30th anniversary of PBI volunteer Karen Ridd’s remarkable act of courage

Published by Brent Patterson on

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November 20th is the 30th anniversary of an extraordinary act of courage by Karen Ridd, a Peace Brigades International volunteer from Canada.

The news magazine Maclean’s sets the context: “Following a two-week trip to Nicaragua in 1986, Ridd decided to put her beliefs in social justice to work in Central America. She joined Peace Brigades International, going first to Guatemala in 1988 and, [then in] February [1989], to El Salvador.”

“As a volunteer, she received free room and board and about $60 a month for the often dangerous work of keeping watch over Salvadoran trade unionists and others whom the government and right-wing death squads consider subversive.”

“Suspected by Salvadoran authorities of aiding leftist rebels against the U.S.-backed right-wing government, the 28-year-old human rights activist from Winnipeg was abducted, along with six other foreigners, by national guardsmen and later physically and verbally abused by the Treasury Police, known widely for their brutality.”

The book Unarmed Bodyguards notes that those arrested included “Zea Melendez, a Guatemalan; Josephine Beecher, a U.S. religious worker and five Peace Brigades International volunteers.”

That book continues, “At the National Guard barracks, Spanish PBI volunteers Ester Domenech, Francesc Riera, and Luis Perez were handed over to their embassy. The other two PBI volunteers, Canadian Karen Ridd and Colombian Marcela Rodriguez, were loaded into a truck with Beecher and Melendez.”

“Karen and Marcela were interrogated for several hours about their alleged connections with the FMLN [rebel guerilla movement].”

Karen recalls, “I remember have something run across my throat and being told, ‘next time that will be a knife.’ Shoved around. Hit a bit, not real hard. Back of the hand, in the ribs. The handcuffs were too tight. I asked that they be loosened, and they were. Marcela asked the same, and they refused.”

“The most frightening moment was when they took me aside and told me to pull my shirt up and my pants down. They claimed they had to check for battle wounds and register any marks so we couldn’t blame them later, but the sexual threat was obvious.”

“The whole interrogation took about five hours. As curfew hour approached, they were suddenly in a big hurry to get me out of there. In their hurry, they took my blindfold off at a place where I was able to see that Marcela was still there in the hall. It was really horrible to see her blindfolded and facing a wall with her hands behind her back. But it was good to know where she was.”

The Winnipeg Free Press adds, “The Canadian embassy obtained Ridd’s release, but she promptly went straight back into the prison to demand — and get — the release of her friend, Marcela Rodriguez Diaz.”

Unarmed Bodyguards notes, “Karen told her embassy official she wouldn’t leave without Marcela. The Canadian official, worried about the approaching curfew, was angry with her, but she insisted.”

Karen recalls, “As I walked back towards the jail, I felt a sense of triumph. But back in the interrogation room reality hit with a thump. What would be next? Torture? Then they handcuffed me again and took me to a different hallway which was full of people in various states of post-torture. I could see it under the blindfold.”

Marcela remembers, “At one point I heard Karen’s voice and then steps approaching me. …They took off my handcuffs and I took Karen’s hand. I was still blindfolded. They opened a door and told us to walk straight ahead without turning to look back.”

Pushed out the door blindfolded, Karen thought they were being moved to another cell.

Karen notes, “Then they pulled the blindfold off, and I looked up and I could see all these stars. We were out. We walked back across the parking lot holding hands.”

The book continues, “Karen and Marcela were driven to the Camino Real hotel in a military convoy and handed over to Canadian embassy officials. Within a few days, the entire PBI team was in ‘exile’ in Guatemala.”

In Toward a Pedagogy of Radical Love, Karen comments, “In that Salvadoran jail, I faced and learned many things. I learned the importance of what I call the ‘futile gesture’: the small, hopeless act of returning to the jail for my friend combined with calls and messages Peace Brigades International supporters around the world sent to the Salvadoran government on our behalf, led to our release.”

On November 21, 1989, NDP Member of Parliament (Winnipeg Transcona) Bill Blaikie rose in the House of Commons and expressed his respect for Karen and the work of Peace Brigades International.

Daniel N. Clark, one of the founders of Peace Brigades International on Grindstone Island in Canada in 1981, notes, “Karen’s courageous and successful refusal to be released without Marcela is one of the most moving stories in PBI’s history.”

Today, Karen is an Instructor in Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies at Menno Simons College in Winnipeg. Marcela teaches at a university in Bogota.

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