A car bombing in El Salvador
By Dan Wooding, Special to ASSIST News Service
SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR (ANS – September 12, 2017) — The young bell boy put down the cases in our San Salvador hotel room and smiled politely.
“Thank you, sir,” he said as I handed him a tip. “Now you have a nice day.” He paused as if to add emphasis, then added, “But be careful!”
His warning continued to ring in my ears. It was June 1981, and I was in a country in which the Roman Catholic Church reported that 22,000 had been killed in seventeen months. A place where civilian and military leaders struggled for control within the current US-backed government with a monstrous overkill of bitterness and acrimony. Where leftist elements were fighting to overthrow the government, and where appeals were being made from both sides — the leftists and the government — for popular support.
Sadly, many of the people whom both professed to help were being slaughtered in the name of The Cause.
I had gone to the hemisphere’s smallest mainland nation which packs in around five million people, with Peter Gonzales, Jose and Manuel, a Nicaraguan pastor now living in Costa Rica. We wanted to meet with believers there and discover at firsthand what was going on in the midst of the then current blood-letting that made even the terrible events in Northern Ireland seem mild in comparison.
“Lord,” I had prayed earnestly before leaving, “please help us to encourage the believers in El Salvador, and let them teach us many things.”
When we arrived at the modern San Salvador airport, I immediately noticed how empty the place was.
“Only crazy people like us and journalists on assignment come here these days,” whispered Peter, as we headed towards the one immigration official on duty.
A twenty-year-old pastor met us at the barrier and told us that he hadn’t been able to get a taxi driver to take us on the one-hour trip to San Salvador City, and he had had to persuade a minibus driver to transport us on the risky thirty-mile journey.
“Not too many people want to do this trip,” he explained. “It’s so dangerous. Only yesterday, a vehicle carrying newsmen was ambushed on this road by terrorists. Two people died.”
As we drove on, the young pastor shared that he had left his country a year previously because he found that many of the Christian young people, including himself, were being pressurized to join one of the many Marxist movements. He said he wanted nothing to do with the violence.
“While in another Central American country I met with this brother,” he said pointing to Manuel. “He showed me how to organize cell groups and set about winning the hearts of our youth through a revolution of love—not hate.”
As we conversed, the driver suddenly swerved and headed off the road and onto a hilly track. Rocks had been placed across the road, a typical ploy used in ambushes. Whether this was one or not, the driver still took swift evasive action. After bumping our way up one side of the hill and down the other side, we were eventually back on the main road.
The city had obviously, at one time, been quite beautiful. The modern capital of San Salvador is situated in the Valle de las Hamacas (Valley of the Hammocks), and is laid out in the form of a cross.
“It seems as if the whole place is being crucified by the violence,” I observed to the driver as I noted the bomb damage everywhere.
He nodded sadly.
After unpacking at the almost-empty hotel, Peter outlined the plan for the rest of the day.
“This afternoon we are going into one of the worst ghettos in the city….”
I was startled.
“Couldn’t we just stay in the hotel room and the people come to us?” I protested.
Peter, a seasoned traveler in Central America, wasn’t having any of that.
“No,” he said firmly, “the young pastor has arranged a house meeting there for the young people. He wants us to speak to them.”
I thought quickly. It occurred to me that my white skin could cause problems not only for me, but for my companions. Was this a way out for me?
“Look Peter, I’ll stand out like a sore thumb,” I said lamely. “Maybe you could go and I’ll stay here and pray.
I could see from Peter’s face that no excuses would be tolerated. He pointed out that I hadn’t traveled all this way from England to lock myself away in the relative safety of a hotel room.
Peter found a taxi driver parked nervously outside the hotel who agreed to take us to the address the pastor had scribbled down.
“Are you a journalist?” the middle-aged driver asked Peter, speeding along as if taking part in a Grand Prix.
“No, I’m not,” he said firmly. “I’ve come here because I love this country and want to see what is happening to tear it apart.”
The driver’s voice came back like a fast serve.
“Well, I don’t believe you. Only journalists come here. But whatever, I want to thank you for coming. You are very brave — all of you.”
I didn’t feel very courageous, silently praying in the back of the taxi. I was scared to death. I felt as if every eye in San Salvador was boring in on me and people were hissing, “Gringo. We hate gringos. We kill gringos.”
(This is a term for white North Americans, but often used for Europeans as well.)
After driving around the area for some time, the perspiring driver could not locate the exact address and began to panic.
“It’s not safe for me to stay here much longer,” he said, his voice trembling with terror. “Please get out now and ask someone for directions.”
He mopped his brow in panic.
The three of us had no alternative but to climb out. We began vainly searching for the address we needed. For ten heart-stopping minutes, we walked around the rabbit-warren of alleyways trying not to be conspicuous, but knowing that at any minute one, or all of us, could be killed.
It was my first experience of racialism. Many in El Salvador at that time supported the Marxist groups and I was a white man, so therefore represented to them — oppression. It was frightening to be on the wrong end of mindless hatred. Something, I pondered, colored people had known for years.
When we finally found the young pastor’s house, he greeted us warmly and then said, “Oh, no, the meeting isn’t here. It’s back there.” He pointed to where we had just come from.
For another twelve minutes — I timed it — we followed him through the “warren” until we finally came upon a bungalow. A few young people milled around in the alley and looked in astonishment as they saw me.
Inside, a small group of women and girls were preparing a meal. When they saw my white face, all talking stopped. Obviously, my presence put them all in danger. And they knew it.
“Is this a funeral?” commented the exasperated pastor. “Look, our friend has come all the way from England,” he said looking at my ashen face. “Don’t look so glum. Jesus is here and he will protect us.”
Trestle tables had been laid out for what was described as “Open house with food,” a unique way for the young pastor and his small group of converts to evangelize to the ghetto.
As I sat quietly watching a trickle of swarthy young men come into the room, Peter leaned over and said quietly, “Don’t be alarmed, but there is a possibility that some of those here are terrorists who have come to cause trouble. There’s been a lot of killing in the area recently. Only yesterday there was a battle between the National Guard and the terrorists living in here.”
Peter conversed freely with three young men sitting across from us.
One told him: “I’ve just come out of prison. I was accused of being a terrorist. I was tortured for thirteen days. It was terrible. I’ve just been here a few minutes, and already I can feel the love in this place.”
After a delicious meal served to more than fifty packed into the front room of the house, the young pastor began explaining to the group why they had been invited.
“Look Dan,” said Peter urgently as the preacher continued, “maybe you shouldn’t speak after all. A ‘gringo’ might upset them and cause real trouble.”
I was inclined to agree. But just then I heard Manuel say, “Now we have a friend from England. I want him to come and say a few words to you.”
I was unable to protest, so with Peter as my translator, I simply explained how as a teenager I had been a rebel and had left my home in Birmingham to live in Canada.
“I was full of hatred for my parents and for the whole world,” I said, my voice trembling with nerves. “But eventually I realized how terrible hate can be and through a serious illness that came on my father, I swallowed my pride, went back home and accepted Christ into my life.
“With that, all my anger went and was replaced with love. I know that many of you here today have hate in your hearts. But Jesus can take that away and replace it with the revolution of love.”
As I sat down, I noticed the trickle of a tear appear on the tanned cheek of one of the young men near the front. Peter then preached for twenty minutes. More began to weep as he outlined God’s plan of salvation for them.
“Don’t throw away your life in mindless violence. Give it to Jesus and let him use you here in El Salvador,” he urged. “Join the greatest revolutionary in the history of the world — Jesus Christ!”
He then asked the young people to respond to the claims of Christ. More than half of them stood up and indicated that they wished to follow Jesus. It was an emotional moment for all of us.
Some came and threw their arms around us, and several confessed to a violent past. One young man who could hardly walk because of a painful foot injury, asked me to come and personally pray for him. I clasped my arm around him and asked the Lord to heal him.
“Thank you for coming,” he said afterwards. “Not many people come here to us now.”
After more than an hour of shaking hands with the “new-born” believers, we managed to flag down a taxi outside to take us back to the hotel.
That evening we went to a coffee shop for our meal. As I was eating my steak, Peter smiled wryly and said, “Did you realize that just two weeks ago some gunmen walked into this very coffee shop and shot two journalists who were eating here?”
“Peter, don’t tell me things like that,” I said as I picked unenthusiastically at my meal.
Next morning, a Christian leader came to see us and took us on a tour of the city. We went from one bombed-out building to the next. It was a depressing experience.
As we came to one spot in the city, he turned and said, “See that wall there. Well, my wife and four children were put up against it with me a few days ago and we were to be executed by government troops. We had just come out of church and there had been trouble in the area. The soldiers took us out of the car at a road block and accused us of being a Marxist cell group.
“Just as they had the rifles pointed at us I was able to persuade the leader to look in the back of my car. There he found books and Bibles, and finally agreed that we were Christians, and let us go. God saved our lives!”
I asked him if there was a shortage of Bibles in El Salvador.
“There is,” he said. “Not because they are banned, but because there is such a demand for them. As soon as they become available, they’re snapped up.”
It was time for us to return to our room, and feeling a little shaky, I lay quietly on the bed, thanking the Lord that I was still in one piece. Peter switched on the television and we began watching a documentary about Somalia in East Africa.
Then, a nerve-shattering blast shook the room. We both jumped instinctively off our beds, rigid with shock.
“That’s a bomb,’ said Peter breathlessly as I stared at him with wide, frightened eyes. ‘I think they’ve got the hotel.”
We switched off all the lights and scanned the velvet darkness from the balcony. Smoke was curling ugly and black across the sky. I grabbed my camera and we hastened nervously to the emergency staircase. Glass was lying everywhere from windows that had been blown in.
We took the steps of the staircase two at a time and soon joined scores of people who had also rushed to see what had happened. The scene was ablaze with violence and terror. TV crews wearing tee-shirts with “Don’t shoot, I’m A Journalist” on them, appeared from the hotel bar and I joined them in picking my way through the wreckage of what had once been a lawyer’s office, over the road from the hotel. Two cars had been destroyed, and a whole row of buildings had been damaged.
I stood back to survey the scene, when a well-dressed youth came over and asked me if I was a journalist. I nodded and explained I was from England.
“Would you like to know why we planted the bomb?” he asked in confidential tones, turning his rather frightening gaze on me.
I took a step backwards and nodded, not quite knowing how to react. I felt an unhealthy fascination with what he was about to tell me.
“This lawyer was on television earlier tonight criticizing the terrorists,” he said, his eyes looking odd and white and dangerous. “We decided to teach him a lesson and so left a package for him on his doorstep just by the hotel.
I was dumbstruck and gave a little defensive laugh.
“Would you like a tour of the area where we have planted other bombs in the last few days?” he continued his bizarre conversation with me. “I’d feel honored to show you around.”
The young man spoke perfect English and appeared to be completely sincere. I thought of those youngsters we had seen accept Christ the day before. Now here was a terrorist out in the open conducting his own propaganda campaign.
I could see Peter hovering in the background desperately trying to catch my eye. “Don’t get involved,” I caught him urgently mouthing to me as I felt increasingly terrified.
“Look,” I said, my voice shrill and strident as I started to sound desperate, “would you mind awfully if I left now? I have some urgent business back at the hotel.”
With that I turned on my heels and sprinted through the debris as fast as I could, with Peter following after me. My heart was beating fast and my mouth was sour from the meeting. Back in the room we sank to our knees and began to pray for this young “bomber.” We prayed for all the youth of this tragic land, that there would be a revival of God’s love; that they would look for other solutions to their immense problems than that of the bomb and the bullet.
We checked out next morning and I shook hands with the same boy who had issued the “be careful” warning on my arrival.
“God bless you,” I said, as we shook hands. “I will pray for you.”
“Thank you,” he said wistfully. “But not just for me. Please pray for our country. We need all your prayers.”
Before leaving for the airport after our short, but eventful visit, Peter and I went to survey the bomb damage. “It’s a mess,” said Peter as we looked at the twisted metal and charred remains of the buildings and cars that had been blasted the night before.
“This whole area of Central America is a mess. But Jesus came to heal messes!”
Eventually, the civil war ended, but now the country is beset with gang violence. In fact, in January of this year, there was a celebration when police said that the country had gone 24 hours without any murders — a rare occurrence in a nation plagued by gang warfare.
It is still a very dangerous place to visit. In fact, El Salvador closed out 2015 with 6,657 murders, replacing Honduras as the murder capital of the world. That averages out to over 18 murders a day, a 70% increase compared to the previous year, making it the highest murder rate for any country in the world in almost 20 years.
Pleaser pray for this beautiful country that is still suffering so much, pain, especially the Church there.
Photo captions: 1) A child surveys the coffin of a parent in El Salvador. 2) Another murder in San Salvador city. 3) A church service in El Salvador. 3) Death squads plague the country. 4) A car bombing. 5) Policeman guards a gang member he has just captured. 6) Dan at the microphone at KWVE while recording his “Front Page Radio” show.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 75, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist, who was born in Nigeria, West Africa, of British missionary parents, Alfred and Anne Wooding, who then worked with the Sudan Interior Mission, now known as SIM. Dan now lives in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for some 54 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder/president of the ASSIST News Service (ANS), and is also the author of numerous books. He has a radio show and two television programs, all based in Southern California. Dan later returned to El Salvador with Dr. Ben Armstrong, Executive Director of the NRB, and this time they were shot at by rebels, but fortunately escaped without being hit.
** You may republish this or any of our ANS stories with attribution to the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net). Please tell your friends and colleagues that they can receive a complimentary subscription to ANS by going to the above website and signing up there.