Her Salvadoran Ordeal Over, Jennifer Casolo Hits the Road to End the War She Left Behind

updated 01/22/1990 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/22/1990 01:00AM

Standing on tiptoe at a recent Sunday morning service in the imposing Gothic setting of Manhattan's Riverside Church, 4'11" Jennifer Casolo seemed almost to disappear in the pulpit. Still, her message rang loud and clear and was unmistakable in its urgency. Arrested in El Salvador last November and charged with harboring a cache of weapons for leftist guerrillas, the 28-year-old American church worker spent a harrowing 18 days in police detention before she was freed and deported to the U.S. "I'm here to touch those in power and do something for those who have no power," she said. "Many believe the situation in El Salvador is hopeless. It's never hopeless. I'm not a political analyst, but I'm on the side of life, not death. We must help end the war."

These days Casolo is trying to do just that. Early this month she began a six-week, nationwide speaking tour, determined to bear witness not only to her own ordeal but also to the sufferings of Salvadorans caught in the 10-year battle between their government and the rebels seeking to overthrow it. Casolo, who denies any link to the guerrilla movement, insists she knew nothing of the arsenal discovered behind her small rented house in San Salvador and that the late-night raid was part of an ongoing effort by the country's U.S.-backed government to crack down on the activities of church workers concerned with human rights violations. It was no coincidence, Casolo believes, that nine days before her arrest, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and the woman's daughter were brutally massacred in San Salvador. (Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani recently implicated government troops in the killings.) "I knew them, I loved them," says Casolo, a Brandeis University honors graduate who spent four years in El Salvador working for the Texas-based Christian Education Seminars as a guide for visiting U.S. congressmen and religious groups. "They were innocent people. Now they are martyrs."

Casolo's own troubles began Nov. 25 as she was preparing a spaghetti dinner for two Salvadoran friends who were spending the night. "Then the doorbell rang," she recalls. "I thought it might be the right-wing death squads." Some two dozen police burst in when she opened the door, and in the walled backyard they allegedly unearthed hundreds of mortar shells, blocks of dynamite and more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition. "When they finally let me out back to have a look, they had everything arranged," she says. "I still don't know if the stuff was there before they came."

Whisked away to a government detention center, Casolo spent three days in a small isolation cell, where she slept on a bare floor without blankets. Then she was transferred to another cell with five Salvadoran women, all political prisoners. The grueling interrogations began immediately. "They were held at night for about five hours in six-by six-foot booths the inmates called fuzzy rooms, where the floors and walls were carpeted—soundproofing, I guess, for the beating and screaming that would go on for hours," she says. "Many times, in other rooms, I heard flesh hitting flesh, cries and sobbing, choking and vomiting." Though deprived of sleep and sometimes blindfolded during interrogations, Casolo says she was not otherwise mistreated. "I was terrified," she says, "but I felt I wouldn't be tortured, because I was an American citizen."

Casolo spent the last eight days of her detention in a crowded dormitory at Ilopango Women's Prison, where she was permitted to roam about a small open-air courtyard and sleep on a straw mat with a thin mattress as a cover. She also took comfort from the fact that former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark had flown to San Salvador to press for her release. On Dec. 13 Casolo was freed, thanks largely to the efforts of Clark, members of Congress and human rights activists.

Casolo immediately returned to her hometown of Thomaston, Conn., where she was reunited with her divorced parents, Audrey and John, and her younger brother, John. She was besieged by reporters as well as by book publishers and movie producers clamoring for her story but is putting off any decisions until after she completes her speaking tour and testifies later this month before a congressional subcommittee investigating the conduct of U.S. Embassy officials during her detention.

Casolo, who began her church work shortly after graduation by helping Salvadoran political refugees in Seattle, would like nothing more than for Washington to stop sending military aid to El Salvador. Meantime, she plans to continue working to publicize the plight of the war's innocent victims. "I promised my friends in prison that I'd campaign for peace outside," she says. "I told them I'd tell their story and that someday, when the war is over, I'd go back and try to help them."

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