In the morning, they took the first bus towards the most conflict-ridden region of the country. Avoiding obvious routes, they changed vehicles twice and they risked passing secretly through army road-blocks and rebel crossing points. Philippe knew the region as if he had been born there. Behind his glasses, only the flicker of his eyes showed his anxiety; otherwise he moved calmly and rhythmically, precisely in the hispanic manner. They travelled most of the time absorbed in their own thoughts.
They arrived at a village lost in the middle of the forest where they were welcomed by an unknown host. Philippe’s friend was fifty years old and had curly grey hair. He was Venezuelan and had a thick moustache covering his upper lip. If the moustache hid other visual characteristics, it didn’t dampen the sound of his voice. The man had a thick voice and coughed frequently.
He led them to the forest to a small cleaning where there were some guerrillas from the FMLN. From there they were escorted for some miles to the edge of a stream near a line of mountains in the region. They stayed with the troops and the rebel families. Keith shared his fate with those men.
The camp seemed to be an advanced Red Cross post. It gave protection to refugee families and men who were in danger. Besides that, they were admitting people who wanted to take part in the guerrilla war and gave them some training. Despite the instructors’ willingness, it was difficult to deal with the situation. The food and hygiene conditions were precarious. The lack of guns and munition forced people to train with pieces of wood. The mosquitoes were the only ones in control.
The first night, Keith slept because he was exhausted. He sat down and started to watch the shadows thrown by the kerosene lamps. He started to think:
“I’ve never fought for anything that we could call the truth. What makes these people take so many risks? Why do I insist on chasing the truth like a fox-hound? Maybe this is the first time I’m really a journalist. Maybe… nobody normal would take risks in a war that is not theirs.
“Apparently nothing makes sense, but there must be something in this mess. Everything is marked by uncertainty and I want to make sure of the news I report. Everyday I am forced to live with new facts. Each new fact spreads the net and I can’t find the thread. I should abandon speculation. I must go on. It’s all or nothing. I know that this is not the way to work, but I’m getting some results.
“I have no personal truths. What a distance from these people who are searching for more than that! They want something new, a fair human order, a utopia… It is impressive the way they risk their lives, knowing that victory is almost impossible.
“I had some difficulties with Philippe. He strikes me as a bit strange anyway. Does he really trust me? He seems to. I only have to look around and see that I’m with the guerrillas. Tomorrow I’ll climb the mountains and see if I can which way things are moving. The impressions I have of this country change everyday. The way I arrived here frightens me. Philippe’s calmness when he talked to the men, the Venezuelan…it was as if, on the two sides of the war, there were people who had free passage and who can trade in goods and information.
“I am close to discovering important things. It is difficult to know which side of the war I’m on. I take more risks on this journey every day. I’m not here for the news but for my reputation. I’ve only got a packet of cigarettes. It’s ironic to see guerrillas asking me where I’m going -“Senor, what is your destination? – and how they ask for cigarettes…”
“It’s time we left,” said Philippe.
“Hey, first of all, good morning,” answered Keith, rubbing his eyes.
“Hurry up! Javier Cabana’s command is about to leave.”
Keith got up, knelt and unzipped his tent. The Central American morning. An intense noise of birds, a haze of green and the smooth aroma of fresh coffee. Around the camp, a dozen mules were being loaded with food and water. Two big pans on the camp-fire contained soup made from manioc and bones. The smell hung in the trees. Pale light filtering through the branches brought the sun in a dense and hot mist.
“Aren’t you coming with us ?” asked Keith.
“I’ve done it before, dear boy. You’re going to pass through a very dangerous region. After the mountain range there is a plain until the next range. I don’t want to get into trouble taking a ride in a story that isn’t mine.” “You’ve already helped me enough.”
“I trusted you. I hope I’m not helping the army to destroy the guerrillas.”
“You should’ve known that I don’t work like that.”
“I hope not. Anyway, they have ways of taking care of themselves. You’re going to do a lot of walking before you reach the important men. I recommended you personally. I’m sending a letter with your escort to Major Esteban, the military-chief of this area. I told him that you’re one of our reporters. Another thing. They’ll blindfold you for some days. Maybe two.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“Listen, Keith, I don’t want to have the deaths of lots of people of my conscience. It doesn’t cost a lot to have some protection in a war. The fact I trust you doesn’t mean forgetting security. I don’t know where the guys are now. The simplest torture can open the mouth of the most loyal comrade.”
“I’ll go. Anyway, it’s too late to turn back.”
“Philippe, a very private question. How involved are you with the guerrillas ?”
For some time Keith felt only the heat that came from the mule he had been given. Red through the cloth that blindfolded him indicated the sun, and black, night. He hardly knew which of the two sensations were the worst. There was nothing to see under that black or luminous and thing over his face.
The movement of the animal jerked him around in the saddle. That endlessly repeated movement allowed him to concentrate only on his more immediate impressions. He felt his buttocks ache and he was sweating all over. Human smells mingled with that of the beast and the damp of the trees. The mosquitoes attacked any exposed flesh.
His thoughts were always distracted by sudden noises such as horses in the water or shouts from the troops. He heard birdsong, as well as anti-imperialists hymns. The days passed slowly. The Anglo-Saxon insults and promises of revenge went side by side with popular songs and laughter. The men didn’t sing well, but they didn’t stop. They rarely stayed very long in one place to rest. The journalist’s bones seemed to dissolve into a shapeless mass. The hours didn’t exist anymore. Keith at that moment surrended to brute sensations without understanding them.
His face was scratched, he was fed by rude hands that offered him iguanas, cuzucos and monkey meat mashed with corn. Everything was cold and stale. The bad taste of the old fat stayed in the mouth for hours. He had constipation and had difficulty urinating.
He became accostumed to an invisible presence. A kind of shadow projected in his mind without visual form. Someone was always around. The scents and gestures were always the same. He became familiar with the aggressive voice of the person who had been chosen to take care of him.
He got used to being blindfolded. His ears and nostrils tried to make out what he couldn’t see. And his head started to imagine hypotheses and conjectures. He asked many times about smells and noises. He got no answer. His escorts didn’t trust that red man with a yankee accent.
“It is difficult for us not to associate your voice with the history of centuries of oppression on our people,”
explained the commander of the troop in one occasion. But being Philippe’s friend, you won’t have any problems.”
They were only in danger during the mountain climb when they were ambushed by an army patrol. For some hours, Keith’s mule was surrounded by the noise of bullets. The journalist doubled up, staying close to the animal’s body. He shouted to be set free, but nobody answered. The only thing he could do was to hold on tight to the animal’s skin and cry. He didn’t know if he was going on with the guerrillas or if he was lost in the middle of the battle, or about to be shot.
When he opened his eyes, he felt a deep happiness. He tried hard to see beyond the shining outlines. His eyes wept and blinked a great deal after they released him. The images of trees and the blue of the sky began to take shape. He felt like a blind man who had recovered his vision. He moved his arms, touched his face searching for scars. He looked around.
The men had gathered at the foot of a rocky wall to the west of the Del Sacramento plain and many of them were hurt. Part of the food was lost, but there was something to feed the comrades at the top of the mountain. A meeting was deciding the next move for the command. They were discussing whether or not to wait for those who had been separated from the group. Some thought that they should be abandoned. The group was risking coming under a renewed attack from the army.
All around, the forest seemed to be as beautiful as always. Cicadas and insects buzzed. A heron landed near him. Keith sat down and watched the activity around the injured. An improvised doctor was trying to take out bullets and apply bandages. He got up and went over. He looked at the faces in pain. The red of the blood seeping out of bodies was all he could see at that moment. One of the men shouted in pain.
While Keith was climbing the mountains of Sierra de la Esperanza, Antonia was asking questions around San Salvador. She visited police stations involved with political activities and immigration. She inquired in almost all the hotels in the capital. She found nothing. She went to the British Club and to the Embassy. She discovered very little. With the help of a friend in the police, she visited some clandestine cemeteries. There wasn’t a body like Keith’s. Only the stench of rotting flesh.
With her hope shaken and pressed by business that was demanding her attention, Antonia started running Izalco Investiments again and playing her part in the social and political life of the Salvadorean capital. In a Government interview with foreign journalists, she accidentally ran into Philippe. He was just back from the forest where he had left Keith.
The place was crowded. Journalists were mixing with politicians, diplomats and high ranking officers. All of them were listening to a statement about the new army attacks that were defeating the guerrillas in the remote mountains of the region of Chalatenango. Philippe passed in front of Antonia and greeted her. She answered with a wave and a smile. The photographer introduced himself.
“I’ve seen you before.”
“Really ?” she asked.”I don’t remember talking to you before,” she added, frowning.
“No, no. In fact I know you.”
“I went to that party at your father’s house. I know the family well, and some of your friends.”
“What’s the interview like?”
“It’s tiring. These meetings are always the same. I need to make money with pictures of the puppets. If it wasn’t for that I’d be breathing some fresh air out there.”
“Am I disturbing you ?”
“Of course not. I’ve already got what I came for. Shall we go on to the verandah ?”
Antonia hesitated, then agreed. They both walked on to the verandah. They had been observed.
“What an interesting thing! I’m here talking to Antonia Vidal, the famous businesswoman.”
“I wouldn’t like you to play tricks on me,” she said reprimanding him.
“I’m sorry. I’m always kidding. Listen to me. What about your boyfriend? He really is a very strange guy…”
Antonia was surprised by the mention of Keith.
“What do you mean by that ?” she asked half frightened, half irritated.
“Not too much. He asked me to keep his secret, but I don’t think his girlfriend should be left out of the picture.”
Antonia felt something in the air. She played innocent. Philippe seemed to be checking something.
“And when is he going to come back ?” asked Antonia.
“You know better than I do. Things there happen at a different speed. At this time he could be meeting the commander if he hasn’t kicked the bucket. He’s a man outside the rules, isn’t he? He has everything for a quiet life, but he insists on getting involved in this crazy adventure. He’s hiding something from us.”
Antonia was happy inside. Finally she knew where her man was. It was not possible to get there, but he had been found. At that moment it was important to keep cool, hide her hands so as not to show she was shaking and try to get more out of Philippe. Antonia took the photographer’s arm and smiled at him.
“This is really very boring. Are you coming with me for a drink?”
Some days later, on a sunny afternoon, a brown car pulled over to the sidewalk beside Philippe. The photographer was walking back to the hotel. Three tall and well-built men with a revolver, a shotgun and a machine-gun surrounded the Frenchman. One of them pulled him towards the car while the others kept watch. Philippe fell on to the back seat of the vehicle. Then the two men entered the car again, one from each side, shoving their guns against his ribs. The other looked around, hid his revolver and got into the car. He sat beside the driver. The car drove rapidly to the outskirts of the city.
Locked in a small room with neither windows nor light, Philippe received three blows to his face. Then they threw water at him. They kicked him. When he opened his eyes again, he was in another room hanging from a kind of rack. He was kicked in the small of the back. They held his head and checked that he was conscious. One of the man shoved a stick into his anus. He was given some electric shocks. Nobody said anything. He didn’t know if it were night or day. He stayed in that torture machine until someone started talking:
“It’s simple. Everything will end as soon as you tell us details of your relationship with the guerrillas. Principally your relationship with the Englishman.”
The voice echoed into the distance. A bucket of water in his face helped him to feel better. He coughed and choked. He tried to speak. His ribs were aching. His arms and legs were weak. He whispered something. He couldn’t remember a word.
They left him for some days alone and locked up. They didn’t let him sleep. They introduced some needles under his nails. Someone scratched his skin. He confessed everything he knew and was beaten again. Then he was hung on a wall, naked. They beat him seriously this time, with an iron bar. His bones shattered as he screamed with pain. They started on his legs, then his arms…
The room spun around him. He could make out only random flashes of light and sound. The pain stopped. Everything was dream-like, unreal. The punching and the shouting were far away. The sensation of pain and humiliation were fading. He died.
After crossing a lateral crevice in the Del Sol cliff, the guerrillas climbed up and down other valleys and mountains to El Plantio. The village was controlled by the guerrillas. Its three single lanes had the same appearance as the cities controlled by the government. Except the farmers’ houses that were used as schools and barns of food and guns, the streets were still dirty and the houses very poor. The people were hungry. Their faces were more tense. The possibility of attacks from government troops always existed. There was no time for them to work in peace. After being there for two days, Keith went up a new mountain to the edge of an extinct volcano. A semi-circle of eight tents and three sheds was the main camp of the Javier Cabanas command from the FMLN. Surrounded by guards, it seemed to be the headquarters of an important centre of guerrilla activity. The modern weaponry, the preparedness for a sudden departure, the presence of aerials and the huge quantity of communication equipment confirmed the importance of the camp.
Keith was taken into the presence of the commanders. Two bearded men of about thirty years, dressed in combat uniform glanced towards the journalist, watching his moves closely.
“He is Philippe’s friend,” said Keith’s escort.
The guerrillas’ faces were serious and unsmiling.
“Welcome to the Javier Cabanas command,” said one of them,coming over and offering his hand.
Keith returned the gesture. His escort gave one of them the letter written by Philippe. Calmly, the man opened the envelope and stood by the stream. He started to read.
“How long have you been travelling ?” the other asked the journalist.
“For almost a week. We had problems on the plain. A set-to with the army.”
“Common things in a war.”
“Indeed, but not agreeable for a man who is blindfolded,” added the journalist.
“…Thomas, we can’t play soft in this kind of job,” said the man, smiling.
“I understand your point-of-view,” agreed Keith.
“Where do you come from ?”
“English… One of you put us in a difficult situation some time ago. It’s good to have you here among us to change this bad impression.”
It was three o’clock. The sun was hidden. The cloudy sky hurt the eyes: white and pale. Some soldiers passed in front of the men talking. Commander Esteban approached the group again, folded the letter and said:
“What do you want from us, senor Thomas?”
“An interview to clear up certain events.”
“Only that ?”
“I don’t know. Only after talking will I know.”
“Right. We need only to check with headquarters.”
“Senores,” he said with irony to the men that were passing,”take our guest to the wash-house to clean up and rest. Offer him something to eat. You’re hungry, aren’t you ?” he asked the journalist.
“Some food wouldn’t be bad,” Keith said gratefully.
The Englishman approached Esteban. The man gave him Philippe’s letter.
“Read this,” he said.
The commander’s eyes shone. He smiled. A piece of metal shone in his mouth. His teeth were almost black.
Keith read the photographer’s letter:
“Comrades, this is a warning. The man I’m sending you with dyed hair and false documents is Keith O’Brien, the well-known imperialist agent who actively participated in Cayman Operation. For some unknown reason, which should be investigated, he changed his identity and risked his life to find you. I thought it would be better not to show my suspicions, leading him to you as if everything were normal.
“I recommend you to be cautious and give him a good, long interview to get the information we want. Here in the capital, things are not very good. I feel I have been followed. I think about leaving the country as soon as possible. I’ll do that when the support command Ricardo in charge of our partners in Nicaragua allows me to do so.
Two soldiers approached and pointed their machine guns. The commander approached and spat in Keith’s face.
The journalist didn’t react. He was shocked. His heart started pounding and his hands were trembling. The letters had been mixed up. He looked up and saw the guns. He fainted.
“Soldiers,” said the commander,”take him to prison. Let him stay with his friend.”Mr. O’Brien,” the commander said to the journalist looking at him furiously,”what makes a man like you do this sort of thing? Hijo de perra!”
Keith didn’t answer. Philippe hadn’t trusted him. He was in trouble. The other guerrilla commander took the letter from his hands and read. His escort came over and read it too.
“Get this rat out of here,” shouted Esteban to the other soldiers.
He took two steps towards Keith and punched him in the face.
The soldiers rough-handled him. They dragged the journalist, kicking and punching him, to a small stream. They ordered him to bathe. Every now and then one would step over and hit him again. One of them almost drowned him by holding his head under water. From the stream he was taken to a kind of cavern near the ravine. This would be his jail. A door made of tree trunks was opened and Keith was thrown inside.
The entrance was a narrow corridor that opened into a circular space. When he entered he felt relieved. He was safe while out of the guerillas hands. He calmed down. His senses tested the atmosphere. The cell was wet, dark and malodorous. It stank of mould and urine. There was neither furniture nor objects, only a mat on the floor. The only illumination came from the sun that filtered through the door.
A man of about forty, ragged, white and fetid, was his partner in the cell. He was as far away as he could get from a mound of shit that was crawling with mosquitoes. Keith’s jaw was aching after the beatings. He felt sick.
While the journalist was in the Salvadorean mountains, the investigation by the information agencies continued. The CIA knew about Philippe’s statements extracted by the police during interrogation. With these clues, they reconstructed Keith’s route to a village beyond Tejutla, where Philippe would have left him. From there, the agents in charge had no references.
The combat region was not appropriate for inquiries and that led back to the capital. The military assistant in El Salvador passed on the information about the case in a check to headquarters in Washington. It was decided was that it would be better wait for the right moment to act. The men began to watch the airport, the hotels and to keep a check on KGB movements.
Antonia’s starting point was what she had got out of the night before his disappearance. She couldn’t tell exactly where the journalist was. Even with all her seductive powers, she couldn’t get enough hints. Some days later, however, she received a call from one of her contacts in the Salvadorean police. She was informed of the reasons for the photographer’s disappearance and death. She received the same information transmitted to the CIA with all the details. She arranged two body-guards and went immediately into the country, retracing her boyfriend’s route. KGB agents were shadowing her.
Some days passed. Without doubts they were worst of the journalist’s life. Locked in the cellar, he ate little and vomited many times because of the stink. The injuries caused by the beating he had had were infected. He had permanent and frequent diarrhoea. He had excruciating stomach pains.
He thought about suicide. Another idea that obssessed him was to escape before his position worsened. He searched desperately for a way out, but there was no opportunity. The guards were on constant look-out. During the time they passed together, his companion in the cellar gave him important information about Cayman Operation and others being mounted in Central America. Activities which he had followed closely involved a captured American in the mountains. The American complained about his solitude, speaking a language other than English and said that he had known his fate since he had been arrested: he would be killed. He only thought it strange because it was taking so long. Sad and hopeless, the man revealed all the secrets he knew. He talked more. During the nights he groaned and remembered his past in North America. His parents were Cuban immigrants, his garden covered with grass, a pleasant lawn running down to the street … they used to play baseball.
The only external movement besides the men’s conversation in the cellar was the passage of the portion of light that was coming in through the door. Every now and then a shadow appeared as the head of a guerrilla came to see the new prisoner.
“You must be very famous,” said Walter.
The journalist didn’t give his name.
“They are mistaking me for someone else.”
“In my country, the innocent have to prove they are not guilty. And there is not always time for that…”
Keith nodded. The afternoon was almost over. The mosquitoes were intensifying their attacks. The door opened. Three men entered and picked up the American. They looked with disdain at the Englishman. They dragged the man out. Five minutes later Keith heard two shots and a hollow groan.
“He was lucky. We don’t treat our prisoners like the army. He died because he was a counter-revolutionary like you. We don’t have hate, but principles, in this war.”
“He was a poor man,” whispered Keith.
“A poor man today. When he was working, he didn’t care about the small men. His dirty work helped to kill many people.”
“I’ve already told you, but I’d like to repeat it: I’m not the one you think I am. Philippe must’ve been mad when he wrote that message.”
“Better mad than dead.”
“Come on, Mr. O’Brien, at certain times your cynicism bothers me. Philippe was arrested and tortured as soon as he returned to San Salvador. His body was found two days ago. We should’ve done the same with you as they did to him. But we did it in a different way. You had a summary trial. And your destiny is already sealed. You’ll die like a man, with all your dignity.”
“At least we’re going to finish this,” murmured Keith.
“It’s going to take a little longer.”
“What else is missing?”
“Your cooperation. We want some information.”
“And what do I get ?” “Who knows ? more time ?”
“I’d rather die.”
” A lot of things are involved. The illusion of freedom. We will be more reasonable if you cooperate.”
“I’ve told you that it’s a question of misunderstanding. I can explain.”
“So tell us.”
Keith stopped. He breathed deeply and searched for words.
“I was a CIA victim like you.”
“You are such a hypocrite that I wish I could take my gun and kill you now.”
“Why don’t you?”
“It’s not time yet, but I’ll be the one to do it,” answered the guerrilla.
Keith was smart in the first interrogations. The commanders’ lack of malice gave him an important clue. They were waiting for someone to come and question him and decide his destiny. What they wanted was to get something out of him before the other man arrived to demonstrate their competence.
The Englishman, recognising this need of his hosts, tried to gain some time with a fantasy version of his intentions. In this strange game during interrogation, between hesitations and plausible statements, another week passed and he became healthy again. Due to his cooperation, he was allowed out of the cellar once a day, in the afternoon, to defecate and to bathe.
Feeling better, he cleaned the cellar and started to try the to enlist the guard’s support. He wasn’t successful. The only chance of escape happened once when he went to the stream near the camp. He was getting ready for his bath when some monkeys approached. The noise and movement in the creepers distracted the soldiers’ attention. He had a few seconds to decide to make for the forest. It was that or nothing.
He ran. His legs moved ahead of his thoughts. He dived into the forest. The guards realised their mistake. They spotted the man running through the trees. They fired . They followed him. Keith ran as hard as he could, pushing away the branches that were blocking his way. The hillside was steep. His stiffened feet were dragging his body over hills and hollows.
The soldiers crashed through the forest shooting at any movement they saw. The monkeys started to scream even more. Some of them were killed and others escaped. Keith heard the shots but didn’t look back. He ran on. The scenery seemed to be made of paper, obstacles that could be pushed aside without leaving any trace on his body.
1989 – Copyright of the Portuguese version by
Alvaro Andrade Garcia
Chapter 27 (click to continue)