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From the School of the Americas to Chiapas

l Anne Herman

Last November, after enrolling in the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT) training, I joined School of the Americas Watch in a funeral procession commemorating the murder of seven Jesuits in El Salvador. It was the second time I had "crossed the line" onto the military base at Ft Benning in Georgia, USA. There were 601 of us, 32 "repeater offenders". I thought my plans to become a full time CPTer might be delayed a couple of months at most. However, I was sentenced to six months in prison and a $3010 fine. So, on January 30, I accepted my first assignment with CPT, witnessing from Danbury Federal Prison Camp. It seemed logical to come to Chiapas next, as many military leaders in Mexico received training at the School of the Americas.

Here in Chiapas, we recently travelled to the community of Polho. This is a community of about 9000 people, of which about 8000 are refugees from the military and paramilitary violence in the area. It is a 10-minute drive from Acteal, the site of the December massacre. The community is under a state of semi-siege by the surrounding military encampments. There is a very real threat that the military will attempt to enter the community to arrest the leaders (and others) on trumped-up charges.

Soon after we arrived in Polho, I began feeling emotions that were vaguely familiar. I soon realised they were some of the same ones I experienced while in prison. Little did I know that the time I spent "inside" would prepare me for living in an indigenous community.

The people sit at the entrances to the community in a "peace belt" to deter the military from entering. Instead of security trucks driving the perimeter, there were military vehicles driving the road. The military vehicles carried more personnel with bigger weapons, but the feeling of being observed and threatened was the same.

There was constant noise at about the same level as in Danbury. In both instances, I suspect, the overpopulation contributed to this. There was constant repetition of music. At Danbury, it came from personal radios; in Polho it was from a public address system. Thank goodness I learned to "tune it out".

There was no sense of privacy or personal space. At Danbury, I shared a 2m by 2.8m space with another person in bunk beds. Here, in the room we shared with other people from outside the community who are here to lend support and help, the amount of space was slightly less. I never knew when someone was going to shine a light in my face in the middle of the night or have a late night conversation in the next bed.

The bathrooms in Polho smelled bad, but not quite so bad as Danbury. There was the same amount of privacy, but at least one could lock the door in Polho. The ratio of showers and toilets to people was the same. However, there was always an adequate supply of water in Polho.

On the positive side, there exists the same sense of humour and ability to laugh in the face of oppression. In both places, the resourcefulness in the face of scarcity is amazing. I admire the spirit and co-operation of the women in Polho. It is an example I have long wished the oppressed women of our country would follow.

Christian Peacemaker Teams is an initiative that supports violence reduction efforts around the world. CPT, PO Box 6508, Chicago, IL 60680, USA (+1 312 455 1199; fax 666 2677; http://www.prairienet.org/cpt/).
SOA Watch, 1719 Irving St NW, Washington, DC 20010, USA (+1 202 234 3440; http://www.derechos.org.soaw/).