Holding Out Hope : Fearful of the Military, Many Salvadoran Refugees Put Off Homecoming
When Alma Luz Escalante came to Los Angeles, she panicked at the sight of police officers, was afraid to leave her apartment unaccompanied and cowered crying in corners at the sound of helicopters.
For the immigrant from El Salvador, those sights and sounds can be painfully reminiscent of the nightmare that began in San Salvador on Jan. 5, 1989, when she was detained and tortured by Salvadoran National Police and Air Force soldiers, and continued with the torture and execution of her sister.
“I was not allowed to eat or drink or use the bathroom for a period of five days,” said Escalante, 32, who shares a Pico-Union apartment with two other Salvadoran women. “I was visited only when I was questioned. I will always remember the pain.”
When a dozen years of civil war ended Dec. 15 with the signing of peace accords by the Salvadoran government and rebel forces, Escalante and other Salvadoran refugees held out hope that after years in exile, they would finally be able to return to a peaceful homeland.
But after Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani failed to complete an agreement Jan. 1 to purge military officials who ordered human-rights abuses that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, Escalante and other Salvadorans say they plan to stay in the United States until the military changes hands.
“With the same military in place, I’m afraid of returning,” said Escalante, who left behind her three children, now 7, 11 and 13, and her father when she fled to this country three years ago.
Amilcar Martinez, a community representative for the Pico-Union based Central American Refugee Center who recently returned from El Salvador, described the mood there as tense and said many people still fear the military. “There is a lot of skepticism that things are really going to change,” Martinez said.
The Salvadoran government insists that such fears are unjustified.
Although the government acknowledges that some human-rights abuses were carried out by the Salvadoran armed forces, Cristiani has reduced the Salvadoran armed forces by 50%, to roughly 31,500 troops, and El Salvador is now safe, said Claudia Vasquez, a spokeswoman for the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington.
“The fears some people have comes from the war,” Vasquez said. “We are no longer in a state of war. There is no violence.”
But many refugees, including several in the Pico-Union community who tried returning to El Salvador after the peace accords only to return in dismay, said their compatriots are justified in their fears that their names could be added to the list of the 75,000 civilian deaths documented by Amnesty International during the war.
“Nothing has changed,” said Francisco Argueta, 37, who said he was captured and tortured by the Salvadoran National Guard in 1982. “The intellectual orchestrators of the violence perpetrated by the National Guard (are) still a part of the military elite, the same elite which President Cristiani refuses to release.”
Since May, 1982, Tutela Legal, a San Salvador-based agency that monitors human-rights abuses, and El Rescate, a social services agency in Pico-Union, have documented testimony from 42,397 victims of human-rights abuse carried out by the Salvadoran armed forces. The abuses included 15,777 executions and 10,000 detentions, their report stated.
Included in those is Escalante’s horrific tale, which was documented by the Central American Refugee Center.
Tears gathered in Escalante’s dark brown eyes as she recalled being stripped and burned with cigarettes during four weeks of captivity. “Sometimes I remember all the people who died,” she said. “It’s truly very sad. It’s almost inexplicable.”
In August, 1989, six months after Escalante was released, her sister, Gloria Daysi Alonso, was captured and brutally beaten by soldiers. “From the blows, she lost vision in one eye,” Escalante said. “She had a slipped disk in her back, a broken rib and a dislocated hip.”
In November, 1989, Alonso was executed by soldiers after being detained a second time. “When (we saw) her, we could only recognize her by a birth mark on the back of her neck.” Escalante said her sister’s body was found on the side of a road by authorities.
After Escalante decided to flee her country in January, 1990, her father and three children were captured and held for 15 days.
"(The military) wanted to know where I had gone,” Escalante said. “Finally, they let them go only because my 5-year-old daughter was so distraught she became sick.” When they were released, Escalante said, they fled to Guatemala and are still living there.
Even with the tenuous peace in their homeland, many Salvadorans, feeling the tug of family ties and having difficulty coping in this country, remain eager to return home.
“There are too many problems here,” said Delmy Ruiz, a Pico-Union resident who plans to return next year. “It will be easier to raise my kids there. I feel like I’m going to start all over again, but I have family there that can support me.”
For Escalante, the memory of her own suffering, the 1989 execution of her sister, and longing for her father and three children has left her torn between worlds.
“The saddest thing is that I can’t return to my country without fearing for my safety.”