Remembering Ita Ford

It's 30 years ago today, December 2, that the Salvadoran National Guard murdered Ita Ford and three other U.S. church women. I did the last interview with Ita a short time before her death.

To those of us covering the war in El Salvador at the time, it was clear that Ita, Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, and Jean Donovan were only the latest victims of state-sponsored terrorism carried out by El Salvador's U.S.-backed military. All you had to do was count the mutilated civilian bodies, usually a dozen or more, scattered around the capitol of San Salvador every morning after the army curfew was lifted.

A generation later, U.S. Special Forces that had served in El Salvador would help organize Shiite military death squads targeting Sunni insurgents in Iraq until the sectarian killings got completely out of control.

The night before I met Ita I was under fire in the rightwing-controlled mountain town of Arcatao on El Salvador's northern border with Honduras. The guerrillas were firing on the police station. I was stuck inside with a squad of drunken national guardsmen who were firing blindly into the dark while passing a bottle around. Across the cobblestone street was an abandoned convent. "Death to communist priests and nuns," was scrawled on the building in white paint.

"The colonel of the local regiment said to me the other day that the church is indirectly subversive because it's on the side of the weak," Ita told me. "The church has begun aligning itself, `taking a preferential option for the poor.' The governments find this difficult to handle. It's very contradictory to their National Security ideology."

The church refugee center where we met among the red tile roofs of Chalatenango seemed a place of tranquility and reflection. A thoughtful and attractive woman, small, light-boned, and watchful, Ita was casually dressed in jeans and a cotton blouse. We sat at a low wooden table on a couple of plastic school chairs drinking tea and fruit punch as we talked the afternoon away.

I asked her how she felt about U.S. support for the military junta.

"As a U.S. citizen, I'm highly disappointed and mostly outraged by this type of support," she said.

"This government doesn't represent anybody at this point. Sending in (military) equipment and that type of thing is reprehensible. Sometimes the United States has to realize it does not own Central America or any other part of the world that people have a right to shape their own destiny, to choose the type of government they want. We don't lose Cuba, we don't lose Nicaragua because they were never ours to lose. The sooner we accept this, the better."

Unfortunately, not having learned that lesson in Vietnam or Central America, the U.S. has had to relearn it in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ita talked about the refugees she worked with. Displaced by the fighting, many of them had been unable to plant crops that year.

Several weeks earlier Ita had been in a Land Rover that overturned in a river while on a mission to save the life of a nineteen-year-old government informant. Another nun, a close friend she was traveling with named Carla Piette, died in the accident. She showed me the smashed-up remains of the Land Rover that had been pulled out of the river and towed back to the refugee center.

"When I got out of the water after the accident and I had to walk for hours through the forest to get to a town, it was so cold. All I could think of was, `Why her, God? Why did you call her and not me?'" She tried to smile. "I don't know. Maybe I've been chosen for another purpose."

A few weeks later she was dead. Thirty years later she still inspires people throughout the world, a martyr in the true meaning of the word. Time seems short when remembering good people you've known.