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In El Salvador’s destitute border country a clinic run by refugees and orphans

Staff at the CAFOD-run clinic have harrowing tales, including one woman who was forced to flee aged only 10

By on Monday, 20 February 2012

Near the Catholic Herald’s offices is a very boutique coffee shop which stores filter coffee, advertised as coming from Chalatenango, in El Salvador. I was in Chalatenango four days ago, and it would be hard to imagine the region supplying a hip coffee chain like this in the centre of London.

The region was the home of the left-wing guerrilla movement during the civil war of the 1980s. Now it is a largely destitute border territory. One of the main medical clinics in the area, Clinica Ana Manganaro, is funded by CAFOD, in the town of Guarjila. Many of the nurses who serve the clinic arrived during the civil war, and were themselves refugees. They would populate the camps on the Honduran border; their families had been wiped out by the bullets or shells of the right-wing military.

Rosalí Antonia Ortega Serrano is one such case. She was 10 when in 1980 she left El Salvador for the refugee camps of Honduras. Her uncle and aunt had been shot dead by the military in their small village, for associating with the UTC (Farm Workers’ Union).

“We left at night, soon after my uncle was killed. We would walk at night so we could hide from the army. We left at 4pm from our village in El Salvador, and arrived at the border at 5 or 6am. We walked with the small amount of things that we had left. Most of it had been burnt when the army torched our homes. I remember that my mother would take one more dress for us girls, and a bag of corn and a bag of beans. And maybe some sheets, and what we had on. We would go in a group of around 50 people, with three or four guerrillas guarding us.”

Rosalí was then put under the effective guard of a series of NGOs, including the Catholic organisation Caritas, as well as the ACNUR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). They lived in a refugee camp with 11,000 people. They eventually negotiated a return to El Salvador, in 1987.

“At the border with Honduras they didn’t want to let us pass. We ended up sleeping there. Then Archbishop Rivera y Damas, [a staunch ally of Archbishop Romero’s and Archbishop of El Salvador during the civil war] arrived and liberated us.

“He was accompanied by the Lutheran Church, and a huge number of representatives from churches from around the world. They took care of us there on the frontier, and accompanied us on the long route home.”

There wasn’t much left when they arrived home. The civil war was still raging; however the cross seemed to stand for something. Each refugee carried a card, which served as a passport and guarantee of safety, signed by the Archbishopric of San Salvador, saying that they were under its protection.

Rosalí stayed in Guarjila, and is now a senior nurse at the clinic in Guarjila. She tells her story matter-of-factly. She had dreamed of being a teacher, before the civil war interrupted her schooling. She has a rather matronly air about her, still, as she tends to the ill, on the new path the civil war decided for her.