On July 14, 1969, El Salvador invaded the department of Ocotepeque, Honduras, capturing the capital city of Nueva Ocotepeque. Many Hondurans fled into the nearby hills to escape the fighting. By July 20, through a peace treaty brokered by the OAS, the war was over. The retreating Salvadoran soldiers took everything they could find, and what they couldn’t carry, they destroyed. The already poor citizens returned to find their homes ransacked with little food or clothing left.
I was serving in Honduras with Mennonite Voluntary Service (VS) at the time along with some 15 other young men who had been drafted and chosen conscientious objection to war over participation in the military.
During the week-long war, the whole country was under a “toque de queda” (state of siege) and there were “apagones” (blackouts). There was a ban on any fire crackers, probably the worst of all the strictures for the Hondurans who loved to celebrate holidays, birthdays, Saints days, and any excuse to set off a firecracker or ten. Rumors flew around everywhere, and whenever we were told to seek shelter because the Salvadoran planes were coming to attack, several of my expatriate colleagues ran out to the front porch to be sure to record the event on film. Nothing noteworthy happened on the north coast where we were safely located.
Because of the desperate situation in the war zone that many Hondurans found themselves in, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the relief agency of the Mennonite Church, was asked to mount a relief effort in the region. I was part of the first team of VSers to respond to the need. After flying from La Ceiba to San Pedro Sula, it took us another two days by bus to reach our destination. While I was walking down the street in San Pedro, a Honduran man who passed me, spat at me and cursed. Many Hondurans felt that they were winning the war because their air force had destroyed the air force of the Salvadorans, and it was only a matter of time until the Salvadoran soldiers would leave Honduran territory. They blamed the USA for its interference in the region through the OAS. They thought that they had lost face in a chance to show their superior strength. This is the only time I felt any direct hostility as a US American in Honduras.
I spent one week in what was the war zone, hearing stories of the atrocities committed by the Salvadoran army. Not all people were able to flee, and those who remained were subjected to some horrible treatment. The one the sticks in my memory most is the story of a young school teacher who was repeatedly raped for nearly a 12-hour period as soldiers lined up outside the school house to wait their turn.
My job was to help distribute food and clothing to the returning villagers. Our base was at the local “Amigos” church; the Quakers. First we had to sort the huge bundles of clothing and then distribute them at the local school. People lined up for blocks to receive whatever they could.
One day it was raining and we couldn’t make our scheduled distribution point, so I stayed back and helped a photographer from some other protestant missionary agency develop some pictures in a make-shift photo lab he had set up. His pictures were from what we saw during the weeks following the war. I no longer remember the man’s name nor the agency for which he worked. However, after I returned to the US, I discovered that he had been expelled from Honduras for a book of pictures he had published exposing the poverty in Honduras. They claimed he unfairly depicted life in Honduras. I am sure I had helped him develop some of those salacious pictures.
More than anything I remember the destruction I witnessed as well as the horrible stories; I could not imagine that anyone could commit such horror. Little did I know that in a few short years nearly all of Hispanic America would be involved in insurgency and counter-insurgency movements committing atrocities that made what I witnessed pale in comparison.
At home, this was during the height of the Vietnam war to which many of my schoolmates had been sent. What I witnessed totally reaffirmed my stance of nonresistance, and to be able to tell people in the region that I was a conscientious objector to war, and that I was serving to build up rather than to tear down, was very meaningful to most of them.