Report from 6th International Delegation – Women Religious accompany people of Honduras

 We thank everyone for their prayers for the Honduran people, and for our delegation this week. Our delegation will issue a more formal report after we return home, but informal notes follow in order to share a glimpse of what we are experiencing. While we are the sixth delegation in a series of international human rights missions since the coup on June 28th, we are the first religious delegation.

Day 1 (August 18)

We met with two highly respected lawyers that have worked for the government’s justice department, who gave a review of the events surrounding the June 28th coup. While the coup government has been portraying to the world community that the events represent a “constitutional transition” of power, it was clear from their detailed arguments the lawyers provided that the capture and removal of President Zelaya was illegal and that the breach in constitutional order must be restored.

The extensive information provided by the lawyers also made clear that, contrary to news reports in the U.S. , the crisis was not provoked because President Zelaya was seeking to change the constitution in order to enable himself to run again for president.

Day 2 (August 19)

Day with COFADEH, the key non-governmental human rights organization in the country. This organization has been one of our main reference points for our visit. We spent significant time in a briefing with its director, Berta Oliver, who has received a number of death threats. The walls of this office tell a history of human rights abuses over the last several decades. Two walls were covered with 8.5” x 11” framed pictures of the disappeared from the 1980s. One pillar was covered with fresh pictures of bloodied faces from the repression over the last 4 weeks.

While in the midst of our meeting, Berta received a cell phone call that a member of the Inter-American Human Rights group who was taking testimonies at a nearby hotel reported a “threatening presence” of security forces surrounding the building. Those who had hoped to present their cases were intimidated in approaching the hotel. Jean and a delegate from Canada left to “be a presence” at the gathering. Though the situation was a mild one and resolved itself without incident, COFADEH has requested that more internationals come and stay for extended periods to accompany their human rights staff when they go to investigate cases. The international vigilance helps them feel less vulnerable and is also a channel to get out information of what is really happening in Honduras.

The week before we came, there was major repression. This week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was in the country.

Day 3 (August 20)

Trip to Progreso and San Pedro Sula.
After the several hours drive north, we stopped in Progresso and met with Father Melo, a Jesuit priest working Jesuit ministries, including Radio Progreso, a community radio station, and EPIC, a center for research and analysis. Radio Progreso was shut down by the military at the time of the coup, and though reopened, it still receives threats; one of its reporters was brutally beaten by security forces. Father Melo’s analysis of the broad actors behind the coup was sobering, including the interplay of economic interests (within Honduras and global capital), the Honduran military and organized crime. The strength of this interplay of actors has sustained the de-facto government for the last 53 days. He and others also suggest that Honduras is serving as a model and a dangerous precedent for other countries with fragile democracies that too could be subject to such a coup, and portrayed as a constitutional transition of power.

Mercy Community: We spent the afternoon with the Mercy community in San Pedro Sula, and those they gathered to meet us. The tight and long embrace of welcome by the community leader, Sister Masbely, and her words of gratitude for our visit, meant everything. She spoke of how sustained she felt by the prayers of the entire Mercy community over these many weeks and could not thank us enough. But the gratitude is really for these sisters and the associates, the light and comfort they bring to many.

They had put out the word that a religious delegation from outside the country was coming to San Pedro Sula and wanted to learn about the reality the people were experiencing. By the time we arrive, the room was filled to overflowing, the people hungry to tell their story. The media has been very controlled by those in support of the coup, with little or distorted coverage of the resistance, and the repression by the military and police forces directed against the many who have been in the streets in peaceful demonstrations calling for a restoration of constitutional order.

One by one, the people gave their testimonies. They were teachers, lawyers, catechists, young people, and more. They were proud that the grassroots population was expressing its opposition in nonviolent ways, but as each person spoke, tears welled in their eyes and some would become so overwhelmed with grief and desperation that they could not go on. Yet then they would draw in strength and continue with their story so that the outside world could know what they were enduring.

Many spoke of how they were beaten by the police with clubs, how tear gas cans were thrown into the crowds, and how some type of (pepper) spray, with a chemical that burned their skin, was showered on the gatherings—all causing confusion, panic and pain. One many described how a police man threw him to the ground, showed his boot on the man’s face, and held it down chiding: “Are you afraid now? Are you afraid now? You better be afraid!”

A teacher and several young people talked about how the police take pictures of the youth in the demonstrations and then put the pictures in the media, offering rewards for information on how to find them. One young woman broke down telling us of how her father was shot, a man beloved in the community for his work in the parish and his standing up for the rights of people.

Some violence feels too brutal to even say out loud, yet there was a testimony I had read about the week before we came and couldn’t believe. We heard it repeated several times over when we were hear. But it wasn’t until I heard it from Sister Masbely—whispering it to me on the side, tears filling in her eyes, that I could believe it. The story is about one woman in a nearby community that was taken aside by the police amidst the dispersing of the crowd with the “gasses.” She was raped by four policemen and then raped with the butt of one of their rifles.
Mercy associate Nelly waited til the people were done speaking and then began her own account of how hard it is to take in all these stories, day after day, and see the bloodied faces and broken bones. She too ended up trembling with the desperation of all that the people are living through.

But the last words were ones of hope and courage. Nelly led us in a sign of peace, the gesture of which speaks volumes for the tasks ahead as we try to accompany these people with our prayers and support.