THE CIVIL WAR IN EL SALVADOR
The Madison Arcatao Sister City Project (MASCP) was created in 1986 at the height of the brutal Salvadoran civil war, which lasted from 1980 until the Peace Accords in 1992. The war was between an oppressive military government funded by United States’ tax dollars, and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a large group of rural peasants, that the Salvadoran and US governments labeled leftists guerrillas. In reality, the resistance was poor people fighting for the right to own land to raise food for their families and to be paid and fed properly when they worked for large sugar and coffee growers. The US government not only funded weapons and aircraft but also trained Salvadoran military leaders at the notorious “School of the Americas” in Georgia (renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in 2000). There, Salvadoran military personnel learned counterinsurgency and torture techniques.
Madison and Arcatao become sister cities
Like most wars, those who suffered the most were civilians. Over the span of the war, 75,000 people died and thousands more were terrorized and tortured. One of the many massacres was in the River Sumpul near Arcatao where 600 civilians—men, women and children— died as they attempted to flee the Salvadoran and Honduran military. Arcatao itself was attacked on the ground and bombed from the air so many people from Arcatao were forced to flee to Mesa Grande—a refugee camp in Honduras. Some people stayed and moved into the mountain caves called tatus periodically for safety.
Activists in Madison organized and gathered community support for the official resolution naming Arcatao Madison’s sister city in order to expose the Salvadoran government and US sponsored violence against the people of Arcatao. This action also helped end the isolation of targeted civilians there. The act of sistering with Arcatao increased local awareness of US foreign policy in El Salvador and Madison and provided humanitarian aid for the people of Arcatao suffering from years of war. It was an act of accompaniment—not charity, but instead witnessing and acknowledging another’s reality, caring and working together for a common goal. Accompaniment is the bedrock of the sistering relationship between Madison and Arcatao.
“WE DO NOT HAVE MONEY, WEAPONS OR POLITICAL POWER. ALL WE HAVE ARE EACH OTHER SO WE MUST STAY ORGANIZED.”
ORGANIZING - After the peace accords
After the peace accords in 1992, MASCP continued to accompany the people of Arcatao who were repopulating and rebuilding their village. MASCP helped meet basic needs in Arcatao with efforts such as bringing medical and school supplies and helping to build a medical clinic. The biggest emphasis however was on supporting organization—in Arcatao, in the Department of Chalatenango where Arcatao is located and here in Madison.
The Salvadoran peasants and resistance fighters had become experts at organizing themselves for everything they needed to fight, survive, and carry on community life. For example, they created a cadre of leaders, obtained weapons, trained fighters, built radio communications, educated young people who no longer could attend school, maintained food supplies, trained medical personnel and set up hospitals, etc. When the war was over, they brought all their expert organizational skills back to their communities, which facilitated the complete rebuilding necessary.
During this period, MASCP began to support the organizing already going on in Arcatao and in the newly formed CCR—a regional roundtable for these “organized” communities in Chalatenango. Arcatao was a member of that organization and financial support helped with the costs of CCR activities and of sending a person from Arcatao to the meetings—transport, meals, basic office supplies, etc.
As one person in Arcatao once said to explain the importance of constant vigilance and organization, “We do not have money, weapons or political power. All we have is each other so we must stay organized.” To the people of Arcatao this means constantly working together with intentional goals, leaders, intergenerational teams and carefully planned activities. This clarity was and continues to be a powerful and inspiring force in the sistering relationship between MASCP and the people of Arcatao.