Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
May 21, 2001
El Salvador's psychological trauma
Tensions from earthquake pile on top of 'dragons' from earlier military oppression
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
CALGARY — Kitty Freeman was counselling Salvadoran victims of loss and torture in Calgary, when an earthquake devastated El Salvador on Jan. 13. The people she counselled were again assaulted with the pain of lost relatives and lost lives.
Freeman runs a counselling service in Calgary called TARA (Torture and Ritual Abuse). Many of her clients are originally from El Salvador and experienced torture under the Salvadoran military during the civil war. She also does workshops for RCMP officers who work with victims of violence.
Freeman, who was in El Salvador during the civil war in the 1980's, had her own "unpleasant experience" at the hands of the Salvadoran military. A survivor, she knows first hand the pain and anguish of the victims.
It was those experiences and feelings that prompted her in March, "to go to El Salvador to help with the trauma after the earthquake and to face my own personal 'dragons.'"
Back in Calgary, she feels that the world has forgotten about El Salvador after the initial relief and this is dramatically affecting the Salvadoran people.
"The cleanup in the towns of Carmen and Vicente seems to go at a snail's pace. There is rubble everywhere, people are sick and some are starving to death. Mothers have committed infanticide because they don't want their children to suffer anymore."
Freeman continues, "The effects of trauma are very acute and intense in an earthquake setting."
It was in this atmosphere that Freeman met Father Dioysio, the papal vicar of Guatemala who was working with the Salvador people and who became her friend and ally. He was of great assistance in locating 14 missing relatives of people in Calgary.
Freeman tells how she and Father Dioysio were on their way to one devastated area when they stopped and she took a picture of an army station where she was interrogated years before. Military personnel were upset that she was taking a picture.
When Freeman realized that they were going to take her in for questioning, old memories boiled to the surface and she pleaded with Dioysio not to let them take her - she felt she could not handle it.
Dioysio accomplished this but it was a traumatic situation. Freeman reflects, "We can't just talk to the people who have hurt us, we must put forgiveness into action and that's not easy."
Freeman described an experience in the town of Carmen: "I noticed barbed wire that was erected to keep out folks who are in the business of kidnapping for body parts and other brutalities. The walls of the buildings had signs warning against cholera and dengue fever.
"As I walked farther I noticed a cross leaning up against some barbed wire. These images are etched in my mind as pain upon pain brutalizing the hope of El Salvador's people."
"My greatest challenge was to find God's healing among the rubble whether in a disaster zone or everyday life," recalls Freeman.
Protecting the lives of the living was necessary. For example, part of Freeman's work involved helping people to understand the importance of not burying their dead close to their vegetable gardens.
Freeman says: "We all handle pain in different ways and when there is so much devastation, people wish to have even their dead buried close to the family."
One effect of severe trauma is sleepwalking, especially among children. Freeman tells of a young boy who would continually sleepwalk and head towards the coffee plantation where there were guards with machetes and AK-47s armed to protect the plantation from robbers.
The parents were afraid their son would be killed if he wandered off. They had to tie him to a tree outside their home all night so he would not wander off.
Freeman says, "Each person's story is unique but there are a lot of common threads to the stories of many children who suffer from night terrors and sleepwalking since the earthquake."
Freeman kept a journal and this is one of her entries: "Ada Elena Hermana has a nine-year-old son who is the youngest of eight children. Afraid, hurt his leg during the earthquake. Has stomachaches, no energy, headaches. Tired, depressed. Great difficulty concentrating. He has a mom, dad, grandma, three brothers, four sisters, house destroyed."
In this type of situation, where the family is in shock, startle responses are common. Freeman describes her approach: "When I look into their eyes there is an empty hollow look.
"What I had to do was to develop an action plan for the adults and youth so they know what to do and where to meet if there was another earthquake. The children are affected emotionally, there are no drugs for depression, and people sleep in outhouses and outdoors at night for fear of another earthquake."
Now back home, the phone rings and she takes a call from a torture victim who needs to talk. She knows it's important so schedules him for the afternoon.
She recalls the spirit of Archbishop Oscar Romero, slain while celebrating Mass in 1980. "Romero's spirit is alive in the Salvadoran people and that spirit needs a little help in rebuilding the horrific devastation experienced by the Salvadoran people."
Freeman understands this spirit as she works with the Salvadoran people. Her example of facing past "dragons" and helping God's traumatized people along the way is a reminder of what God expects of his people.
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