Barbara Holden, Peace Corps volunteer
Professor De Escobar, Professor of Mathematics and Physics at the University of El Salvador
Phil Gourevich, author, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
BARBARA HOLDEN: Deforestation and erosion in all of the country of El Salvador are probably, in addition to water, the largest environmental concern that this country has.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, solar energy in El Salvador. And later, we’ll get an inside look at the Rwandan genocide.
PHILIP GOUREVICH: They wrote a letter to the church president, who was himself a Hutu. And they said, “How are you? We hope that you are being strong in this time. We wish to inform you that we have learned that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.” And then they asked the pastor to do all that he could in the name of the Lord to intercede on their behalf. And as it happened they were murdered, all the people who signed that letter, the next day, along with several, well hundreds and probably several thousand people in that church complex.
MC HUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.
Firewood is still the primary source of energy for many rural communities in El Salvador. But thanks to a new program some villages are using the sun instead of firewood. Our Kent Newman says the pilot solar energy project is a joint venture between a Des Moines, Iowa, church group and a Salvadoran parish.
[sound of a small plane]
KENT NEWMAN: Our plane descends through the clouds into the smoky haze above San Salvador. The air is thick with the combination of diesel exhaust and wood smoke. Even in San Salvador many of the urban poor cook with wood. And as we approach the airport south of the city I see a large grass fire, which is adding to the smoke. It is almost sunset and everything is lit in stark relief from the low western sun. I’m returning to El Salvador as part of a small delegation to organize a pilot project demonstrating the use of solar energy for cooking and drying food and producing photovoltaic electricity for villagers in isolated rural mountain communities around the town of Berlin.
We ride in the back of a pick-up truck from the airport. On the road several semi-trucks pulling trailers full of firewood pass us. This wood has been harvested in a rural area and is being delivered to the suburban San Salvador market. We’re exposed to the smells of people cooking with wood during our 2.5-mile trip. In terms of total land area El Salvador has one of the highest percentages of deforestation and soil erosion in the world. Production of cacao, then indigo, and currently coffee, led to the clearing of nearly all available land through a network of fincas or plantations, which employ the rural campesinos.
Historically, the mainstay of the Salvadoran economy has been agriculture. And a small number of families has owned and controlled the land, agricultural production and government. In a country where agriculture constitutes 25 percent of the gross national product, employs 60 percent of the population, and brings in 90 percent of the country’s income from exports, the concentration of land ownership by a small minority creates extremes of wealth and poverty. A tradition of authoritarian repression by military and security forces maintained a political process which excluded most of the people, leading to conflict, violence and a military government supported by the ruling families.
El Salvador was consumed by a violent civil war during the 1980s, with major loss of life, as well as damage and destruction of infrastructure, housing and the environment. Peace accords were signed in 1992 and the people of El Salvador are working to rebuild their country. A stable currency, minimal inflation and steady growth of the national economy have brought stability. In the rural areas where many of the people live, however, agrarian reform and land tenure for both production and subsistence agriculture continue to be major issues.
There has been some transfer of land ownership to both individuals and cooperatives. But credit, technical assistance, and other forms of support are still lacking. Ethel Veno Morio de Escobar, is a Professor of Mathematics and Physics at the University of El Salvador in San Salvador. She is a specialist in solar energy and has conducted extensive solar mapping in El Salvador to determine levels of solar gain throughout the year. Professor De Escobar has worked with many applications of solar energy, including pumping water, desalination of sea water, refrigeration, hot water, and photovoltaic production of electricity.
PROFESSOR DE ESCOBAR: [via a translator] If we cook with the sun it will reduce deforestation and also global warming. When we cook with wood we produce smoke and ashes which contributes to global warming and climate change. The consequence is more storms, torrential rain, flooding and erosion, like we had from Hurricane Mitch. Cooking with the sun improves the quality of life for people. Economic benefits, environmental benefits, better nutrition—because we lose less proteins, better health—much better in many ways.
NEWMAN: The consistently high levels of sunlight in El Salvador provide a source of energy for many important applications. Solar energy can be used to create electricity for lighting and powering small appliances and machinery. The applications which may have the greatest potential for much of the world are solar box ovens and food dryers. Solar ovens provide an alternative to burning scarce supplies of wood for fuel, saving time for villagers and providing an opportunity to improve vegetation and tree growth on badly eroded hillsides. Food dryers preserve fruits and vegetables, maintaining nutritional content and extending shelf life.
[sound of bells]
NEWMAN: Father Mario Flores is a Franciscan friar in the parish of St. Joseph in Berlin, in the Department of Usuatan??, in eastern El Salvador. The parish serves the 12,000 people in Berlin as well as the 12,000 people in the small rural villages cantones.
FATHER FLORES: [via a translator] Most of the people of the cantones work in agriculture. They grow corn, beans, make corn meal, and also work in coffee. Some also work in the capital or San Miguel. People live in houses that are very small and in poor condition. They need better housing, safe drinking water, electrical energy and improved food production.
NEWMAN: Churches in Iowa have been providing support for a variety of projects in the cantones around Berlin; in education, agriculture, health care, and economic development. Our delegation is working with the parish to focus attention on the benefits of solar energy. The goal of this pilot project is to place a solar cooker and food dryer in each of the rural cantones served by the church so the people can see how they work and get a chance to use them. Several photovoltaic panels will also be installed to provide minimal electricity for family homes. Milagro Rodriguez is the Outreach Program Director at the church.
MILAGRO RODRIGUEZ: [via a translator] We have a big problem with our ecology. We took out a lot of trees and damaged our mountains. Many mountains—gone. Many trees—cut. Here in our town of Berlin we have 20 communities. Only four of them have electricity and the other 16 don’t. The four communities that have electricity also have other problems. They can’t afford electric or gas stoves so they still cook with firewood.
NEWMAN: Milagro and a small group from the church in Berlin rides a bus to San Salvador to meet with Professor de Escobar at the National University. Blanca and Luise Guardado??, a married couple from one of the cantones, are very interested in obtaining a solar panel for electricity. The group tours a small demonstration solar house with the photovoltaic panel on the campus. And then learns about several styles of cookers and food dryers in the solar energy laboratory. The group makes arrangements for the professor to come to Berlin to do a seminar on solar theory and technology. Blanca is very excited about the prospects of using solar energy in her home.
BLANCO GUARDARDO??: [via a translator] This project will help lots of families. Solar ovens help the environment by reducing deforestation. It helps us avoid burning wood. The fruit dryers are very important in Berlin, where we have many fruits: mangos, oranges, melons, watermelon. There is a lot of fruit that is wasted now because we don’t have a way to store or preserve it. It is important for every home to have a food dryer.
NEWMAN: On a Saturday morning over 25 people show up for this seminar with Professor de Escobar, who has driven from Sal Salvador with her husband. The participants are mostly community people from the church, including Blanca and Luis. But it also includes a building contractor and an architect from the community. The group meets in a large classroom in the church complex across from the town square. Professor de Escobar talks solar theory, drawing illustrations on a blackboard. She uses the two books she has written as references and shows examples of the solar cooker and food dryer.
During a break the group gathers in an open courtyard around a flexible 12-volt photovoltaic panel, which is powering a radio. Barbara Holden is a Peace Corps volunteer attending the seminar who has worked in Berlin for two years as a community organization.
HOLDEN: Deforestation and erosion in all of the country of El Salvador are probably, in addition to water, the largest environmental concern that this country has. And of course it’s all connected—soil erosion, filtration of water through the soils and good filtration as a result of forestation, all of course reflect on the quality of your water and the amount that you actually have that’s not contaminated. Ninety-eight percent of El Salvador’s original forests are gone. Only 5 percent of the country is covered by forest. You could see what the deforestation in Berlin, as well as the rest of the country—the results of that. Especially with landslides. And if you look at Berlin you can, on the hillsides of Berlin you can just see the devastation that’s created. And of course the people are very concerned that this next wet season, when it starts coming, which is soon, this soil that’s still sitting there, that hasn’t been eroded, will al cause flooding and also damage of course.
NEWMAN: The contractor who attended the seminar agrees to procure the materials to construct the cookers and food dryers. The week following the solar training, a volunteer medical delegation from Newton, Iowa, is in Berlin to conduct clinics. The medical delegation includes a carpenter who works with the contractor to design and build the cookers and food dryers. Luis Guardardo thinks that the solar project is off to a good start.
GUARDARDO: [via a translator] There is a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. We’re looking for a way to begin and expand the project. It’s a problem because there are a lot of poor families in the cantones.
NEWMAN: The parish is talking with the contractor about constructing a community building with solar panels to provide power and lighting for multipurpose use, including education, providing a place for children to read and study, economic development—for a women’s sewing cooperative to make clothing—and community meetings. Again, Barbara Holden.
HOLDEN: El Salvador is kind of starting from scratch and maybe will be the model. Maybe we can be the example of how do you go from something totally deforested, that used to be a rain forest, to maybe something, you know, at least a little healthier.
NEWMAN: From Berlin, El Salvador, I’m Kent Newman for Common Ground.
MC HUGH: In a moment the mystery of Rwanda.
GOUREVICH: There is a mystery as to why people who otherwise were morally not bankrupt would rise up and murder their neighbors. Because much of the killing that was done in Rwanda was done not only with hand-held implements rather than guns, but with machetes and hoes, it was actually done between people who knew each other.
MC HUGH: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MC HUGH: The Rwandan genocide of 1994 left at least 800,000 people dead. Common Ground Senior Producer Keith Porter recently spoke with one man who has attempted to explain why.
PORTER: Philip Gourevich is an author and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. With the help of the United States Institute of Peace, Gourevich wrote a book with this disturbing title: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.
GOUREVICH: The title, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, comes as an almost direct quote from a letter that was written during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, by a group of church pastors in the Seventh Day Adventist church, who knew that they and their families and their congregations, were slated for death. And were pleading for help. These massacres that were sweeping across Rwanda in the hundred days between April 6, 1994, and mid-July 1994, claimed the lives of at least 800,000 people. Which is an extraordinary rate. It’s three times the speed with which Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
And the way this came about, of course, has a very complex and somewhat multifaceted history. But the concrete development that took place in the spring of 1994 is that the Hutu majority government—Rwanda is, 85 percent of the population of Rwanda belong to the Hutu majority group—and the government essentially mobilized the population, calling on everybody in the Hutu population to join together in exterminating everybody in the Tutsi population. And as the killings began to sweep across the country many of those who understood themselves to be targeted for death sought refuge in large places that they imagined would be places of sanctuary. In churches, was one of the first destinations. Rwanda is one of the most intensively Christianized—and in this case Catholic—countries in Africa. In the case that the title of the book comes from the area around there was primarily Protestant and it was a Seventh Day Adventist church.
And so here you had amongst those who were slated for death and seeking refuge at this church hospital compound in a little village called Muganara??, you had Tutsi’s, and of course you had Tutsi pastors. And so they wrote this letter when they learned that a massacre was planned for the next day. They wrote a letter to the church president, who was himself a Hutu. And they said, “How are you? We hope that you are being strong in this time. We wish to inform you that we have learned that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.” And then they asked the pastor to do all that he could in the name of the Lord to intercede on their behalf. And as it happened they were murdered, all the people who signed that letter, the next day, along with several, well hundreds and probably several thousand people in that church complex.
And not only did the few survivors whom I found there complain that the church president had done nothing to save them, he was widely accused of having actually helped to organize and orchestrate the massacres of his own congregation. And he was later charged by the United Nation Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which is sort of a satellite of the Yugoslav Tribunal at the Hague, with having presided over this massacre.
PORTER: You actually saw the letter? Or saw a copy of the letter?
GOUREVICH: Well, it’s extraordinary. I found the man.
PORTER: Yes, it’s amazing. You found him in Texas.
GOUREVICH: I found him in Texas. When I was in Rwanda I heard that he had moved to Laredo, Texas, which I thought was a pretty far-out address for a Rwandan genocider as he was accused of being. And so I went down to Laredo, Texas. Which is a town where there are very few black people, period, much less Africans. There are very few white people. It’s an overwhelmingly Mexican town. And it sits there over the Rio Grande. And I drove around a little bit trying to locate this man with no luck. I had a few addresses and they all turned out to be bad. And by chance I ultimately found his, the house.
What happened was his son, one of his sons, was living in America for many, many years, had nothing to do with the genocide of course. And he was a cardiac anesthesiologist down in Laredo. And therefore a relatively prosperous man who when his father, after the genocide had fled Rwanda and found himself first in Zaire and then in Zambia—in Zambia he made contact and his son got him as a family member, through family reunification. He’d brought him over to America with a green card. And so here was the pastor settled in Laredo. And through the son I made contact and the pastor came forward and wanted to clear his good name, as he understood it. And he showed me this letter. As I understand it he thought that this would exonerate him, because it would show that the Tutsi’s had trust in him. When in fact of course to the people who survived, this letter was the ultimate certificate of a betrayal of trust.
PORTER: What has happened to him since then?
GOUREVICH: He was arrested a day or two after I met him in late 1996. And he has been in Laredo jails and/or periodically in Laredo courtrooms fighting his extradition ever since—and successfully. He has not; he has managed so far not to get extradited. He had Ramsey Clark, the former Attorney General who sort of specializes in politically repugnant cases, came in and defended him with a completely specious argument that America had no extradition—that the UN had no right to extradite a person from our country. Which is kind of extraordinary ruling. And this local magistrate said, “Sure, okay. We’ll keep him.”
PORTER: And he’s still there?
GOUREVICH: He’s still there.
PORTER: Well, it’s an interesting story that sort of tells the larger story, I guess. And in, as we talk about the larger story of what happened in Rwanda, ultimately how do you explain it. I mean, how do you explain what happened to these people and why it happened? And why it happened in Rwanda and not somewhere else? I mean, the conditions in Rwanda, don’t they exist elsewhere in the world?
GOUREVICH: Well, the question of how it came about in Rwanda is actually a very complex story. It’s a story that does not go back, as we’ve often been told, to some sort of primordial tribal animosity between Hutu’s and Tutsi’s, as if they were somehow genetically like cats and dog-just sicced against each other by fate forever. But it does go back at least a century, to the time when Rwanda was a pre-colonial, self-contained kingdom. And there was a division where Hutu and Tutsi were not so much tribe but more like castes or classes. With the Tutsi a small, aristocratic and wealthier class, a dominant force. And the great mass of the peasantry was Hutu. And under colonialism—and I’m going to simplify here greatly, because we don’t have the necessary hours to lay out this in it’s full, kind of fascinating, I should say, complexity.
The Europeans who colonized Rwanda—Germans first and then the Belgians—were much taken with various ideas of race science, not unlike those that later informed the Nazis in Germany. But that really sought to explain physical and sociological differences by a kind of genetic science, which placed the Tutsi’s and identified the Tutsi’s as a master race. Stereotypically the archetypal Tutsi is taller, slenderer, has a more aquiline nose and slightly finer lips. And is essentially, in other words, has a slightly more European cast of body and features. And so the Europeans naturally thought this was master race. That those who most resembled them must be inherently superior and that the Hutu were a sort of vast, inferior, almost slave-race.
Now, this was not just insane racism, it was also convenient racism, because what it allowed was it allowed the Europeans to exploit the small Tutsi elite as a kind of administrative core in running the colonial state. The Tutsi’s, as people everywhere, embraced the myth of their own superiority, and seeing how hard pressed the Hutu were sought to protect themselves from such a fate.
Ultimately, it was only in the late 1950s, as the winds of independence and change started to blow through the continent that the idea of majority rule got translated into this very demographically driven idea of racial majority rule in Rwanda, or ethnic majority rule. With the idea that Hutu power was the only alternative to right this historical grievance. And it was only in the late 1950s that one had the first instance of organized political violence between Hutu and Tutsi. So really what one has is not an ancient tribal affair but a modern political structure.
This by way of answering, “How could it happen?” How could it happen? One can explain it in terms of economic pressures, in terms of political pressures, in terms of the pressures of a one-party state, in terms of a vast, largely illiterate, very subservient, highly administered and intensively cowed peasant population—many of them drunk, many of them poor; very, very sheltered. And with only one source of information: either state authorities or state radio. Which is essentially one monolithic structure. One can explain it in terms of resource competition and the gradual rhetoric of de-humanization by which Tutsi’s, having been massacred periodically throughout the independence era, since 1960, had become in some way dehumanized to the general population. One can explain all of these things.
But ultimately there is some mystery. There is a mystery as to why people who otherwise were morally not bankrupt would rise up and murder their neighbors. Because much of the killing that was done in Rwanda was done not only with hand-held implements rather than guns, but with machetes and hoes, it was actually done between people who knew each other. At least in the, on a community level. And in the end I do think there’s something mysterious about it. I can explain it, I can show how it was done. And I can explain and illustrate the stories of people who lived through it and who participated in it.
But one thing that starts to strike me. When I was in Rwanda one night I was out on the mountains and I got stuck in a ditch in my car. And some soldiers came by and told me, “You should be careful.” There was still Hutu militia operating in that area. And the said, “Really watch it. You should turn out your lights and just keep quiet. While you wait for rescue. We’ll send for a rescue vehicle.” And so I and some of the people I was traveling with, we just stood out by our car and it was kind of a strange dark midnight air in the mountains; it was raining and you couldn’t see a thing. And way down in this valley suddenly I heard this horrible cry, this “whoo-whoo-whoo-whooo-whooooo” sort of cry. And it was a woman’s voice. And it got louder and louder and louder. And as it gathered in intensity and alarm, there came all these other voices. You could hear down there in the valley, radiating around it, as other people took up the cry. And you could tell people were running towards it. You could hear the sound travel. Until it became not a voice, just screaming and shouting, and then it started to die down.
About an hour later people came up on the road leading a prisoner. And the prisoner turned out, was a man who had attempted to break into a woman’s house, the woman who had been screaming, and he was getting ready to rape her when she let out this cry. And it was explained to me, “Well, this is a tradition out here. We live spread out in the hills and community means that when I cry you too must cry. It’s a communal obligation. And you must come running. And you must see what you can do. And you must provide help. And this is how it is. This is normal.”
This impressed me so much. I can’t tell you. I thought, “Where can we cry out and expect to be heard?” When your neighbor shouts do you sort of try not to hear him? Or do you run, run into the middle of the trouble. And the idea that if you didn’t come you would have to explain yourself. Were you an accomplice? Well, in the Rwandan genocide the rhetoric was that those who helped Tutsi’s were accomplices. Being a Tutsi was a crime. And everybody had to run and join in. And so this extraordinary structure of community was harnessed in a kind of world upside down fashion so that innocence was the crime and those who didn’t join in the killing were accomplices. And it was that structure and that kind of community pressure that in some way made this whole thing possible. It was, as is so often the case, what was best about the place, that was also exploited to become what was worst.
PORTER: That is Philip Gourevich. His book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, won this year’s George Polk award for journalism. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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