Of bullets, bullies, and bulldozers

Up until November 15 I had never been shot at.  And when the bullet from the automatic rifle smashed through the door behind which I had been standing an instant before, I felt finite, mortal, and targeted.

Weeks before that incident I had mused about the two faces of the Salvadoran people.  The one face was that of friendly helpfulness and hospitality; the other, the face of a country with one of the highest crime rates in the Americas.  When I climb onto a crowded bus, for instance, I almost never hoist my weighty backpack on the shelf above my  head because someone comes to my assistance first.  Yet I board the same bus with the knowledge that this could be the day of a bus hold-up or a personal robbery.

Just 2 weeks before the November incident I had faced my mortality in a different manner.  I was attempting to cross a busy intersection in San Salvador.  There are no ‘Walk’/ ‘Don’t walk’ signals on street corners and vehicles come hurtling from all directions.  So I was watching over my shoulder to make sure no bus would smash me as it thundered around the corner.  But when I was in the middle of the street I was startled to find a turquoise-colored car hood 6 inches away. The driver, trying to squeak a left-handed turn against the oncoming traffic, failed to notice the pedestrian until it was too late to stop; a few seconds later I was blindly picking myself up from the asphalt. As I leaned against a pole and gasped for breath I wondered if all my toes would move.  They did, and the incident left me grateful to be alive and a with sense of having been ‘spared to serve’ in El Salvador.

That sense of gratefulness and mission persisted to that afternoon of November 15.  I was alone in the clinic after closing hours when I heard a scraping noise on the front porch.  Glancing out of the locked screen door, I expected to see either a late-coming patient or some dogs hitting against the benches.  The bright afternoon sun instead shown on black-masked men carrying an automatic rifle.  In an instant that barrel was pointed at my face.

I leapt to bolt the wooden door and ran into a side room to call Marietta, alone at our house, warning her to lock up.  A bullet exploded on the front porch.

Several months earlier copper-seeking thieves had robbed the community’s telephone cables.  Only because of Marietta’s persistent contacts with the phone company’s supervisor did we have telephone service that afternoon; it seemed like God’s provision because otherwise there would have been no way to warn Marietta or notify the police.  Even so, the hours during which no one dared join me at the clinic until the police could declare the area safe seemed long and uncertain.

The first police came by 2 hours later but said that the chief, who would conduct the investigation, was busy up in a meeting in Santa Ana.  In the meantime, neighbors were quietly telling us that the young men hanging around listening to our story were almost certainly the gunmen.

By the time the chief of police arrived, the sun was drifting behind the mountains to the west. After a once-over glance around the clinic’s porch, the uniformed men stood around and told us their opinions about who the criminals must have been and assured us that if we cooperated with the investigation the assaulters  would be imprisoned for years.

Not until the police left to talk with the suspects did we find the chest-high hole where the bullet had penetrated the wooden door behind which I was standing when I had slammed it shut. This finding made the chief decide to call out the forensics laboratory from Santa Ana.

The folks from the forensics lab were willing to come out and take data, but they needed to finish another case and then find a ride to El Resbaladero.  After waiting vainly for the lab to find their own mode of transportation, our police finally left to fetch them.  In the meantime neighbors—our Salvadoran family—came by to hug fervently, to be horrified that someone would attack us, to share oranges and bananas.  Don Alejandro, an influential man who has assumed responsibility for us and who also lost thousands of dollars to these same robbers, came to discuss strategies of local crime control with the police chief.  When the forensics lab got to the scene at 9:30 pm, they debated about the type of roof over the clinic, chuckled at their own jokes, and ended the evening at 11 pm by turning up the radio and dancing in the clinic’s waiting room.   Their interview with me lasted less than 5 minutes.

The next days rumors flew and reports abounded.  The chief of police scheduled a secret evening meeting at the clinic where robbery victims who had been too afraid to report their incidents could band together.  Under the cover of dark—with armed police stationed outside the meeting room—the group started accumulating descriptions and dates of robberies.  Two suspects were arrested and jailed.  We reassured our fearful hearts that the trauma was not in vain if the community could once again live safely.  When a messenger on a motorcycle buzzed all the way from Santa Ana to tell us the judge and a troop of people from the Attorney General’s office would be coming to the clinic to examine the case, we eagerly anticipated justice.

We couldn’t figure out who among the 6 officials from the judge’s office was really the judge, but the 15 police surrounding the clinic during the entire investigation lent an air of importance to the event.  Well, maybe ‘investigation’ isn’t the right word.  They glanced at the clinic, stood around, assured us they really didn’t need to talk  with us. A lady with a limp brown suit and uncombed hair focused her attention on the books and games we had available for patients. Then the  whole delegation left for Gota’s trial.

That evening we found out that Gota had been released.  The judge had found him guilty for causing the bullet holes to the clinic and required him to pay for repairs.  There was, however, no evidence that he fired the shot at me or was involved in the robbery attempt.  Thus we found out that the woman wearing the limp brown suit and buying the clinic’s discounted books was our district’s only judge.  She received $1500 from the family before the trial and apparently made the verdict accordingly.

All this happened during the Thanksgiving season and, despite deep aches about the nation’s system of justice, gratefulness overflowed to our local family.  While Thanksgiving Day is not a Salvadoran holiday and the turkey and fixings we served not typical Salvadoran fare, we rejoiced together as we ate by candlelight and shared the commonalities that families have:  love, loyalty, laughter.

As the Christmas season drew closer I thought frequently of 2 Christmas truths.  One was incarnation.  Why should I not experience what  Salvadorans are experiencing? Why should I have easier access to justice?  Experiencing the violence personally has added intensity to my prayers for God’s intervention against violent crime and the corrupt legal system that cradles it.

But there has also been the theme of mercy.  When our pastor preached at church on the inter-relationship of justice and mercy,  I thought back his practical sermon the previous Saturday.  The same thieves that held us up had broken through his roof 6 months earlier, stealing even his children’s pennies.  Now that the criminals were known, he decided to visit each of them.  Marietta and I sent along plates of Christmas goodies which we typically give to friends.

The pastor’s visit brought about some surprising results.  The young man who most likely fired the bullet visited church 3 times.  Those visits let us get to know him as more than an errant neighbor.  Just past his 18th birthday (to the glee of the police, who could now prosecute him as an adult), he has a 14-year-old’s face and speaks with shy respect that is edged with longing.  His mother committed suicide when he was 2 while his dad had multiple girlfriends and was known as a thief.

He was raised by various distant relatives and only came to live with his siblings at age 15.  He had no chance to go to school but started the literacy classes our pastor had offered him.

He dropped out after 3 classes and I haven’t seen him since.   But his face, masked and unmasked, calls for our prayers, for our love, for a lot of change and growth.  And it calls us to wider prayers:  for real justice and mercy in El Salvador, for healing of families and individuals, and for us to be representing God and acting like Jesus.

Thanks so much for your friendship, letters, and prayers!

Jana Nisly