SOA Vigil fosters hope and humanity

By Mark Saldaña

Mark Saldaña recounts what happened when he stepped off the bus in Fort Benning, Ga., for the Vigil at the School of Americas.We push through the crowd and fall into Rufina’s arms, Feta, an activist, explained in a thick Italian accent, her arms flailing for emphasis.

I nodded along with the others: a short woman with a gray ponytail, three girls with pin-adorned messenger bags, a soft-spoken punk from North Carolina. Behind us were countless more, each holding a blue flag and gawking at the cardboard scenery parading to the stage.

The Puppetistas rehearsed the show only an hour before, which did little other than confuse its hundreds of impromptu participants. What absurd syllables to chant, which direction to run, how to get a person back onto stilts: these were the questions only partially answered, and otherwise swallowed up by the crowd of tens of thousand moving about under the Georgia sun.

I snaked my way through the crowd to regroup with the others.

A procession of trash-can drummers began to meet us behind the stage, but the Puppetistas wasted no time. We were surrounded by the gigantic cloth arms of Rufina Amaya, the only survivor of the El Mozote village massacre of several hundred carried out by a School of Americas graduate. The back of Rufina’s cardboard head was just visible from within her embrace.

A military helicopter hovered disarmingly close. When the drums quieted, the air filled with its drone.

Forward, now. Together. We were guided back into the crowd by unseen Puppetistas. Without warning, Rufina’s arms folded away, and we faced the gathering of thousands. Gigantic puppet “Deaths” adorned in blue flowing garments flocked towards the villages, reenacting its slaughter in curious, colorful metaphor.

A sudden explosion of music came from the stage, and we sprinted out. The entire production erupted into a cacophony of action, of dance, of flags twirling and voices whooping.

We followed Rufina through the crowd, dancing to the drums as strangers smiled and laughed.

Since its relocation from Panama to Fort Benning, Ga., in 1984, the School of Americas has attracted outrage for its continued role in training Latin American soldiers to kidnap, murder and kill. The U.S Military renamed it the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001, but offered no substantive change to its operations.

The SOA Watch, a grassroots organization that uses nonviolent and creative tactics to protest the School of Americas, has held its Vigil to Close the SOA for 18 consecutive years, tirelessly working to close this crude reminder of United States’ policy of interventionism and regime sponsorship in Latin America. A June 2007 measure in Congress to cut funding for the SOA came within six votes of passing, but ultimately failed.

Some of the protesters flocking to the SOA’s gates in mid-November have made the pilgrimage annually for a decade or longer.

I walked from the Puppetistas and met up with other Macalester and University of St. Thomas students in front of our tour bus. The bus took us to the Colombus Convention Center, where various interest groups had set up free workshops for protesters and the community.

I attended “Free Trade, Immigration, and U.S. Foreign Policy,” a workshop directed by Witnesses for Peace and filled with elderly women and radical high schoolers alike. People wandered freely among the rooms, meeting one another and listening to firsthand accounts of disparity and revolution in English and en español.

Sunday morning, we returned to the gates of Fort Benning to join a massive crowd gathered in front of the stage. Spectators chanted protest hymns (“No mas, no more, we must stop the dirty wars!”) and cheered the politicking and personal indignation of speakers such as Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich and a widower from Guatemala.

At a quarter past ten, the Vigil began.

“Domingo Claros, viente-nueve años,” sang a speaker from the soundstage.

“Presente,” answered the crowd of thousands.

“Cristino Amaya Claros, nueve años, hijo de Domingo.”

“Presente.”

At each thundering response, the crowd raised symbols of commitment above their heads: crosses, Stars of David and candles, each inscribed with the name of a victim. Many simply raised their hands or bowed their heads.

The call response was repeated again and again, once for every victim at El Mozote and neighboring El Salvadoran villages slaughtered in 1981 by the SOA-trained Atlacatl Battalion. Many of the victims were children, some too young to speak. Still more were unidentifiable, and remembered only as “Unknown Woman,” “Unknown Man.”

The Vigil procession moved slowly, deliberately, with each syllable of the 767 names lingered upon.

We made our way to the military gates, where mourners wove their crosses and candles between the barbed-wire fencing, leaving behind a dense, beautiful mosaic. Nuns lay nearby in disturbing heaps, their bodies sprawled to recall the murdered.

We tore ourselves from the scene and departed for Minnesota. We were quieter than before, but happy to be so exhausted and so overwhelmed with emotion.

Our celebration and mourning allowed us to feel the humanity of every victim as something more than digits of a body count buried in a newspaper article. Georgia revealed to us a faith in humanity that knows no geographic or political boundaries, that shapes everything we find worthwhile in the world, and that refuses to allow the stubbornness of our leaders and protectors to maintain a place like the School of the Americas.