A Mother’s Loss Spurs War Debate
The only thing Herminia Ramos wanted from the army was her son’s pension -- exactly $200 a month. She figured she deserved the money now, seeing how he gave his life wearing an army uniform, fighting in a war halfway around the world in Iraq.
The Salvadoran army said no.
Ramos said she felt abandoned. Left with her thoughts in her sparse cinderblock home, and five other children to support, she quickly came to a conclusion: No other parent should have to feel this way.
She signed her name to a letter demanding that El Salvador remove its troops from Iraq. Then she personally delivered it to the national legislature and the offices of conservative President Tony Saca. In the process, the quiet peasant has become the most potent symbol of this country’s small antiwar movement.
“There are other mothers who have their children there, and I didn’t want them to suffer the pain I did,” Ramos said, and began to weep. “Those troops that are over there don’t have any need to go, suffer so far away.”
El Salvador is the only Latin American country with troops still in Iraq. About 380 soldiers from the country’s elite Cuscatlan Battalion have been stationed there since 2003.
Two Salvadoran soldiers have died in Iraq. Ramos’ 19-year-old son, Natividad Mendez Ramos, was the first, falling in the southern city Najaf on April 4, 2004, when supporters of the anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr attacked Salvadoran and Spanish troops at a barracks there.
Natividad had joined the army when he was 15, having somehow gotten around the minimum-age requirement of 16. Pictures in Ramos’ home show a young man with coffee-colored skin who looks older than the teenager he was.
Ramos remembers the last time she saw Natividad, when he came home on leave, just before leaving for Iraq, and the pain of one of their last conversations together:
“He told me, ‘Mama, I think this is the last time we’re going to see each other.’ And I answered him: ‘No, no, son. You don’t have to go. You’re not going to go. I don’t want you to go!’ ... My son was disconsolate. He told me, ‘You’re going to be left all alone.’ ”
Polls here show a majority of Salvadorans oppose the presence of their country’s troops in Iraq, but antiwar protests are almost nonexistent.
“Herminia’s actions have reopened the debate about our troops in Iraq, an issue that had almost been forgotten,” said Maria Silvia Guillen, who runs a legal rights center in San Salvador. Activists here call Ramos “the Cindy Sheehan of El Salvador.”
When Ramos contacted a local minister about her concerns over the war, peace activists drafted a letter of protest in her name.
“I consider her to be one of our Salvadoran heroines,” said Bishop Medardo Gomez of the Lutheran Church of El Salvador. “She is a poor woman of few words whose pain led her to speak out. She’s dared to stand up to the powerful, to our government and, above all, to the military.”
The Salvadoran government, the protest letter said, has become “an accomplice to a military occupation that violates the fundamental laws of this country and a co-participant in widely denounced human rights violations.”
Shortly after Ramos delivered her letter last month, Saca was asked by reporters whether he had any response, as a new contingent of Salvadoran troops was about to be deployed to Iraq.
“One of the risks [of war] is that a person can die, which we regret deeply,” the president said. “We’ve supported Mrs. Ramos, we respect her opinion. But the battalion is going to Iraq.”
For Saca’s right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, the presence of Salvadoran troops in Iraq is an important symbol of the country’s close ties with the United States and the Bush administration.
Guillermo Gallegos, a legislator for the ruling party who is one of the key backers of the Salvadoran presence in Iraq, says the country is repaying the international community for the aid it received after its civil war.
“As a country we are morally obliged to continue supporting the process of reconstruction and democratization in Iraq,” Gallegos said. “We experienced a war of the same kind and we were helped.... It’s a debt that we have.”
After his death, Natividad was declared a “national hero” by then-President Francisco Flores. The army paid out a $7,000 life insurance policy.
Natividad’s body arrived in Guayamango by helicopter for burial in a solemn ceremony covered by national television.
Soldiers also came and built the cinderblock house, which is the envy of many in a rural community where most of the houses are built from adobe mud bricks. But the life insurance money ran out a long time ago -- as a single mother of five children, it’s hard for Ramos to make ends meet.
Military officials told Ramos, 47, that she would not be able to receive her son’s pension until she turned 55.
“In eight years, a lot of things can happen,” she said. “I have needs now.”
After she delivered her protest letter to the president, a group of army officials showed up at her home.
“They told me, ‘Send as many letters as you want, but the troops are still leaving.’ ... I answered them, ‘I don’t want those troops to go.’ ”
Many countries that were once part of what President Bush called “the coalition of the willing” have since withdrawn their troops from Iraq, including Spain, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
Napoleon Campos, a political analyst in San Salvador, says he thinks Salvadoran troops will remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future.
“The troops in Iraq have become a kind of straitjacket that El Salvador can’t take off,” Campos said. “Everything indicates that we’ll be with the United States until they leave from there, either victorious or defeated.”
Times special correspondent Renderos reported from Guayamango and staff writer Tobar from Mexico City.