In the land of volcanoes

In the land of volcanoes

This weekend, Misereor is calling on Catholic parishes nationwide to make donations. The Lenten collection is to benefit projects of the relief organization. The current target country is El Salvador – a country that many associate with youth gangs and violence.

Youth gangs that walk over corpses. A rate of 64 murders per 100 at last count.000 inhabitants. Plus social upheaval and the legacy of years of civil war. Traveling to El Salvador, the target country of this year's Lenten campaign of the Catholic relief organization Misereor, is easy with a slightly queasy feeling in the stomach. And then this: from the terrace of the accommodation, a magnificent view of the almost 1.The country is home to the 900-meter-high volcano El Boqueron, at the foot of which lies the capital San Salvador. Encounters with people who, despite all their problems, are trying to shape the future.

The country's national hero welcomes visitors at the central airport. "Oscar Romero" it shines in big blue neon letters in the night sky. The murder of the archbishop of San Salvador on 24. March 1980 was a signal for the civil war that shook the smallest country in Central America until 1992, and caused around 70.000 lives claimed. Then the two parties to the conflict, the military regime and the leftist guerrillas FMLN, made peace in the Mexican castle of Chapultepec.

Scars of the conflict still hurt today

But the scars of the conflict still hurt today, as Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez, one of the country's prominent voices, acknowledges. "The war has left us with a peace process, with new institutions," says the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador. "We are still learning to live with this new reality."Oscar Romero, who took the side of the poor and disadvantaged and therefore had to die, is supposed to help here.

In the fall, the churchman was canonized – and since then, at the latest, he has become a kind of non-partisan figure of hope for all of El Salvador, it seems. This can be seen, for example, in the capital's cathedral, below in the crypt, Romero's final resting place. Again and again, women, men and children come here, pause in prayer, touch the bronze relief above the tomb.

Outside, a sign indicates that the forecourt of the cathedral is a gun-free zone. A few meters away, security guards with pump guns and revolvers stand in front of pharmacies, stores and restaurants. No one really knows how many rifles and pistols there are in El Salvador, says German-born sociologist Benjamin Schwab, who conducts research on youth violence at the Catholic University UCA in San Salvador. In any case, the stocks are enormous. Some of it dates back to the Civil War, but most of it comes from the U.S., Schwab says.

Divided relationship with the USA

Salvadorans have a divided relationship with "big brother," who supported the military to the best of his ability during the civil war. The "American way of life" is omnipresent in the capital, with fast-food chains and shopping malls called Dollar City. In the U.S., however, the notorious youth gangs, the Mara gangs, formed among emigrants and today cause so much trouble in El Salvador and neighboring countries.

U.S. authorities began deporting delinquent youths en masse to their countries of origin after the civil war. The tense climate of violence and crime is driving others out of the country. Another factor in the ongoing migration is a great inequality between rich and poor. There is a lack of many things: water supply, health care and affordable housing. Every day, several hundred people are expected to leave El Salvador. It is not uncommon for them to move to the U.S. to seek their fortune there. But what about those who stay?? Rosa Aide Ramirez Martinez is one who does not give up. "Life has shown me that you have to face things," she says.

Despite a disability – her left leg is shortened, which is why she relies on crutches – she made her way. Through the Caritas project "My Life Plan," she found a job as a cashier in a hardware store in San Salvador. The 26-year-old, who lives in the countryside with her parents and siblings, gets up at five in the morning and returns at around seven-thirty in the evening.

Young people want intact families

There she is greeted by the green family parrot "Blu" hanging upside down on the clothesline – and about 150 chickens. Breeding brings Rosita additional income. Money that she shares with her family, who have always been there for her. On her hand she wears her father's wedding ring. She has a particularly close relationship with him, as she explains. When her illness broke out, her father stayed at her bedside to relieve her pregnant mother.

In El Salvador, intact family structures are often a pipe dream for young people in view of the many social problems they face, as is evident at the Juventud Integral El Sauce youth center in Sonzacate (JIES). Misereor partner organization Fundasal launched the initiative, which has now reached hundreds of children. Leader Iliana Jeanette Renderos Arrue lost her father to suicide. The 23-year-old, who has just completed her studies in psychology, found support at JIES when she was growing up.

She also learned to have more self-confidence as a woman. Because this is also a problem in El Salvador: Nine out of ten women are estimated to have experienced abuse and violence – either in their own family or outside it. Boys are still being taught the wrong roles, says 29-year-old Kevin Jonathan Barrientos Paz, who is also involved with the JIES. His fellow campaigner Juan Carlos Ramos Martinez adds: "Boys have to show strength in the culture of machismo – and it is the supposedly weaker sex that bears the real responsibility.

Help must start at the grass roots

Women and girls need to be treated with respect, Kevin says – and it doesn't sound forced at all in this moment. Things are progressing, albeit slowly. And it pays to stay on the ball, thinks Misereor head Pirmin Spiegel. The important thing, she says, is that help starts at the grassroots level. Like the Caritas Life Plan project or the youth center in Sonzacate.

Much is on the move in El Salvador. It's not always clear where the journey will take her. In any case, a dose of faith in God can't hurt. On most of the colorfully painted buses, the "Salvador," the Redeemer, rides along as an image of Jesus.

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