Jean and Sean

Across the globe and here in the United States countless women and men have dedicated themselves to helping children; most of these wonderful people are not well known.  In honoring the sacrifice of two volunteers, Jean Donovan and Sean Devereux, we acknowledge the good done so selflessly by so many for the benefit of the children of our world.

JEAN DONOVAN (1953-80)

Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.

— Jean Donovan in a letter to a friend, November,1980 the month before she was killed.

In 1977 Jean Donovan left her accountancy career in the US to become a humanitarian volunteer in the violent civil war in El Salvador.  She worked to help protect children.  As the violence intensified, Jean’s family and friends were concerned that her life was in danger but she felt that she could not leave the children.  Her decision to stay cost her life.

On December 2, 1980, Jean was one of four US women were raped and brutally murdered in El Salvador. Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, and Dorothy Kazel were nuns whom Jean had chosen to serve alongside in one of the most dangerous countries in the world.  Jean Donovan grew up in Westport, Connecticut. After she finished masters’ studies in business she joined an accountancy firm in Cleveland, Ohio and began working with the poor.  Then Jean moved to El Salvador where she worked as a lay missionary alongside Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun, in a parish in La Libertad, providing help to refugees from El Salvador’s civil war and for the poor. They provided shelter, food, transportation to medical care, and they buried the bodies of the dead left behind by the death squads.

Jean was deeply impressed by Archbishop Óscar Romero, and often went to the Cathedral in San Salvador to hear him preach. She wrote to a friend that his message was convincing her that prayer makes a difference. She baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies and delivered them to Archbishop Romero on Sunday afternoons after his morning Mass. After he was murdered while saying Mass on 24 March 1980, Jean and Dorothy stood beside his coffin during the night-long vigil before his funeral. During the funeral Mass, government militia threw bombs into the crowd of 30,000 mourners, killing 30 people. Although Jean was terrified, she told herself that if she was killed, she would go straight to God.

“I got your letter,” Jean wrote to a friend afterwards, “and I really appreciate the fact that you said you worry about me. It’s nice to know that people care and they’d like to tell me to come home, as you say. There are lots of times I feel like coming home. But I really do feel strongly that God has sent me here, and wants me to be here, and I’m going to try to do my best to live up to that.”  Throughout this time, Jean wrote to her friend Father Michael Crowley in Cork. “Things now are so much worse, it’s unbelievable,” she wrote in May 1980. “People are being killed daily. We just found out that three people from our area had been taken, tortured and hacked to death. Two were young men and one was an older man. The man had been in a government death squad, had a fight with them and quit. So that’s probably why they got him. We had done a mission out there recently and they were coming to the celebrations. Everything is really hitting so close now.”  That summer, Jean’s two closest friends were assassinated after they took her to a movie and walked her home. Their violent deaths devastated her.

In September, she took a six-week holiday. She first flew to Miami to see her parents, then to London to meet her boyfriend, then to Ireland for the wedding of a friend, then to Maryknoll in New York, then to Cleveland and Miami again.  Back in El Salvador, she started again to pick up the bodies, console the grieving, and lead the poor in prayer. In the weeks that followed, Jean wrote a friend: “The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave … Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

On the afternoon of 2 December, 1980, Jean and Dorothy met two Maryknoll missionary sisters, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, at the airport. Five members of the National Guard stopped the car they were driving after they left the airport. The three women sisters were taken to an isolated spot where they were beaten, raped, and murdered by the soldiers. At about 10 p.m. that night, three hours after the four women had left the airport, local people saw the white van drive to an isolated spot and then heard machinegun fire followed by single shots. They saw five men flee the scene in the white van, with the lights on and the radio blaring. The van was found later that night, on fire at the side of the airport road.

The bodies of the four women were found early the next morning, Wednesday 3 December 1980. The local people who found their bodies were told by a local judge, three members of the civil guard, and two commanders to bury the women in a common grave in a nearby field. But four men who took part in the burial told their parish priest, and later that day news of the murders reached the local bishop and the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White. The shallow grave was exhumed on Thursday 4 December, in front of 15 reporters, several missionaries, and the US ambassador. Jean Donovan’s body was the first to be removed.

Salvador Martyrs

The four El Salvador martyrs … murdered 36 years ago, Jean is on the left, top row.

When news of the murders broke in the US, public outrage forced the US government to put pressure on the El Salvador regime for an investigation. The earliest investigations were condemned as a whitewash. Eventually, the UN appointed a Truth Commission to investigate who gave the orders, who knew about it, and who covered it up.  Several low-level guardsmen were convicted, and two generals were sued by the women’s families in the US federal civil courts for their command responsibility at the time of the murders.  In 1984, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Truth Commission noted that this was the first time in El Salvador that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. In 1998, three of the soldiers were released for good behavior.

The head of the National Guard, whose troops were responsible for the murders, General Eugenio Vides Casanova, went on to become the Minister of Defense in the government of José Napoleón Duarte. Then he emigrated to the United States.  After a 16-year legal battle, he was deported after immigration courts found that he had participated in torture and killings by troops under his command. He is the highest-ranking foreign official to be deported under laws enacted in 2004 to prevent human rights violators from seeking haven in this country. The expulsion culminates persistent efforts by rights advocates to hold General Vides accountable for his role in the 1980 murders of Jean and her companions.

Jean Donovan is the main subject of a 1982 documentary Roses in December, which won the Interfilm Award at the International Film Festival in Mannheim-Heidelberg in 1982.  Her body is buried in Sarasota, Florida.


SEAN  DEVEREUX (1964-1993)

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While my heart beats I have to do what I think I can do — that is to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

— Sean Devereux’s words to his father.

Sean Devereux, a 28-year-old aid worker was shot in the back in Somalia on January 2, 1993. He came from an Irish Catholic family, attended the Salesian College in Farnborough, UK.

One of Sean’s teachers, Fr Brian Jerstice, first knew him as “a chirpy, irrepressible 11-year-old with an impish sense of humor”, who showed “qualities of ready friendship, firm leadership and organizing ability” as he passed through the school. His leadership qualities were evident enough for him to be appointed school captain. His first job after college was as a physical education teacher at the Salesian School in Chertsey, and from there he went on, at the age of 24, to teach in Africa at the St Francis Salesian School in the remote area of Tappita, Liberia.

Here he came into contact once more with Father Jerstice, who recalls the “amazing relationship” he built up with the 900 lively children, as he organized sport and other activities. “He was clear-sighted and firm about their faults, but won everybody over with his cheerfulness and transparent dedication, seeming to belong to all”.

In 1990 civil war came to Liberia, with its usual horrors of massacre, destruction and famine. Schools were closed and Devereux joined the United Nations relief work, displaying energy and courage in a highly dangerous situation. On one occasion he came into a frightening confrontation with the psychopathic rebel leader, Prince Johnson, as Devereux pleaded with him to release one of his Tappita pupils who had been commandeered to be a child soldier and had run to him in tears, begging for help. Devereux had a lucky escape, but the boy’s fate remains unknown.

As well as working to alleviate basic physical needs, Sean catered also for recreation, including a vast event in the National Stadium, and for rehabilitation, collaborating with Salesians who were working for released child-soldiers. At Zwedru, in the most depressed part of the country, he fell victim of the military again, and his insistence on his rights earned him a beating and imprisonment.

After this incident he was restricted to Monrovia, but he missed the involvement in front-line field work and soon volunteered for the even more challenging area of Somalia. There he joined UNICEF and became responsible for the huge relief operation of Kismayo. His work there has been highly praised, but he was also a brave and outspoken, which in the end was probably what cost him his life.  In a letter to his church community in Hampshire, UK, he wrote: “The gun dictates everything here . . . We pay through the nose at every stage to bring the donated relief items to the needy.”

He could not walk the short distance from his house to his office without paying heavily armed bodyguards. “I get so frustrated and fed up”, he wrote, “when I have to deal with the authorities, the guards and the contractors. Their greed is sickening.”

Sean’s father, Dermot Devereux, recalls that his son would say about the risks he lived through, “While my heart beats I have to do what I think I can do — that is to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves”.

Above all Sean loved children. He helped restore the broken spirits of one 14-year-old by teaching him the high-jump. Every Sunday he would be on the beach with a carload of street kids, playing football, swimming or organizing long jumps. He once increased the unloading of rice from 150 to 700 tons per day, by getting local groups of lads to compete against each other. He believed that if young people were given pride and self-respect through doing something they could do well; they would not be tempted to give it up in favor of the gun.

In Liberia he organized a Peace and Unity Fun Run for 10,000 people, and a Sports Fun Day for 1,000 street children and war orphans. In Somalia he even organized a football match between two warring factions, to the delight of 2,000 onlookers.    Although Sean’s life was tragically cut short he was able to bring joy and comfort to many in the direst of circumstances, a true light in the darkness of war and conflict.

Read Sean Devereux’s account of life in war-torn Somalia

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