of St. Andrew Parish in Elk River and is one of 12 students participating in a college course entitled, "Building Peace in El Salvador" this January.)