Hope and Healing in El Salvador by Tom Gibb

San Salvador, January 2006….. On the anniversary of the civil war which tore El Salvador apart in the 1980s, former enemies from both sides took part in a Bowen Technique workshop, in the shade of the giant Mamon tree that spreads its branches over Ariel’s family house.

John healing in Salvador
John healing in Salvador

It is an initiative by a small group of veterans, to bring some healing to the emotional wounds of the war, as raw for many today as when the guns went silent fourteen years ago. Like many others Ariel’s family was divided by the conflict. She, along with some of her cousins, joined left wing guerrillas. Other cousins were in the US backed army.

The long years of extreme tension, the killing and dying, have left scars on many veterans which too often come to the surface as feelings of uncontrolled anxiety, anger and fear or in the form of nightmares. Almost all at some time experience a malignant sadness, constantly waiting to sabotage efforts to adapt to peace.

In El Salvador there has almost no attention paid to this, as the society has instead tried to heal wounds under the slogan, “forgive and forget”; with mixed success.

The country today is the most violent in the Americas. While formally at peace, it is still convulsed by the after shocks of the war – the trauma passing generations. One of Ariel’s cousins, Uzziel, who was a guerrilla commander, has been trying to find his own solutions to this. Along with a former army captain he has built up an informal network of friends from both sides, to help each other to overcome the post war malaise. They meet to talk, get a massage or relax at a sauna.

At the same time, living outside El Salvador since the end of the war, Ariel and I became gradually aware of the growing concern in other countries about the long term effects of trauma after wars and natural disasters – and of the search for solutions.

Salvador group

We met John Wilks, who teaches and practices the Bowen Technique in England, through a childhood friend of mine who uses the technique for the aches and pains of running a dairy farm in Dorset. John told us of the work he had done in Sarajevo, using the Bowen Technique to treat wartime trauma.

We immediately thought the same could be done in El Salvador and invited him to run a course to train some of Uzziel and the Captain’s network of friends. Under the shade of the Mamon tree a group of some thirty trainees listened fascinated to John’s explanations of the effects of trauma on the nervous system.

The group, larger than we had expected, included veterans from both sides, as well as professionals working with those affected by the war – social workers, physiotherapists and psychiatrists. Over two days the group practised working on each other on mattresses around the house – with John hurrying round to try to give individual attention.

There was something deeply symbolic about former enemies now using their hands to try to heal each other. The ice was broken in the group through deep concentration on trying to successfully “hit the lat” rather than delving into the painful events of the past.

At the end of the two days there was a strong recognition of the potential of the technique in El Salvador. Through working on the body, rather than the mind, the technique offers a way into trauma work with Veterans without opening up the pandora’s box of past hatreds in a small country where everyone knows each other.

Everyone who took part in the two day introduction course signed up to do a full basic training over the next year.

Tom Gibb reported for BBC and NPR from El Salvador in the 1980s. He and Ariel, now a film-maker, married at the end of the war. If anyone is interested in assisting on this course (the next modules will be in April, July and October), particularly any practitioner with a knowledge of Spanish, please contact John at cyma@btinternet.com.

This project is run entirely on a voluntary basis and we are particularly grateful to Ossie, Louise Tremblay and Arnina Kashtan for their support. Any efforts in fund-raising for this project would be greatly appreciated.