Twenty-five years ago in El Salvador, Gail S. Phares’ former housemate, Maryknoll Sister Maura Clarke, and three other U.S. churchwomen were raped and murdered by a Salvadoran death squad. Three of the five soldiers eventually implicated in those murders were graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Ga., since renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).

Last Sunday at 12:15 p.m., with her husband, Robert, and daughters, Rebecca and Lisa, watching, Phares squeezed under a fence at Fort Benning’s south gate into the waiting hands of police at the conclusion of a mock funeral procession that is held each November by SOA Watch, a group working to shut down the school.

For their acts of civil disobedience, Phares and the 39 others arrested with her are likely to receive three- to six-month federal prison sentences. Those arrested were charged with trespassing and given a Jan. 30 court date. Brevard peace activist Linda Mashburn, who has worked with Phares for years, was also arrested Sunday.

This year’s two-day event at Fort Benning, located in Columbus, Ga., near the Alabama line, drew a record 19,000 protesters. Phares is a former Maryknoll missionary and founder of Witness for Peace and the Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America (CITCA). She has led more than 40 delegations of North Americans on fact-finding trips throughout Latin America and is recognized nationally for her human rights work.

Each spring, Phares organizes the Holy Week Pilgrimage for Peace and Justice, a week-long walk that links the struggles of workers and the poor throughout the Americas, making stops in cities and towns throughout North Carolina.

Scores of Latin American soldiers trained at WHINSEC have been implicated in human rights abuses and murders in their native countries.

“Despite a shocking human-rights record, this school continues to operate with U.S. taxpayer money,” Phares says. “Closing the SOA would send a strong human rights message to Latin America and the world.”

Phares was released on $1,000 bond late Monday after spending almost 30 hours in the Muscogee County Jail. Each time she was asked why she had trespassed onto Fort Benning, Phares said she told police: “Because they killed my friend Maura Clarke in El Salvador.”

Phares said her night in jail was cold and noisy. “We had a good group of women and lots of singing and exercising,” Phares said. “It was real cold so we had to keep our bodies moving, because we were freezing to death.”

Clarke was murdered Dec. 2, 1980, along with Jean Donovan and sisters Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel. The murders of the four churchwomen galvanized the nation and led to closer scrutiny of U.S. policies in Latin America

“Up ’til that point, it was hard for the U.S. people to understand what was happening in El Salvador,” says Phares, who served with Clarke in Siuna, Nicaragua, from 1963 to 1966. “When they killed these four religious women, people said, ‘Something’s wrong if our government’s supporting people who are raping and killing nuns. Something’s wrong.’

“Maura was just one of the most loving people I ever knew. I still mourn Maura’s passing,” Phares says. “It helps me understand a bit more what the Salvadorans and Nicaraguans and Guatemalans feel who have lost parents and friends and children during those awful, awful U.S.-supported wars in Central America.” x

To learn more about Witness for Peace and CITCA, call Phares at 856-9468.