The Invincibility of the the Human Spirit: One Doctor's Story

 

Summary of Speech By Juan Romagoza, MD

 

"We founded an organization called the Central
American Refugee Committee to help us fulfill

our basic needs: housing, food, how to get work,
legal assistance, counseling, and also to speak

about what had happened to us. There we found
that by talking, by sharing, by expressing what

we had felt, we felt better."

 

I am from the eastern part of El Salvador, from Usulután, near Morazán. I am from a mixed family that come from both farmland and from the city. It is a very large family and a very religious one. Since I was very young, I have witnessed the painful reality in my country: the premature death of so many children. Many members of my family died at a very young age because of parasitic infections. My grandparents died from heart attacks. They never had the opportunity to see a physician.

 

This made me want to do something. I thought being a priest would allow me to heal and give me the opportunity to study, so I entered the seminary. But after two years I left and had a chance to follow my heart.

 

Through lots of effort, I got a scholarship to study medicine. As soon as I started medical school, I volunteered in clinics in the most impoverished areas of the city. Through student associations, I also organized campaigns in the countryside, promoting the concepts of public health.

 

At that time (we’re talking about 1978-1979), the idea of war was just starting in El Salvador. There was fierce repression by the government against anybody who was in solidarity with the people: anyone who wanted to express their thoughts; anybody who wanted to elicit change in the society. The groups that were the most repressed were those doing community work and certain sectors of the church that were receiving refugees from northern El Salvador where the bombing already had started.

 

During this period I worked with the church in El Salvador, specifically with Monsignor Romero, who had asked medical students to help him. I was in my last years of my medical training and I was coordinating the Clínica de Ajaus in San Salvador, where most of the people who were victims of repression would go because they were afraid to go to the other hospitals. Most other hospitals were either under the control of the military or were regularly inspected by security forces. This is where people were referred to go as a haven for peace.

 

This was a very special period for me because, while I consider myself a person of faith, my experience in the seminary had started me on the way to losing my faith. I lost more of my faith at the university. But, that all changed when I met Romero. With him my faith returned because I started seeing a different kind of church: a practice of the faith that identified itself with the majority of the people; a church that really based itself on the mandates of the evangelical; a church that was in communion with the people. The church that Romero promoted was a church that not only identified with the baptisms and communions of the sons of the rich (as in the past), but one that was in communion with the poor, con el pueblo. And not just to sit once a month at the table with them or share food with somebody from a poor family, but actually to live with them, to cry with them, to be with them, or as Monsignor Romero said, "to exist with the people."

 

This was the church that rechanneled the thoughts of many students and made us re-identify ourselves with it. This was the church that attracted a lot of students. For that church we were willing to suffer even the ultimate consequences that people were suffering because of the political regime that existed in El Salvador.

 

This repression touched me as it did many people who worked in the field of health. One specific day in the north of the country, in Chelatenango, we were there with the church on a health campaign. We were going to start a clinic. That day, in fact, we were going to have a surgery. It was a day dedicated to the Virgi`n of Guadalupe, who is very much revered in my country. That day, toward the end of the festivities, when we were still seeing patients, when we were initiating training for health promoters, when everything was so festive, two truckloads of National Guardsmen appeared and started machine-gunning everybody in sight.

 

I was in the clinic door and the first burst of gunfire hit me in the foot and in the head, and I just fell down. There were many dead and wounded. Most people just ran trying to save their lives. After the shooting, the soldiers started taking all the bodies to a truck where they were inspecting them to see who was dead and who was alive.

 

I was one of the first ones they found alive and they tried to kill me right then and there, but fortunately the machine gun locked and did not fire. When they tried to cock the gun again, they kicked me and my backpack came open. They saw all the surgical equipment inside, but they did not know it was surgical equipment. They thought it was some sort of special weapon.

 

That surgical equipment and my shoes saved my life.

 

I had lost one of my shoes because of the gunfire, but I still had the other shoe on. Since the shoe was Range Rover brand, the soldiers thought I was a commander in the forces. I was the only person who survived that day. All the rest were killed and thrown into a mass grave. I was taken by helicopter to a town called El Paraiso, and from there to San Salvador.

 

In El Salvador there were no special prisons for political prisoners. Everybody was just taken to San Salvador and tortured there. I went through the same ordeal that everybody went through: my clothes were taken off, I was blindfolded and I was beaten. After that I was taken to see other prisoners who had been tortured. I could see some of them hanging from the ceiling, women with their breasts cut off, bleeding. Then I was tortured.

 

Throughout the whole interrogation process they just kept asking me why I was there with "those people." The enemy of the army was the poor people. They kept repeating that poor people are dangerous. They kept telling me that all farmers are communists; that all poor people are communists; that all priests are communists. The punishment had to be the same for everyone, they said, even for those who helped them. I suffered all kinds of torture there in the three weeks I was held by the National Guard.

 

One of the worst tortures I can remember is the electric shock. Everyday I was subjected to electric shock. I was beaten, burned, raped. A hood was put on top of my head. Their goal was to make me say that poor people had guns, that farmers had guns, that the priests and religious people were the ones giving the campesinos guns. But I could not say that because in my experience I had never seen any weapons among the priests or the campesinos.

 

Another reason I was tortured was that two of my uncles on my mother's side of the family were colonels in the Salvadoran army. One of them was the director of the military hospital and the other was the father of a famous guerrilla leader caught in El Salvador. That is why some high officials in the army went to visit me while I was detained and asked me what role my uncles played in the guerrilla war in El Salvador.

 

When I denied all their allegations, the torture got worse. They strung me up from the ceiling with wire through my finger tips. They called it the Chinese fingers. After hanging that way for ten days, they shot me in the left arm to show everybody that I was a leftist. They also cut off the tips of my fingers on my right hand.

 

I believe they had already made the decision to let me live, but they wanted to leave me mutilated so that I would always remember. And eventually it did happen. Through the influence of my family, particularly one of my uncles, I was released. Just before they released me, I was warned not go back to help "those people."

 

So there I was, wounded from the torture, knowing I could not go to the hospitals because the hospitals were controlled by the military. Many of my friends who were physicians said they could not risk helping me either. Only one physician friend helped me and he only helped me twice because his family warned him that he was putting his life and theirs at risk. (In fact, one year after that physician helped me he was assassinated. They put a hand grenade in his chest and exploded his body to pieces.) My family told me, “Get out of the country. Get out of here because they will kill you and they will kill all of us.” So I accepted that I had to leave. But that was an even greater torture for me, the torture of leaving my family and leaving my people.

 

I had to escape like a common criminal–without any passport, without any papers. I went through Guatemala, but Guatemala was in the same situation as El Salvador, so I had to hide myself there as well. Some friends took me to Chiapas, Mexico, and left me in a church there. At that church I began my recovery.

A little while later I went to Mexico City and that is where I really started recovering. I actually wanted to stay in Mexico because Mexico is closer to El Salvador. I did not want to go north. I wanted to stay near my people. In Mexico City I met a very good priest, Sergio Mendez Arcel, who was very helpful to all the Guatemalans and the Salvadorans who were escaping their countries. He gave me the opportunity to open a health clinic in Cuernavaca, near Mexico City. In Cuernavaca, outside the clinic, we were receiving a lot of refugees.

 

Most of these refugees came from Guatemala, but just outside of the clinic there was some economic development happening because they started cooperatives. Those cooperative consisted in raising rabbits–Salvadoran rabbits–and then selling them in the farmer's market. This clinic became a haven for immigrants and refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala who were on their way to the United States. On one occasion, I had a patient who was diabetic and needed insulin. She was on her way to the US, and that is how I ended up in the US, accompanying this elderly lady so that I could control her insulin intake.

 

After crossing the border, we were given advice on where to find our people, "If you're going to Los Angeles, go to McArther Park. If you're going to San Francisco [another park]. If you're going to Washington [another one]." These were the sites of contact. After sleeping only two days in McCarther Park, I ran into somebody from my hometown. He connected me with a cousin and family members in Los Angeles. I spent a couple of months in LA, but then I decided to go to San Francisco. I had family that had established itself there after the Second World War. But when I arrived in San Francisco, my relatives already knew what had happened to me in El Salvador and they said it would be a risk for them to take care of me.

 

So I went to another church. There were many Salvadorans there. The priest asked, "Can you help me with the needs I have here with this community?" He did not need to ask me twice. I immediately started organizing the community. We organized ourselves several ways. We founded an organization called CRECEN (Committee for Refugees from Central America) to help us in our basic needs: housing, food, how to get work, legal assistance, counseling, and also to speak about what had happened to us.

 

There we found that by talking, by sharing, by expressing what we had felt, we felt better. There I learned something that I had never learned in medical school: the true value of psychotherapy.

 

We wanted to continue sharing, but it was not only sharing amongst ourselves. We needed to share these truths, everything that had happened, with the American people. What we wanted was to stop that war. To stop the terror that was reigning in El Salvador. Stop the terror that was being suffered by my daughter, my wife, my family, my people, in El Salvador. And the only weapon we had was our voice, our pain.

 

At that time the United States was sending one million dollars a day in military aid to El Salvador. They were deporting 100 Salvadorans daily from this country, putting them directly into the hands of the military who had made them run in the first place. We had to do something, so we started organizing ourselves. We trained mental health promoters because we found value in testimony: Personal value of how we could get out of this situation ourselves, how to get out of a cage or a prison by speaking, and at the same time how the testimony was becoming more and more political. How we could convince the American people that their taxes were being used for terror. How we could show them that their hands were covered with blood–the blood of innocents in El Salvador.

 

It was a very beautiful moment, that time in San Francisco, because we received much solidarity from the people. Many of the churches there helped us. There was one movement called the Sanctuary Movement, which was especially in solidarity with us.

 

Then we started diversifying. We realized it was not just a problem of mental health. We wanted to promote health in general, so we started a network of friendly hospitals and clinics. Most of the Salvadorans were scared to go to hospitals like San Francisco General Hospital or some public clinics, because whenever they went to those clinics they would soon after be detained and deported back to their countries.

 

Because of my connection with the Sanctuary Movement, I was sent to Washington, DC. When I saw Washington, I fell in love with it. I fell in love because San Francisco is pretty and Washington is cold, very cold, but the Salvadoran community there is very strong, and the majority is farmers from my region in the eastern part of El Salvador. Every day I would run into someone from my town, from my region. The Salvadoran community makes itself felt in Washington. It's said that in Washington even the Chinese restaurants sell pupusas.

 

This flow of refugees changed Washington. In 1980, the Latino population of Washington was only 1 percent. In 1990 it grew to 5 percent, and now we are 10 percent of the population. And I'll bet that 70 percent of that 10 percent are Salvadoran. And 80 percent of those Salvadorans are farmers. The million-dollar question is why we farmers from El Salvador like Washington so much. Imagine a farmer in the capital of the world. We live in a ghetto. We are afraid of everything. We don't even trust the family that lives with us. We do not trust our own shadow. This is a violent shock that we feel. Even though the clinic is in the same block, people would not go there.

 

And Washington, as you know, is a city that has many problems. At that time it was in crisis; it's a little bit better now, but it is the sickest city in the United States. Of the ten main causes of death in the United States, Washington leads the nation in six of those categories. Seventeen percent of the population of Washington has no insurance, no health coverage whatsoever. So the arrival of the refugees was not so bad for the city because the refugees would not use any of the health systems of Washington.

 

Our call was to organize ourselves again, to establish our old committees. And in that way we organized volunteers within our clinic to see what kind of services we could provide, be it one night a week or one day a week, all composed of volunteers. From the beginning, we decided that this program would be free, multi-cultural, and put a special emphasis on Spanish as a first language. It had to be holistic and have a strong educational program integrated with the services. We started the program with the core belief that access to health services is not a privilege but a basic, innate right of every human being.

 

And this is the way we have developed our program. We have grown from one day a week to every day of the week, even Sundays. We are open 12 hours a day. We have medical programs, including internal medicine and various specialties, but we also have very special things that make us different from other clinics. We have our own diabetes clinic. Ours is the only clinic that offers alternative therapies for Latinos in the city, and which includes alternative therapies such as Tai Chi, massage, yoga and acupuncture. We have a large program in mental health where there is individual therapy, therapy for couples, and therapy for children. Education is integrated into all our programs, so we have special emphasis on these kinds of campaigns. Every Sunday we go to churches and we offer primary care. We go to each church at least four times a year.

 

Another important thing we do is we organize our patients to defend their right to health. We have a committee of patients. We also have a committee of HIV-positive patients and one of diabetic patients (of which there are a lot), and then we have a general assembly of all our patients. These are the instruments that have brought the most resources to the Clínica del Pueblo.

 

They are the greatest defenders of health. We educate our patients to go and lobby; we educate them to offer testimony and to lobby in their own language. We teach them that they do not have to feel ashamed of their language.

 

This popular mobilization by the general assembly of patients has been effective in achieving two of their major triumphs right now. One of our biggest problems was that the building we had was very old. It was not the best place for a clinic. But through lobbying we were able to get the city to put up two million dollars for a new building. The other major triumph is that, through lobbying, Washington has changed. Washington right now is the only jurisdiction in the country that offers health care for everyone inside its limits, even those who do not have documents. It's the patients united who have achieved this.

 

I want to share something else that has happened recently that I am very happy about. Four years ago I was contacted and asked if I wanted to be a part of a civil lawsuit against a group of Salvadoran generals who had been implicated in torture and violence in my country. Initially this lawsuit was also in conjunction with the assassination of four nuns in El Salvador in 1980. But later, the two cases were separated.

 

For me, this was one more step towards my own process of recovery. It's also meant to pay a debt. I believe I have a debt to pay because of everything I've shared, everything I had to take, and everything I suffered when I was in El Salvador. I saw this as an opportunity to pay some of it back. It was also a way to achieve social justice.

 

I personally felt that these scars that I have in myself, these spiritual scars, will not heal as physical scars so easily do. With psychological scars, just like with physical scars, if there's something rotten inside, something infected, they simply do not heal. Psychological wounds, just like physical wounds, have to be opened, have to be cleaned, have to be disinfected. That's the only way the curing process can really be achieved. For this reason, if there is no justice, there still is pus; there is infection in those wounds.

 

I did not believe that the people who had done so much damage should have the right to come to the US and live so peacefully. My purpose was to fight to the end so that these people would be judged and found guilty. I felt that only by having them be judged would that pus start to get out of the wound. So, with other Salvadorans and the aid of lawyers, psychologists and psychotherapists working pro bono, we initiated this case.

 

There was a lot of fright. I still am frightened. When my family heard of this case, they said, "Are you still going to be a nuisance? Are you still going to get into trouble?" And it's true. I still feel afraid, but I will not let fear dominate me. If fright dominates me, then I will never do anything.

 

Then we learned that these military men had been found innocent in the case of the assassination of the four nuns. Many said our case was weaker because we were Salvadoran and the nuns had been Americans. Some thought we should give up our case, but I insisted we should go on. This is, after all, a wonderful law we were suing under. It is a law that allows victims of torture to bring a case against those who had tortured them.

 

So the good news is that the verdict was just recently announced and we won. They were found guilty and ordered to pay $54.6 million dollars in damages! (For details on this case, see "Justice and the Generals," on www.pbs.org/wnet/justice/.)

 

It may be hard for you to understand how this has changed something completely for me. I don't expect to see any money, but now when I talk about my trauma and my torture, it's a completely different feeling for me. I now see light at the end of the tunnel. Now I believe in justice. Now I believe in those who are dead before me. Until this moment I had not been able to bury them. Now I believe that they can rest in peace because these two generals represent everything that was bad and evil in El Salvador.

 

Seventy-five percent of those killed during the war in El Salvador were killed between 1979 and1983, when those two generals were reigning. They are the ones responsible for the massacre in the Cathedral on the 8th of March of 1979, for the murder of Monsignor Romero, for the massacre of El Mozote, for the jails–all these massacres are due to them. In this case, it was not just justice for four Salvadorans, it was actually justice for all those who died during that period.

 

This judgment is therapy for me and the other three who took part in the lawsuit, but also for all the people of El Salvador who lost loved ones during this war. It gives them a sense now that those people did not die in vain–they died with a purpose. Now they can also rest in peace. It's also an international message. The message is that now no tyrant or torturer will be able to retire in peace. Generally, any abuse of power is connected to corruption, to stealing money from the government. These people pillage, rape, murder and rob, and then they come to the United States and retire in tranquility. Now the tyrants will think they have to go some other place. And some of them who are hiding here are now starting to pack their bags.

 

Recently four more cases have been brought against military officers living in this country. And in my country, where the solution normally is to bury these things and not speak about them. To open this is to open wounds that they had thought were long ago healed and scarred. Now in El Salvador a dialogue has begun–a dialogue that has not occurred in the last twenty years. Those who had disappeared, those who were tortured and those who suffered are now starting to get out of their closets and are finding that they are able to speak. This is healthy. This dialogue will bring something positive. I think it's a recovery of a conscience, a recovery of a health that was lost, and a justice that seemed to have been lost.