Marylanders take aid to El Salvador


MARIA MADRE DE LOS POBRES, El Salvador -- It's a long way from Taneytown to the parish of Maria Madre de los Pobres, an impoverished shanty town on the edge of the capital, San Salvador.

But last Sunday, Carroll County's Jim Small was among the congregation gathered in the small church to commemorate the 13th anniversary of the killing of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

The 52-year-old owner of Taneytown Auto Parts Inc. and Small & Sons Auto Parts in Emmitsburg is part of a two-person team that drove more than 4,000 miles from Baltimore to San Salvador. The truck carried humanitarian aid for this community and for Baltimore's twin town, the small community of El Barillo in northern El Salvador.

A convoy of 34 trucks from across the United States -- which stopped in Baltimore on Feb. 27 -- spent eight days snaking its way across Mexico and down through Central America, finally crossing the border into El Salvador. Its 120-ton cargo of computers, wheelchairs, motorbikes, sewing machines, medical and school supplies and a tractor -- valued at $1.6 million -- is destined for poor communities affected by war.

Apart from carrying much-needed aid, the convoy -- organized ++ by U.S. church and solidarity groups -- hopes to put the spotlight on post-war El Salvador.

"We want to send a strong message to the Clinton administration that peace still isn't secure here and put El Salvador back on the political map," said one of the trip's organizers, Debbie Gratton.

Mr. Small, who previously made three trips to Nicaragua, is on his second trip to El Salvador. A veteran peace campaigner who has devoted the past 30 years to peace and justice work, Mr. Small said he believes that activism requires being just that, active.

"We were very well received in Ahuachapan and San Salvador," he said. "People are very much in need of this aid. Since the war has ended, aid has diminished. So this support is very important."

His co-driver, Randallstown student Karen Gustafson, had never been south of Arizona. The first time she heard of the violence in El Salvador was in 1990, when she heard a talk given by one of the mothers of the estimated 8,000 inhabitants who have "disappeared" after being taken by security forces during the war.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to do something good, although cannot correct what has happened here," Ms. Gustafson said. "As Americans, we have a moral obligation to do something because it was our funds which maintained the war."

Ms. Gustafson said she was shocked by the poverty she has seen driving through Central America. She said the sight of young children working will stay with her for some time to come.

Church groups in Baltimore have supported Maria Madre de los Pobres throughout the dark years of El Salvador's brutal civil war.

Photos of well-wishers from Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill and Maryland Presbyterian Church near Towson, both sister parishes of Maria Madre de los Pobres, hang in a small room beside the simple church built of wood and corrugated iron on top of a garbage dump. It is a sanctuary for refugees driven from their homes in the countryside by bombing during the war.

"The people in Baltimore did not just give us their solidarity and economic support, many visited us during the war," said the parish priest, the Rev. Daniel Sanchez.

Donations collected in Baltimore helped fund projects to improve the water and health system in the community.

Peace has brought changes to the parish, but memories of the war haunt the community. The walls are covered with drawings of Archbishop Romero painted by local children.

The sermon heard by the two Marylanders last Sunday was preached by a newly ordained Jesuit priest, the Rev. Miguel Cortes. Six of his fellow Jesuit priests were killed by the Salvadoran armed forces in November 1989.

As he listened to Salvadorans talk of the war, Mr. Small began to question his pacifism.

"I'm against military force, but I don't know how I would have been a pacifist with the repression people faced here," he said.

About 75,000 Salvadorans were killed during the country's 12-year civil war. A United Nations-sponsored report released last week blames the Salvadoran armed forces for 85 percent of some 20,000 serious human rights violations.

The two Marylanders in El Salvador have been meeting with representatives of the Salvadoran government, FMLN and the Catholic Church. They were to fly home today.

"People have a lot of hope here," Ms. Gustafson said. "I don't know if I would if I was living here."

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