María Teresa Gutiérrez joined the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebel group in the early 1980s, at the start of the brutal 12-year Salvadoran civil war between left-wing guerrillas and government forces. The conflict became entwined with Cold War rivalries: the Soviet Union backed the rebels, and the US funded the military. On 16 January 1992, a UN-sponsored peace deal was signed, and 7,000 guerrillas laid down their arms. The role of the armed forces was reformed and a new civilian police force established. The FMLN became a legal political party and its former fighters, among them the 37-year-old María Teresa, returned to civilian life. Here, Gutiérrez talks to Mike Lanchin…
On 16 January 1992, the day the peace deal was signed, I was in the rebel-controlled north, while lots of my comrades had travelled to the capital, San Salvador, for a huge public rally. It was the first time in years that many people had been out of the war zone. I stayed behind in the mountain camp, listening to the radio and following the events at the rally. All of a sudden a bush fire broke out nearby. All the fields were in flames. I think it was an accidental blaze that had spread from over the border in Honduras. So, rather than having time to celebrate the end of the war, we spent hours trying to put out the flames as best we could. When everyone came back from the capital that night and told us all about the rally, all we could talk about was almost getting burned alive in a bush fire!
I remember thinking: I’m not sure this is really happening. I felt a mixture of emotions – happiness, obviously, but also I wondered: what am I going to do now? I had nothing – no career, nowhere to live. In the days following the peace treaty, it began to sink in that the war was over. And I began to feel huge relief. One of the most immediate things to happen was that the army agreed not to move troops into our zones, and to stop the air attacks. In return, we agreed not to attack the army.
There was a feeling of optimism and expectation in the air. We were even able to travel outside the rebel zones. I remember going one day to a town called La Palma, a couple of hours away, where I bumped into my sister. She had been told that the guerrillas often came there, so she had travelled up from San Salvador with my son to see if she could find me. And we met up by chance! It was tough, because I had not seen him for years – he was 12 by then. He knew that the war was over, and that I was coming back, but at that time he didn’t want to live with me. It was very complicated.
Back in 1975, before the war started, I remember one day going to a hospital appointment with my mum, and running into a huge demonstration. We were in a car. We heard shooting not far off. People were running from the direction of the firing. We had to turn the car around and go back home. It was impossible to get through. That was the first time I saw close-up the sort of thing that was going on in the city at the time: protests against the government, and the security forces shooting at the protesters. My mum saw that I was interested in what was going on, and she said to me: please don’t get involved. Just go study – don’t get caught up in all that. But the following year she died from cancer. She never did see what I got involved in.
By the early 1980s, when I was at the National University, there were lots of demonstrations; each time, the security forces opened fire on protesters. Anyone who voiced opposition was targeted by right-wing death squads and ‘disappeared’. I was part of the radical Bloque Popular Revolucionario (Popular Revolutionary Bloc), and two or three times a week I would go to secret meetings where some guy, who usually wore a mask, talked about Marxism, the war in Vietnam and the communist revolution in Cuba. We also learned to clean and load a gun. We were always told not to tell anyone else about these meetings.
My boyfriend was part of the urban guerrillas. We lived together and had a little baby boy. One Sunday we left home together as usual, then went our separate ways. That evening he did not return. By midnight he still had not appeared. The following day his mother told me that guys from a funeral service had turned up at her house, telling her to go pick up a body. So we all went to the funeral home, but no one was there. Then we went to the morgue. There they told us they had the body of a young man, wearing such-and-such clothing. I knew it was him. Apparently he had been shot dead on the streets by the police.
After that I had to leave the house where we’d lived together, and eventually I had to leave the city. The rebel leaders told me there was a security problem and I should leave for the rebel zones in the countryside; the city isn’t safe for you or your family, they said. I was torn between leaving or staying, but I was not really asked whether I wanted to go or not. In those days you were taught to be obedient. At least I did not have to leave my son behind with strangers, as other mothers had to do. I left him with my sister. He was just a baby. That was really hard.
I spent the next 10 years with the rebels, mostly working for the clandestine guerrilla radio station. El Salvador is such a small country, and many times the army came really close to finding us. Each time we made camp we had to take all the leaves off the ground and carefully put them back when we left in order to avoid detection. We would sleep in little tents, with all our clothes and shoes on. We would have to move camp every three days. Even so, sometimes a patrol came so close that you could hear the soldiers shouting out: “Hey, you so-and-so’s, don’t run off!” Then there were the aerial bombardments and mortars.
At times I asked myself: what am I doing here? It was easy to become demoralised. You were far away from your family, without any contact – no letters, no phone calls, nothing. That was true for most people, who had joined up and left their past behind. What kept me going? I was convinced of our cause. We had lost so many comrades that we were not going to give up. I really believed that this was the way to change our country.
When the war ended, the rebel radio became legal, too, and we all moved to San Salvador. In the first six months of peacetime we still worried that the death squads would put a bomb in the radio station, but that never happened. I was so happy to be back in the city and to be able to go around freely, though we were told always to be careful. But for me the hardest part was my relationship with my son. Coming back to find a teenager, having left behind a two-year-old, was very complicated. He blamed me for his dad being killed and for leaving him. It was very difficult, rebuilding that relationship. Now I think he understands, but when he was a teenager it was so hard.
I did not expect everything to be easy in peacetime. We have had to do a lot for ourselves: get a job, find somewhere to live, the sort of thing that people normally have to do. In the end, I would say that it has been a struggle, but I do feel satisfied.
María Teresa Gutiérrez was speaking to Mike Lanchin for the BBC World Service programme Witness – history told by the people who were there