I HAVE followed with great interest, and no small amount of anger, the recent trial of two former Salvadoran generals who were cleared of liability in the deaths of four American churchwomen in El Salvador nearly 20 years ago.
On Dec. 2, 1980, Maryknoll nuns Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline nun Dorothy Kazel and lay volunteer Jean Donovan were abducted, raped and killed by Salvadoran soldiers who suspected them of sympathizing with leftist guerrillas.
In 1984, five National Guard members were convicted in the killings, and four said later they had acted on orders from superiors.
This month, a federal court jury in West Palm Beach, Fla., said it was unclear that Jose guillermo Garcia, 67, and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 62, were responsible for the killings. Both defendants had retired to Florida, where the victims' families sued them for at least $100 million, alleging that they were responsible.
The former generals acknowledged that they knew military death squads had killed thousands of Salvadorans. But the jury said there was insufficient evidence to link them to the killing of the churchwomen. As I read about the case, I could not help wondering whether justice had been served.
About 75,000 people died in El Salvador's 1980-1992 civil war. The churchwomen were not the only religious figures targeted for death. Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was fatally shot in 1980 while saying Mass, and soldiers killed six Jesuit priests and two women who had sought refuge under their roof in 1989.
The Salvadoran military was strongly supported by the U.S. government. The deaths of the churchwomen, the archbishop and the Jesuits focused attention on U.S. policy in El Salvador, and throughout Central America, where conflicts also raged in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
When I set out to write a reflective essay about El Salvador's civil war, I could hear the martyrs' voices in the background. The meaning of their lives and their deaths continue to resonate with the many Salvadorans who have sought refuge in this country.
It's ironic and sad that few members of the death squads have been punished, while thousands of Salvadorans were forced to flee their nation to escape death.
In 1987, when I was a junior at Loyola College, I met a Jesuit who made an impact on my life. He was one of the six Jesuits assassinated Nov. 16, 1989
Ignacio Martin-Baro lived out the tenets of his faith. A Spaniard by birth, he went to El Salvador in his 20s. I was one of a group of eight who went to El Salvador to get a firsthand view of the unrest. Martin-BarM-s was chairman of the psychology department at the University of Central America in San Salvador.
As I write of Martin-Baro and his commitment to justice, I can see his bespectacled, bearded face. I can hear his soft, penetrating voice. I have thought about him since the day I learned of his killing, and I keep his photograph taped to my computer.
Thursday marked the 11th anniversary of the killings of Ignacio Martin-Baro, his five fellow Jesuits, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter on the grounds of the University of Central America in San Salvador.
The women and her daughter had sought refuge with the priests because they felt unsafe in their house.
Thirty-six men drove through the quiet streets to the university, where they rounded up the pajama-clad priests and shot each in the head. Their violent deaths shook the world into paying a little more attention to what had been happening in El Salvador for many years.
When the shooting ended, a soldier dragged the body of one of the priests back into the house and tried to make it appear that leftist guerillas had committed the murders. But he didn't notice the book that reportedly fell into blood that flowed from the Jesuit's head. Its pages soaked in blood, Jurgen Moltmann's "The Crucified God" remained a silent witness to the events of that night.
What do their deaths mean 11 years later?
Martin-Baro was not only a priest; he was a scholar who wrote a couple of books on the psychology of war and the effects of war on a young population. He also preached to a community of displaced families once a week, bringing a message of hope and care against a background of death and destruction. His faith taught him hope, even when reality seemed to offer none. His message was passionate, yet calm: "Don't believe me; don't believe any of us -- go where the real people are and get in touch with their suffering."
I returned from Central America committed to bringing the issues of the day to the attention of my peers; I spoke to church groups. I organized a student group on campus through which we raised money for an ambulance to be donated to Nicaragua; I wrote for the school newspaper.
I believed I could effect change. I believed that active involvement with my peers, with adults, with anyone who would listen, would bring us one step closer to understanding what I perceived to be the reality of Central America.
Once I graduated, and after much soul-searching, I realized that issues of hunger, inequality, and injustice were not isolated to tiny, Third World nations. The Central American reality loomed in the background, its potent images feeding my passion to make a difference here in Baltimore.
As a student at Loyola College, I was taught to balance intellectual understanding with a commitment to justice. Like me, many of my peers attempted in our youthful idealism to do just that.
I will never forget the six priests, the woman and the girl who were murdered in El Salvador. Last week their deaths were commemorated on Loyola's campus when eight crosses bearing their names were placed in front of the statue of St. Ignatius.
From time to time, I listen to the interview we recorded with Ignacio Martin-Baro at the University of Central America in 1987.
The interview and his photograph taped on my computer are stark reminders of a life lived in fear and mistrust. Fear of saying anything that might be misinterpreted. Mistrust of government and religious institutions that for years aligned themselves with the forces of oppression.
Martin-Baro and the seven other victims died in the midst of a war that's vaguely remembered by most people I meet. For a brief time, the crosses will mark their lives, then they will go back to the closet for another year, and the eight will be forgotten again as religious activists and solidarity groups move on to other issues over which to pray or protest.
My life will change, too. I will return to my law studies, and Martin-Baro's bespectacled face, his affable manner and his soft voice will fade into the background until the anniversary of his death next year. But the strength of his words and actions will never die, they have become guiding principles for all who are truly concerned about human rights. There is truth to the saying that "you can kill a man, but you can't kill an idea."
Haydee M. Rodriguez is a third-year student at the University of Maryland School of Law and holds a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from Loyola College. She served as liaison to the Hispanic community under former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.