Post-war moments of silence in El Salvador and Guatemala

One of the many benefits of the IWMF trip is that, because the Foundation handles logistics, I’ve been able to spend more energy simply paying attention. There are lovely details in El Salvador and Guatemala; the majestic weathered buildings of Guate City’s Zone 1, the buoyant young lunchtime crowd at the corner sandwich shop in San Salvador. But both countries also live with the legacy of recent war, and in small moments, we witnessed this.

Twice in our interviews people dropped to a whisper after a sudden shot of fear. Once, we sat in a circle in a sheet-metal shed in an urban neighborhood just beyond the limits of San Salvador, speaking with a man who has spent his career teaching in a local school. He is a member of a neighborhood dialogue group that includes parents, community leaders and local gang members and has helped broker peace with both the gang and police and soldiers assigned to patrol the zone who’re implicated in rights abuses of local young people. Suddenly during our interview, the man looked out the window and saw a gang leader walk by. He instinctively reached for our recorder to shut it off. He fell silent, whispered something and gestured to the window, and then raised his voice again, forcing himself into a natural cadence about their peacebuilding work.

One week later we were in a government office in Guatemala City interviewing someone close to the recent crisis involving the president and the independent investigative body called CICIG. She spoke quickly in a low voice, barreling through a list of ways her days are disfigured by her attempts to roadblock corruption. Suddenly she went silent. Through her closed office door we heard footsteps: her colleagues walking the hall, innocuous in normal circumstances, but this is a situation in which one never knows which side people are really on. She waited for the footsteps to pass, and then continued her story.

– Danielle Mackey