Witnesses at Fort Benning, GA
It was a rainy Sunday morning on November 23rd when 2,500 witnesses gathered in solemn vigil before the gates of Fort Benning, GA where the US Army houses a military training school for Latin American military and civilian personnel. Formerly called the School of the Americas it is now named the Western Hemisphere for Security Cooperation. The witnesses convened from countries throughout this hemisphere – Canada, the USA, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and also from Nigeria. Wisconsin was well represented, with over seventy traveling by bus, plane, car or train. Caryl Hartjes, Mary Rose Meis, and Marilyn Ellickson of the Sisters of St. Agnes were joined by Sally Ann Brickner and Jill Stiemsma from Fond du Lac. Some participants had attended every vigil since they began in 1989 while many others came for the first time. Veterans and civilians, young and old, people of every race and creed lifted their voices, saying: “No mas! No more! We must stop the dirty wars. Compañeros, compañeras, we cry out! No mas! No More!”
These 2500 who were physically present on Sunday carried the memory and spirit of thousands of men, women and children from Latin America who for generations suffered torture, displacement, and even death at the hands of military and paramilitary forces trained at the SOA/WHINSEC, which is also known as the School of Assassins. Present and not forgotten were CSA Sisters Maureen Courtney, Jenny Flor Altamirano, and Teresa de Jesus Rosales as well as those massacred at El Mazote, the four American Church women, Archbishop Oscar Romero, the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter. As the names were sung from the stage participants lifted their memorial crosses and sang in reply, “¡Presente!”
Why do so many passionate people continue participating in this vigil? Why does CSA join them? Having served since 1945 in Nicaragua, the Congregation has experienced the effects of USA foreign policy and its protection of corporate interests throughout the Western Hemisphere. In Nicaragua the Sisters have seen war, violence, land grabs, repression and expropriation of natural resources. The have felt the deepening divide between the rich and the poor. They have suffered with families whose loved ones have been disappeared or killed. They know families who have migrated internally or beyond the country’s borders to escape poverty and violence. These evils demand remedy; these victims deserve justice.
During the weekend at Fort Benning, attendees heard speakers from Latin America describe their current realities. They learned new ways of supporting SOA Watch in its efforts to close the military training school: by asking governments to no longer send personnel to the SOA; by urging the US Congress to demand accountability of graduates from the school; or by cutting off Defense Department funds for the school. You can also be a witness by asking your Congress person to co-sponsor HR 2989 The Latin American Training Review Act sponsored by James McGovern of Massachusetts.
Once you know of injustice you must not be silent. In conscience you must be in solidarity with the oppressed and join in their struggle for justice. Marty Haugen says it well in his song Who Will Speak: “Who will speak for the poor and broken? Who will speak for the peoples oppressed? Who will speak so that voice will be heard? Oh, who will speak if you don’t?”