“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Dante, Inferno, Canto III, line 9
The Divine Comedy
We all have different ideas of Hell. But most us raised and brought up in the Judeo-Christian Western culture share a religious image of a lake of fire that sears hundreds, thousands or millions of people, condemned for unmentionable sins.
That’s the myth. Then there’s the reality.
The reality arrived this February 14th, the day we celebrate love and friendship. On this day Hell became reality when the penitentiary of the city of Comayagua —absurdly called the “penal farm”, as if sentences, prisoners or prisons were cultivated there— caught on fire.
On Valentine’s Day and the days after, television and internet videos showed the world the agony and suffering of the inmates, the burnt bodies of those who tried —and failed— to escape from the flames. The terrible images reminded me of the documentary films I saw as a child on the city of Pompei, devoured by the immensity of the explosion of Vesuvius, while I watched in amazement as the reality of ancient times installed itself in the present.
“Hágase justicia aunque el mundo perezca” (“Let justice be served, even as the world perishes”) was the motto written above the entrance to the penitentiary. We have to ask: What kind of justice did they have in mind when they placed that line on the door to the jail?
Just a few weeks before the fire, Nobel Peace Prize winners Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchú had visited the country and in a press conference, Williams stated, “There is no justice in this country, where total impunity dominates… the police are corrupt and instead of providing security for the people, they threaten them, beat them and violate their human rights.”
Nothing could be more true than this affirmation faced what the massacre that took the lives of 360 human beings, among them three women who were visiting relatives.
This small world perished without justice. Many of the inmates locked up in the prison had still not been tried or sentenced, and some were there accused of stealing a piece of wire, like the farm worker confined with his 19 and 21-year old sons.
Then there were the family members, mostly women, contorted with pain, climbing the fences and confronting police to find out what had happened to their sons, life partners, brothers or fathers. All had different, but similar, stories. Some still nurtured the hope that their relatives had escaped, that they weren’t in there. Many invoked a god that seemed nowhere to be found. They got no response.
I wrote the above the day I arrived in Comayagua. Then I went out to what remained of the prison to do some interviews for an article. But I couldn’t write.
As I approached the place, I could feel the onset of a headache that emanated from the middle of my forehead. I felt my nose stuffed-up and was filled with a sense of helplessness as I faced the appalling scene.
One mother, inconsolable, cried, “What am I going to do without my son? Oh God, what will I do?” as she told me her story between sobs. She recounted the infancy of her lost son, what he did in school, how he liked to help in the kitchen, which wasn’t considered a boy’s place at the time but was something she was always grateful for as a single mother having to bring up five children alone. She told me he had been accused of a crime that was never proven, and how she had to travel from the village to the county seat of Comayagua to bring him food, clean clothes, news of his people.
“I already had a feeling that something bad was going to happen. For nights I dreamed terrible things that I didn’t understand,” she told me as she wiped the tears from her face. “A mother knows, a mother can feel it, but what do you do to get people to believe you? You go around alone with this heavy feeling in your chest, you feel like you’re gonna faint, that you can’t breathe. You can’t do anything, just leave it in God’s hands and now wait for them to give him to me to go bury him in my village, so he can rest.”
And as she ended her story, I could imagine the little boy, the growing son, the son that wasn’t there, being consumed by a sea of fire. I thought of the futility of my efforts for not being able to offer her anything, not consolation, not relief, not easy solutions. Just to wait.
“Nobody came to open the doors,” another family member told me. “They left them there to burn to death, without doing anything. They begged, pleaded and no one paid any attention. They left them to die.”
I thought then that this was just one of many stories. Men and youth, deep in poverty and pushed to the edges, without the right to a trial, condemned by an inefficient state system where the powerful few make life and death decisions.
In this country, we are just statistics: ‘Honduras is among the poorest countries in Latin America; Honduras is one the countries with the most reports of human rights violations; Honduras has one of the highest rates of violence on the continent.’
These are some of the headlines that for brief moments capture the attention of the world and then, as if scrubbed away with soap and water, are forgotten. No one wants to know about the bloodshed, the filth and human tragedy that are impossible to describe. There are no words for the screams, the absences and the pain, that even without words are still there, stubborn and omnipresent before the eyes of a world that chooses to look the other way.
I left fleeing, I didn’t want to be part of the pain or part of the death because we’ve had enough of all that since the coup in 2009. I didn’t want to relive my own fantasies, my memories. But the image of Hell could be felt everywhere. Regrettably, we can’t flee the horror because it digs in, pernicious, deep inside you.
And here I find myself, rewriting this column from deep in my fears and pain. I’m writing it because I hope that someone, or many people, will read it and know that our memories are still here with us, with this wounded people; so that they will accompany us in our search for justice. So we can feel that our Honduras is not alone.
Leaving Comayagua I found a feminist colleague carrying her bandaged arm in a sling. When I asked her what happened she said, “I broke it pulling people out of the prison. When I was up on the gates pulling them out, I fell and that was it. But this is when we have to show our solidarity, you tell me if that’s not right.”
On cue, I agreed she was right and thought about the hundreds of women who came out to help the day of the fire, climbing the gates of the prison, forming a human wall to break through the police line to Forensic Medicine to reclaim the bodies of their loved ones. These women escaped Hell because even though they try to plant it in us, it can’t trap us, it can’t overcome the force that runs deeper than our conscious selves and obliges us to live.
So on March 8, feminist organizations paid homage to the memory of the fallen in Comayagua, with protests, poetry and music. They told of how the struggle and the pain of a people is part of the feminist struggle. They spoke of a shared mourning and reminded us that we are alive and in resistance to the horror; because our task is to build bridges and evoke smiles–to accompany, nurture and care for life.
Here we are, and here we will continue.
Jessica Isla is a Honduran journalist, author, and member of Feminists in Resistance. She collaborates with the Americas Program as a monthly columnist.
Translation: Laura Carlsen