A month has passed since she returned from El Salvador. But high school student Heather Howlett says she still cries when she sees photographs she took on her trip to the impoverished, war-torn Latin American nation.
Howlett shared her photos with about 400 of her classmates at Notre Dame Preparatory School yesterday during an emotional slide presentation at the Catholic girls' school in Towson.
The slide carousel clicked and images flashed on a large screen in the school auditorium. There were shots of shacks made of mud and sticks, bomb craters, people washing clothes in sewer water and dirty, half-naked children at play. Nearly every picture of a child drew an "awwww" from the NDP girls.
And there was an image of a dark-haired young girl Howlett had befriended. The 17-year-old senior, speaking into a microphone at the front of the auditorium, said the girl's name, then paused as she choked up. She managed to say, with a shy laugh, "She's precious."
Howlett and two NDP religious studies teachers, Stephen Strausbaugh and his sister Lucy, lived and traveled among the poor, rural campesinos of El Salvador from March 23 to April 3. They were part of a nine-member delegation organized by the Justice and Peace Commission of Baltimore's Catholic archdiocese.
United States church people, including many Baltimoreans, often make such solidarity missions to El Salvador. Teen-agers, however, rarely undertake the potentially dangerous journey to a land where civil war has claimed about 75,000 lives since 1980.
Today, peace may finally be within reach for Salvadorans. Although the left was long blocked from participating in elections, nine leftist were elected in national elections on March and took office in the Legislative Assembly in San Salvador this week. They were solemnly welcomed by members of the rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance, which controls both the Legislature and the government of President Alfredo Christiani.
Such events are seen as a step toward a more representative government. Also, rebel and government officials are hinting that a permanent cease-fire might be arranged by the end of the year.
For Howlett and the Strausbaughs, a key goal of the trip was establishing a sister-school relationship between NDP and the Ignacio Ellacuria school, headed by Sister Cathy Arata, a nun with the Baltimore province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. The Ellacuria school is named for one of the six Jesuit priests murdered in San Salvador in November 1989.
U.S. and Salvadoran sister-city and sister-parish relationships are common, but the NDP-Ellacuria link is the first to involve schools, according to Stephen Strausbaugh.
NDP's Christian Community Awareness Program has raised and contributed $1,000 to the Ellacuria school, said Lucy Strausbaugh. In addition, a group of NDP students and teachers might travel to El Salvador next year to instruct the Ellacuria teachers, who have only elementary school educations.
"Whether we go depends on what's happening with the war and the cholera epidemic in Central America," she added.
The Strausbaughs also took the mike during the slide presentation. They spoke in unadorned language as they went through the photographs. Most of the pictures, depicting poverty and the physical destruction caused by a decade of civil war, required little commentary.
One photo showed a sort of bomb shelter -- no more than a hole in a hillside, concealed by foliage. Another shot captured a group standing near a bomb crater. Stephen Strausbaugh said, "It gives you an idea of the resourcefulness of these people, that when they come across a bomb crater, they start digging into it to find water."
Lucy Strausbaugh focused her remarks on Salvadoran religious life. She called the church there "a church of martyrs," a reference to the clergy, religious and lay people allegedly murdered by a Salvadoran military that regards the poor and Christians as "subversive" or Communist, Strausbaugh said.
"The people of El Salvador are like the early Christians: the more persecuted they are, the stronger their faith becomes," she said.
Some light moments surfaced during the presentation. Stephen Strausbaugh got laughs with his deadpan recounting of how the villagers would "watch the gringos get ready for bed." Two slides showed him at night, sitting on a porch, with dozens of villagers' eyes glued to him, waiting for his next move.
Howlett, who plans to major in psychology at Roanoke College, showed a photo of a group of children in a Salvadoran street. One boy of about 10 was seen holding two fingers behind the head of a companion. "Typical boy," she scoffed, bringing giggles from the audience.
After the program, Howlett said she was a sophomore when she became interested in traveling to El Salvador. She had heard an NDP teacher and a school official discuss a visit they had made there. The student's family and friends were "very worried" about her before and during the trip, though she occasionally phoned home while she was away, she said.