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Salvador nightmare demands further reckoning.

In November 1989, during the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front offensive, San Salvador was crawling with so many journalists that there were seldom enough taxis to go around. Reporters and photographers often rode toward the fighting crammed four to a cab, with only a flapping white flag and the letters TV taped to the windshield between them and El Salvadol's murderous civil war.

Yet, deep in the curfew hours of Nov. 16, as if to spit in the eye of that international scrutiny, U.S.-trained government troops invaded the Centroamericana University campus, hauled Jesuit Father Ignacio Ellacuria and seven of his colleagues and companions from their beds and executed them. Maybe the only thing more audacious than that deadly raid was the belief of those who ordered it that they could get away with it.

With last week's publication of the United Nation's Truth Commission report on some of the atrocities of Salvador's 12-year civil war, that audacity is easier to understand, even for some who remained unconvinced that U.S. policy in El Salvador was little short of criminal.

The report confirmed what many had long known, that government forces under various guises killed and maimed at times indiscriminately, on a scale nearly 10 times greater than that of the rebels, and that members of the military high command ordered the murder of the Jesuits.

Do it without leaving witnesses, said then-Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, whom U.S. officials later backed to become defense minister. Trouble is, the world was a witness, and this time the human rights hounds did not let up.

Groups in and out of El Salvador, the Jesuits prominent among them, insisted on justice. Salvador's corrupt judicial system finally jailed a scapegoat colonel for the murders, but critics knew that was hardly a hem of the whole cloth.

In the United States, mainline support for continued aid to El Salvador began to erode. The Salvador military had apparently hoped that killing the Jesuits would extinguish the rebel's intellectual light, but what flared from the muzzles of those M-16s that November night helped illuminate an international process that eventually led to the January 1992 peace accord, leaving the government far short of a military victory.

To ice the irony, the peace accord established the U.N. commission that last week unearthed the evidence so damaging to the military's version of the war, truth coming to light like bones from the mass grave at El Mozote, in the area where the army massacred about 800 civilians, most of them children and women, in 1981.

The cover-up following that massacre, in Salvador and in the United States, pinnel down the pattern for the decade, the same pattern of disinformation and deceit that allowed Ponce and others to believe they could get away with butchering the Jesuits.

The two journalists who reported what they saw in El Mozote were discredited as rebel dupes, partly through mendacious U.S. State Department testimony before Congress. But for the next decade it was really the American people who were duped.

Time and again, U.S. officials stepped forward to deny or explain away Salvadoran government crimes and cover-ups while assuring Congress and the people that military aid should continue because the human rights situation in El Salvador was improving.

Remember, for example, Alexander Haig, Reagan's secretary of state at the time, suggesting the four U.S. religious women raped and murdered outside San Salvador in 1980 may have been involved in "an exchange of fire" with the Salvador National Guard. Or Haig's colleague at the United Nations, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, implying the women were "political activists" and may have gotten what they deserved for sticking their noses into another nation's business.

But the United States was sticking its nose into that nation's business to the tune of $6 billion in military aid alone, all in the name of defending democracy from a communist takeover of Central America. That was a chimera, as many believed at the time and subsequent world events demonstrated.

Ponce resigned as defense minister a few days before the U.N. report was issued, apparently to head off political embarrassment and U.S. aid cuts for President Alfredo Cristiani's government. Cristiani, after scrambling to delay publication of the report, was quick to urge amnesty for all crimes the Truth Commission cited, amnesty in the name of national reconciliation.

His argument is specious. No true reconciliation can be founded perpetuation of injustice and lies. Forgiveness is one thing, amnesty another. Forgiveness does not preclude punishment.

Those responsible for the war Crimes must be called to account, or there will be no national healing in El Salvador. At least 75,000 war dead, many thousands of them civilians, cry out for even that simplest sense of justice.

To their credit, FMLN leaders have rejected Cristiani's call for amnesty and urged full implementation of the U.N. recommendations, including penalties against some of their own. The commission documented several hundred civilian deaths at the hands of the FMLN, but it appears the rebels almost never killed indiscriminately. They were not, in other words, making war on the people they were trying to liberate, or "save for democracy."

The United States, as one of the primary perpetrators of injustice in this affair, should be pushing hard to set it right, for the sake of its own soul, if nothing else. Yet, last week Reagan/Bush henchmen such as former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, a right-wing ideologue and consummate liar, were calling the commission report a rewriting of history and insisting that U.S. involvement in El Salvador was a noble fight for democracy.

That is the "democracy" that had the late right-wing thug Roberto D'Aubuisson running for president years after most of the world knew he was behind the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. The commission report confirms the D'Aubuisson-death squad connection.

Perhaps no country deserves peace and a measure of normality more than El Salvador. But the U.N. report makes it clear that before that can happen there is work to be done, lessons to be learned. The United States has to be a part of that process. We cannot call others to account without being accountable ourselves.

No doubt Abrams and his ilk know that. But we should not let their deceptions divide us, or the people of El Salvador, any longer.
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Title Annotation:human rights investigation
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 26, 1993
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