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Stop the Killing

[From The World Is Yours to Change by Daisaku Ikeda, Asahi Press, Tokyo, 2002]­

She still looked at him as if she did not understand. The sergeant repeated­--

"What party do you belong to?"

"I don't know."

"Are you Blues? Are you Whites? Who are you with?"

"I am with my children."

--From Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three

It was quiet inside. The air was taut with tension as people packed the cathedral, anxious to hear Archbishop Oscar Romero's sermon.

There had already been far too many deaths in El Salvador. The horror of violence blanketed this small Central American country. People fearfully wondered, "Will I be next?"

The tiny minority of the rich lived in fear of the guerrilla insurgents, afraid of being kidnapped or killed. The great majority of ordinary citizens feared the ruthless oppression of government forces. Often, the army would appear suddenly and begin rounding people up, including innocent men and women who had nothing to do with the guerrillas. The soldiers were free to kill people on the spot, to arrest and torture them, or simply to "disappear" them.

In 1975, soldiers had gunned down 20 students in broad daylight on a busy street of the capital, San Salvador. The priests who stood up against these acts of official terror were killed off as well. In 1977, an entire village was massacred as a warning to anyone who dared oppose the government.

And it did not end there. In 1979, several hundred citizens had gathered before the Metropolitan Cathedral to call for the release of the "disappeared." When the police and National Guard came and opened fire on the protesters, the steps went red with a river of blood.

Since the start of 1980, killings had averaged ten per day. Rows of bodies, mutilated beyond recognition, would be discovered. Voices of outrage and grief swept across the land: "Give us back our fathers, our sons, our daughters, our mothers!"

The sermon was delivered on March 23, a Sunday in 1980. Archbishop Romero lifted his voice. "At a [village], I was told a terrible account: On March 7, near midnight, a truck filled with soldiers . . . broke into a house and threw the entire family out. They raped four young girls, savagely beat their parents and warned that if they said anything, they would pay the consequences."

The archbishop went on sharing the "events of the week" that had not been reported by the newspapers or television. His sermon was heard by the entire nation, carried on a radio program broadcast by the Church. People living in neighboring countries also gathered before their radio sets to listen.

Archbishop Romero had made clear his support for the national strike that took place six days earlier. The goal of the strike, he said, was "to denounce something that cannot be tolerated."

Not only was the country gripped by the fear of violence, 70 percent of children under the age of five were suffering from malnutrition. Forty-five percent of the population did not have access to safe drinking water. The vast majority of peasants did not own their own land and were barely able to eke out a living. Half could not attend school; they would never be able to read nor escape from a life of poverty. They had neither electricity nor running water.

In contrast, just two percent of El Salvadorans belonged to the privileged class, but they controlled some 60 percent of the land. They lived a life of luxury in expensive homes built in exclusive communities.

It had not been Archbishop Romero's intention originally to speak on political matters in church. Yet the situation in his country was so desperate that he felt he could no longer remain silent.

Should religion be content only addressing matters of the afterlife? No. Absolutely not. As another priest had said: "How can we tell a parent to be grateful that his child has starved to death because that child can now go to heaven?"

The archbishop ended his sermon with a plea to every soldier and police officer in El Salvador, some of whom sat before him in the audience. "Brothers, each one of you is one of us. We are the same people. The campesinos you kill are your own brothers and sisters."

People began to clap. The archbishop was right!

"When you hear the words of a man telling you to kill, remember instead the words of God, 'Thou shalt not kill.' God's law must prevail. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God."

The cathedral now shook with applause. The archbishop speaks the truth, a murmur swept through the parish. Yes. The utter truth!

"In the name of . . . our tormented people who have suffered so much . . . , I beseech you, I beg you, I order you," his voice raised to a final, thunderous crescendo, "in the name of God, stop the repression!"

The next day, Archbishop Romero was assassinated. He was murdered in the middle of Mass, the bullets piercing his chest and face.

The people were stunned: How could they kill this great man of peace!

Sparked by this act of terror, full-scale civil war erupted in El Salvador. This was exactly what the archbishop had risked everything to avoid.

"Keep People Ignorant"

"The underlying cause of the El Salvadoran civil war was, to put it simply, because the path to democracy had been closed." So explained Rector Rosendo Mauricio Sermeño of the Latin American University of Technology when I met him in April 2000.

The fighting had shut down the national university, and young people no longer had the opportunity to pursue their education. Rector Sermeño, a courageous and spirited educator, could not bear watching this tragedy unfold, so he and those who shared his vision together established the Latin American University of Technology.

El Salvador is a country slightly larger than Japan's Shikoku Island. Since the days of Spanish colonial rule, an elite minority had dominated the politics and economy of the country. Anyone who tried to change this corrupt and irrational system was labeled a communist and ruthlessly suppressed.

As many as 30,000 people were killed when the government put down an uprising in 1932--a figure equal to two percent of the population at the time. The same percentage of Japan's present population would amount to 2.4 million deaths. And for the next half century, military governments remained in power.

Under martial law, the police could arrest citizens without a warrant. People were killed simply for looking suspicious. Elections were farces; public rallies were banned and newspapers censored, although few citizens were able to read them in the first place.

"The literacy rate in our country is low," Rector Sermeño explained. "The powerful elite believed that an uneducated public was easier to control. The authorities sought to suppress the people's capacity for critical thought."

Keep the masses ignorant and deny them access to the truth, demanded those in power. They only need to heed our commands! Beyond that, there's nothing they need to know!

Oppression led to despair, which in turn intensified the attacks of the insurgents. "They have closed every avenue for us to express our concerns," they declared. "We have no choice but to fight."

The guerrillas bought weapons with ransom money gained by abducting the rich and powerful. They destroyed telegraph and telephone lines, and crippled the transportation network. Buses were bombed as a way to punish their owners, but it was a dangerous tactic that put people who rode the vehicles at risk. Even if warnings were issued in advance and passengers given a chance to flee, this might minimize but not eliminate casualties.

Eventually, even those who sympathized with the rebels began to speak out against this strategy. There was no need, they said, to add to the suffering of the poor. The collecting of a war tax from people, known as a "revolution tax," was unpopular as well.

Addressing the Root Cause

Archbishop Romero detested violence. To him, violence, for whatever reason, was wrong, a sin. He saw a difference between officially sanctioned murder at the hands of the military and police and the acts of those fighting against that brutality, in the same way that the invading Nazis could not be equated with the Resistance fighters who opposed them. Nevertheless, violence could not be condoned. Killing is wrong and life irreplaceable. Where, then, was a solution to be found?

The one thing clear to all was that, if the goal was to subdue the rebels, violent repression was the worst possible way to achieve it.

So long as the root causes--the immense gulf between rich and poor and a political system that denied citizens their human rights--remained unchanged, it did not matter how many guerrillas were killed. New recruits would rise up, one after another, from the ranks of peasants and the streets of slum districts.

In one incident, El Salvadoran soldiers on a "guerrilla hunt" wiped out an entire village because the villagers were suspected of harboring rebels--a crime the army asserted was just as grave as active insurgency.

The blood of any boy would boil with hatred toward the soldiers he saw burn down his home, kill his father or rape his mother. Another guerrilla fighter would be born.

How could a mother whose daughter had been burned to death ever be expected to understand that this and other barbarous acts were necessary to protect El Salvador from communist guerrillas, to preserve freedom and order?

The more repressive the authorities became, the more evident it became that they had no intention of changing their ways. Confronted with such arrogance, even the politically moderate members of society who had previously despised the rebels began to change their minds.

The civil war swept through the land, and the fighting became part of daily life. The sound of gunfire was constant. After dark, bombs would explode in scattered parts of the city. No one dared to be out on the streets at night.

While the rich could afford to take refuge in Miami, the poor could not. The number of refugee camps grew as more people fled the fighting. These camps gave shelter to children who had lost arms and legs, their sight or hearing. Amid the most miserable conditions, the children died, the youngest first.

Adults in the camps were likely to have found someone to blame, someone to curse, as death overtook them. Children, on the other hand, trusted adults to the very end, thanking their mothers as they died without complaint.

I am not being sentimental or melodramatic. There is nothing melodramatic about demanding that the world save mothers and children. Nor is this simplistic idealism, based on ignorance of the realities of international politics. Indeed, I believe that nothing is more tangible or more real than such suffering. I hold that the true purpose of politics is to exhaust every conceivable avenue in the effort to transform this stark reality of human suffering.

I look to Josei Toda, the second president of the Soka Gakkai, as my mentor in life. When he assumed the presidency of the lay Buddhist organization in 1951, the Korean War was raging. "I do not at this time intend to discuss the outcome of the Korean War, nor the policies or ideologies involved," Mr. Toda stated at a special general meeting held prior to his inauguration:

"I am here to deplore what the war has wrought--the untold number of people who have lost their husbands, whose wives were killed, who search for missing children and parents . . . "

No doubt there are people who have lost everything they owned, dying on the streets in grief and pain. Or youths who have died filled with outrage, angrily demanding to know why they had to give up their lives. Or elderly women killed even as they cried out that they had done nothing wrong. And no doubt there are bands of children who can only wonder why others have parents and siblings while they do not.

Most of these people probably had little idea of what communist ideology is, or why the United Nations forces have come to their land. If they were asked, "Whose side are you on?" I can imagine their surprised faces and then their unhesitating reply, "I am on the side of food, I am for shelter."

Mr. Toda's sympathies always lay with the weak and poor. He knew that any way of thinking that does not issue from a concern for the plight of such people is without roots in reality, that it is nothing but empty theory.

He saw through such theories. He knew that any system of thought that is blind to the welfare of ordinary people can cause terrible suffering, cutting through people's lives with the sharp blade of cold abstraction.

No Sacrifice Is Inevitable

Every leader claims to be working for the sake of the people.

Every war is fought in the name of peace.

No war, however, is without its victims.

"That's war, after all. Some sacrifice is inevitable!" We must be fully vigilant against such views, not letting them take root within us even for a moment. For they express a nauseating disregard for life. They embody the delusions that lock humankind into endless cycles of war. They bear the seeds of global conflict.

Whether a person is killed by rebels or by soldiers, the tragedy is in no way lessened. That is why ordinary citizens cry out: "There's been too much slaughter! Stop the killing!"

Violence is never the answer to violence. To kill under the pretext of protecting life only perpetuates the cycle of slaughter. If we desire the fruits of peace, we must sow the seeds of peace.

The life of a single individual is more precious than all the treasures of the universe. Do not report blandly, "Two civilians were found dead." Rather, weep with us over "the death of José," "the killing of Maria"!

It is not enough to write, "Family of five dead." No. Tell us the names of the mother, father and children and the story of their lives. Tell us of their struggle with hunger, the meager meals they shared, the modest hopes they nursed. Tell us of the days when they huddled together with no words to express what they felt, or of the occasional mornings when they drew water from the well with smiles on their faces.

Let the world know the details of their lives, and of the utter cruelty with which those lives were destroyed.

No Peace by Force of Arms

I asked Rector Sermeño what had been the key to finally ending the civil war in 1992, after 12 long years of conflict.

His answer was to the point. "The basic cause was that both parties realized that, no matter how hard they tried, they could never defeat the other side."

What had become clear was that no amount of armed struggle could bring peace.

The fighting had become pointless. It knew no end. The army was being equipped with a limitless supply of weapons from their allies abroad. What the guerrillas lacked in sophisticated weaponry, they made up in morale.

But people, everyone, had grown disgusted with the war. Some 75,000 people had been killed, and another 8,000 had been "disappeared." To what end were citizens killing their fellows? People had seen far too many dead bodies. They began demanding that both sides in the conflict stop. The fighting had resolved nothing. It was time to talk, time to think of the children's future. All over the country, there were children who had never known life without war.

Other countries had repeatedly tried to get the warring parties to the negotiating table, but every attempt had ended in failure.

"Negotiate with them!? Give us a break! They aren't the kind of people you can talk to!" With both sides convinced that the other side was evil incarnate, peace negotiations seemed a distant dream.

And yet the war finally did end. Peace came through the efforts of then President Oscar Arias Sánchez of Costa Rica and the leaders of other neighboring countries as well as through the good offices of then United Nations Secretary-General Javier Péres de Cuéllar. The dramatic changes in the international climate resulting from the end of the Cold War were also a major impetus.

True courage is not found in settling differences with military force. Rather, we must find the courage to engage in dialogue! That is when humanity truly triumphs.

As Armand Calderón Sol, who became president of postwar El Salvador, observed: "What we seek from the bottom of our hearts is a culture of peace. It is a philosophy that treasures tolerance, human rights and cultural values. The challenge for humankind today is to advance our human revolution and construct a peaceful society."

His words make it clear that the only path to peace is for human beings to change our culture, our way of thinking, ourselves. This is an appeal that issues from the depths of suffering endured by a country shattered by war. As such, it carries an incalculable weight.

Against this backdrop, the moral leadership of Rector Sermeño, who kept lit the beacon of education through the long night of terror, shines all the more brightly. The rector literally risked his life in order to teach, leaving his home even when gun battles had erupted and curfews were imposed.

"All I could think of was my students," he recalled. "I could not bear to think of young people being deprived of the opportunity to learn."

How does this educator, with his great love for humanity, define education? "It is a process," he says, "that teaches people to cherish and respect all living things."

I must agree. Education should not be based on or limited by a nationalist agenda. Education must cultivate the wisdom to reject and resist violence in all its forms. It must foster people who intuitively understand and know--in their minds, in their hearts, with their entire being--the irreplaceable value of human beings and the natural world.

I believe such education embodies the timeless struggle of human civilization to create an unerring path to peace.

Addicted to Money

Rector Sermeño is also a leading figure in the movement to protect El Salvador's natural environment. In his view, the world today is spinning out of kilter, hobbled by a fearfully large "glitch."

As he explains it: "Latin America is a land blessed with resources. Yet people are forced to lead a life of abject poverty. And in many cases, the industrialized nations are not accurately informed of the predicament the Third World faces . . . I believe modern man has become the victim of the most dangerous of all drugs--money. Starting with the corporation, every system in society today lacks morality and spirituality at its base and is controlled solely by the laws of the market. In this system, everything is sacrificed as the pursuit of profit is given the highest priority. Workers are categorized in either one of two ways--they are overworked as mere cogs in the machine, or they are cast aside as unproductive.

"Under this system, we are forced to shut our eyes and close our hearts to the destruction of nature or the suffering of other people. As a greater number of forests are cut down and erosion sets in, our precious water resources and fertile soil are lost. These same regions are also vulnerable to torrential rains, and millions of people may fall victim to flooding. While the poor stand helplessly by and watch, the rich industrialists in their lavish offices, as if gloating over a job well done, congratulate one another on increased profits. As long as this system remains intact, genuine peace will never come."

The gap between rich and poor is blatantly unjust. The apathy of the "haves" toward the "have-nots" is openly inhumane. Each day in our world, 30,000 children under the age of five die of easily preventable diseases and malnutrition. Some 20,000 of these children never see their first birthday. And yet nations continue to buy the latest high-tech missiles at the cost of some US$1 million each.

What would intelligent beings from another planet think if they saw Earth today? Would they think that they had discovered a civilized society on this planet?

The lessons imparted by the civil war in El Salvador are profound. Every war, when viewed from the undistorted perspective of life's sanctity, is a "civil war" waged by humanity against itself.

When brothers and sisters of the human family kill one another, there are no victors.

Works Consulted

Armstrong, Robert and Janet Shenk. El Salvador: The Face of Revolution. Boston: South End Press, 1982.

Chunanbei Seiji Mondai Kenkyukai (Research Group for Latin American Politics). "El Salvador Peace Negotiation." Informacion Latin-Americana, Vol. 35 (1992; No. 11, No. 12), Vol. 36 (1993; No. 1, No. 2). Tokyo: Latin American Society.

Didion, Joan. Salvador. New York: Wallace & Sheil Agency, 1983.

Hugo, Victor. Ninety-Three. Trans. by Frank Lee Benedict. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1988.

Metzi, Francisco. Por los caminos de Chalatenango--La Salud en la mochila. San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1988.

Nagakura, Hiromi. Naisen--El Salvador no minshu (The Civil War--The People of El Salvador). Tokyo: Bansei-sha, 1983.

Tanaka, Takashi. "El Salvador: A Case Study of Conflict Resolution Through National Reconciliation." Central America in the Post-Cold War Era: From Conflict to Peace. Ed. by Akira Ishii. Tokyo: Institution of Developing Economies, 1996.

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