Sonia felt the great effect the war was having on her. Any time gunfire could be heard, she was the first one to duck for cover, under a bed or anything that could provide protection. She always felt very anxious, stressed, nervous, scared. It is difficult to express the type of emotions that were felt during the war. Anything could happen, whether you were at school, running errands, or playing with friends. Everyone had to be careful because if soldiers and guerrillas came into contact with one another, it was sure to be a fight. “We did not want to be caught in the crossfire.” As time went on, the situation just became more and more alarming. One of the neighbor’s doors got taken down just so a group could escape a losing fight, without a care for who was inside or what happened to them. People were found dead all over. Civilians were being taken advantage of and they quickly became expendable. My mother had a classmate during the war who suffered a terrible loss, her name was Paz. One of the warring sides believed that her father was in favor of the opposing group and so one day, he was taken out of his home and forced into a nearby alley. An explosive was all it took to end his life. Later that same day, his wife went to pick up whatever pieces were left of her husband to place in a coffin for burial. Señora Esperanza was left to take care of five children on her own. News spread quickly and everyone in the pueblo was devastated that this was the reality everyone had come to face.
Sonia Escobar was around eight years old when Civil War started taking a hold of El Salvador. Even though she was young, she could feel the fear that was inside the hearts of the people of Dulce Nombre de María. When the war started being set in motion, civilians would sometimes see soldiers marching into the pueblo and other times the guerrillas, and the question in everyone’s mind was, what is about to happen? As time went on, she found herself waking up to the sound of a bullet whizzing through the night’s air. Silence. And then there would be many more, sounds of complete chaos. With bullets flying around most people had to board up the windows to their houses. When there was a standoff between the two warring bands, soldiers would usually be on one side and then the guerrillas would descend from the mountains on the other. Both would use homes as cover from each other’s bullets, and even though the civilians had nothing to do with the war, they were always stuck in the middle without any escape.
One day, Sonia’s father was walking home late in the day when he was stopped by soldiers near his sister’s home. My mother was living with her at the time. Sonia could hear the exchange going on outside and went to wake up her aunt. When the two went to the door, the soldiers were accusing her father of spreading propaganda for the FMLN and one of the soldiers was repeatedly striking him with the end of his gun. My mother just started sobbing at the sight, and it is still a difficult memory that she cannot forget. After some convincing they let him go. “This was a moment when I saw someone I loved being hurt right in front of me and there was not much I could do about it.”
Another heart-breaking experience for Sonia was when her brother, Saul, was taken by the guerrilla during a meeting it was hosting for the young people of the pueblo. The purpose was to inspire the youth to fight in the struggle against the government, but in truth both the guerrillas and the government forces were trying to make each other look evil in the eyes of the people. Each side was right in their own eyes, just one fighting to topple the other one over, and the latter trying to prevent it. The meeting was being held outdoors and my mother could hear the cries of the youth chanting with the guerrillas, pretending and exaggerating enthusiasm for what the warring band had to say. She had a horrible gut feeling. Saul did not return. During next morning’s mass she found out that almost everyone at the meeting had been forcefully taken to join the ranks of the guerrilla, but there were some that had deserted along the way. She was hoping Saul was one of these, but at that moment she did not know if she would ever see her brother again. From that day on, she always kept a change of clothes for him right by the door, in case he came home.
Throughout the war there was always sadness. Sonia could not understand why these two groups were fighting the way that they were, and why civilians had to put up with it. Along with sadness came hate because of the carelessness for life of the people stuck in the middle. No one should have had to live so close to the war, not the young people, not the old people, no one. On both warring sides, the rich and powerful just watched as those below them fought their fight. The peace accords were signed in 1992, but the post-war still continued. The people fighting for a supposed change achieved nothing. The poor and the humble lost almost everything.
As a child, my uncle remembers his love for fishing, hunting, and playing soccer. He also remembers working out in the fields harvesting maiz and frijol with his brothers and sister, Sonia. There was a lot of enjoyment in being outside and doing this type of work, because not only was it fun learning how to produce one’s own food, but it was also the only means by which the family had something to eat on a regular basis. Learning this skill was essential for anyone living in Dulce Nombre and children had to learn from a very young age to lend a helping hand. My uncle was around seven years old when he started learning to harvest.
Saul Galdamez was born in 1970. Once the war took a hold of Dulce Nombre De María, hearing gunfire became commonplace, whether it be in the morning, daytime, or night. No one could predict when or where there would be a confrontation; civilians could only hope not to find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the most disturbing memories was waking up to dead bodies found all around the pueblo. It meant someone in his family could potentially end up like that. No one was really safe. Having someone loved, die, was unthinkable for anyone, and yet on a daily basis people were dying.
The justification for the war, from the guerrilla’s point of view was that they were fighting for the poor; they were fighting so the government could help the poor. The guerrillas would often hold meetings in Dulce Nombre, going door-to-door, both inviting and pressuring the young people to come. They would make announcements trying to enthuse those listening, to join them in fighting for the rights of Salvadorans. Saul would generally go to these meetings, not because he believed in everything they said, but because it was a way for the guerrilla to see he was participating. This kept him out of trouble incase they ever decided to do something against him because he was not involved in the struggle somehow. Unfortunately, it was in one of these meetings that the guerrilla decided to forcefully take around fifty young people to become a part of their ranks, something they had never done before in Dulce Nombre. He was one of those fifty and his thoughts were with his siblings who had advised him not to go.
The year was 1988. Saul was immediately given an M16 rifle, making it the first time he had ever held a weapon in his hands. The war suddenly became even more real because he was no longer just a civilian, but a part of one of the two warring bands against his will. At first he felt stuck, like he would never be able to leave. He thought for sure, these were going to be the last days of his life. Saul remembers walking through the mountains, sometimes going days without having anything to eat or drink, and always having to be on high alert. No one in his group could determinedly know when or where it could encounter a group of soldiers. Saul started looking for a way out. He wanted to leave as soon as possible, and every day he would pray that he was given the chance. Death was more of a possibility being there and that was an unnerving feeling.
Carrying out different operations was a daily routine as part of a guerrilla group or a “quadrilla” as it was called. There would usually be eight people to a group, each with its own leader, and up to four groups working together to execute different missions. Sometimes Saul’s group would be sent into the pueblo where it would exchange gunfire with the soldiers, but other operations were much less direct in confrontation. These would involve guerrilla leaders getting word of the location of a group of soldiers and heading over to attack them in a very psychological way. The guerrilla would throw an explosive near the soldiers’ position to make their presence known and then retreat back to base. In this way, the soldiers would think that the guerrillas were nearby and not be able to rest well, getting fatigued surveying the area. It was a tactic to physically and mentally drain the opposing side that would sometimes be repeated for days. Other missions, however, were planned for destruction. There was one in particular where several groups, including Saul’s, were tasked with bombing El Antel in Santa Rita, a neighboring pueblo to Dulce Nombre De María. It ended up being that one of the groups got lost, and any time this happened a mission was aborted, and that was the case here, thankfully. Saul continued looking for a way out, he did not want to be involved in any of this. From the start, the plan had always been to leave the next day if possible.
Most of the guerrilla members my uncle encountered did not want to be in the leftist group, both males and females alike. They did not enjoy living a life of constant heart-wrenching tension, without having any food to eat, and without being able to see their families. Who would? My uncle had some friends in the guerrilla, some of whom were a bit older than he was, and even their advice was to be careful and to desert if possible. Seemingly, everyone was trying to get out, just looking for an opportunity when they would not be noticed. Some people that tried to desert, however, were found and forced back into fighting. They were degraded and made fun of for trying to run away, for running away from their “family.” Guerrilla leaders would try to essentially brainwash its members into thinking that their cause was righteous, that everything was worth it, so that a new government could be created that would finally stand by the poor. My uncle and most everyone else had to put up a front, like they enjoyed being there. Life was difficult for anyone that was part of the guerrillas, as it was probably for anyone on the side of the soldiers.
It does not go without saying that there were occasionally moments of levity and entertainment. The guerrilla would sometimes hold parties with music, dance, food, and drinks. Male and female guerrillas would come together to enjoy their time as much as they could amidst the war. In the morning, everyone would return to their respective camps to keep carrying out their duties. This particular morning after a party, Saul’s group was the last one to leave. Once they were nearing their camp, his group’s leader got word from another quadrilla that there might be soldiers in a certain area, and told Saul to go patrol it by himself and to keep a lookout for any soldiers that might be there. The sky had started to darken and thick fog had started rolling in, making it very difficult to see anything. This was the chance he had been looking for. After four months, under the cover of fog, my uncle ran home where he found his sister Sonia and a clean change of clothes right by the door.
Saul managed to get to the capital where it was safer and would later move to the United States. For a while he remembers experiencing flashbacks and feelings of uneasiness any time someone would slam a door shut or if there were any loud, sharp noises. He had seen death, but never had to kill anyone, and thanks God for it. His life continues today and he is doing much better, but he believes the war was not just. He knows during the time he was away, his family was very worried and dreaded the possibility of receiving the news that Saul had been killed. Even worse, never finding out what happened to him. That was not fair to them. It was not fair to the other families and people stuck in the same situation. “Today, the citizens of Dulce Nombre seem to be a bit better off today than before the war, but there is still so much poverty.”