Finding Peace in Time of War
By Awake! correspondent in Panama
PANAMA is quite a young country by world standards. Its history as a nation goes back only to the year 1903, when it separated from Colombia and became an independent republic.
From its beginning Panama has had close ties with the United States due to the construction and operation of the Panama Canal, which was built by U.S. engineers from 1904 to 1914. However, as the years went by, this peaceful relationship eventually deteriorated into distrust and hostility.
Finally, about one o’clock in the morning on December 20, 1989, hostility turned to war as U.S. troops invaded Panama. Let us briefly review some of the circumstances leading up to that invasion.
What Led Up to the Invasion
In 1968 Panama’s democratic government was overthrown by a revolution under the direction of a military officer, Omar Torrijos Herrera. The new military government emphasized national sovereignty, and a bone of contention was the Canal Zone, which was governed directly by the United States.
In 1977 the present Panama Canal Treaty was signed by General Torrijos and Jimmy Carter, president of the United States at the time. This treaty made provision for Panama to assume full responsibility for the administration, operation, and maintenance of the canal by the year 2000.
In 1981 Torrijos was killed in a helicopter crash and was later succeeded by General Manuel Antonio Noriega. In February 1988 Noriega was indicted in Florida on drug-trafficking charges, and from then on his relations with the United States deteriorated. The following year, elections were held in Panama, but the results were annulled by the Noriega government. The United States then stepped up its efforts to oust Noriega by means of diplomatic and economic sanctions. On December 15, 1989, Panama’s National Assembly declared that Panama was in a state of war with the United States. The next day a U.S. marine was shot and killed. Shortly after that President Bush gave the order to use military force.
Ostensibly, the invasion of Panama was to protect the lives of about 35,000 U.S. citizens in Panama, to maintain the security of the canal, to restore democracy, and to capture Noriega and bring him to trial on drug charges. The invasion was the largest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War. It pitted some 26,000 troops against the estimated 12,000-man Panama Defense Force plus several thousand members of the so-called Dignity Battalions, civilian volunteers trained by the Noriega regime.
At about one o’clock on the morning of December 20, 1989, the populations of Panama City, Colón, and others living near military targets were awakened by the sounds of war: rifle and machine-gun fire, exploding mortar shells and rocket-propelled bombs. Some sophisticated weaponry was also employed by U.S. forces, including six $50 million F-117A Stealth fighters, infrared-guided missiles, Apache helicopters, tanks, and soldiers equipped with night-vision goggles. Within hours after the invasion, most organized resistance had been crushed, but sporadic shooting against the Dignity Battalions continued for days.
Christian Neutrality Amid Anarchy
Jehovah’s Witnesses are known worldwide for their neutral position in regard to political matters. How did they fare during this national disaster? There are some 6,000 Witnesses in the country, and as soon as communications were restored, a survey was made by them to determine their casualties. While several families lost their homes and possessions, happily no lives were lost, and nobody was seriously injured.
One Witness who lived near the Panamanian military headquarters in Chorrillo tells this story: “I was at home with my husband when suddenly a bomb exploded near the canal area. I said to him: ‘Let’s get out of here because this is a wooden house and it could catch fire easily.’ We ran away from the house and soon found ourselves in a very dangerous area where American and Panamanian soldiers were engaged in heavy fighting. We took refuge in a building, and the bombing continued.
“The next day we left the danger zone. We stopped a car and asked the driver to take us to the house of a friend of my husband. On entering the car, I realized that it was occupied by men of the Dignity Battalion, and all of them were armed. Soon the men said, ‘Get out.’ That worked to our benefit because if we had met up with American soldiers, they would likely have fired on the men of the Dignity Battalion, and we could have been killed.
“We went to the house of one of my husband’s friends. They are staunch Catholics, and their son is studying to be a priest. Nevertheless, they took part in the looting and ate stolen food. So I said to my husband: ‘This is not right for me because I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and my conscience doesn’t allow me to be here.’ So we went to stay with some Witnesses, who took good care of us.
“My husband was very sad because of losing our house and everything we had accumulated at great sacrifice. But we had our lives, which was the important thing. My husband’s attitude has changed, and now he doesn’t oppose my attending the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses as he did before. He even accompanied me to a talk and was impressed with the order and peace that prevailed.”
Another Witness, who is almost 80 years old, lived in the war zone and related her experience: “At about one o’clock in the morning, my niece knocked on the door and said: ‘The war has started!’ When I opened the door, I noticed that everyone was rushing frantically downstairs. The streets were full of people running in all directions trying to escape from the bombs and the gunfire. But I just closed my door and went back to bed.
“The next day people were running through the streets again, but this time it was not to escape bullets but to loot the stores. They offered to sell me food very cheap, but I refused to buy it, knowing that it was stolen. Then they wanted to give it to me free, but I told them that I didn’t even want it as a gift. I asked them what kind of Christians they were to steal what didn’t belong to them. One of them answered: ‘My God allows me to do it.’ I said: ‘Maybe your God gives you permission but not the true God, Jehovah.’”
About 50 miles [80 km] from Panama City at the Atlantic end of the canal lies Colón, a city of more than a hundred thousand inhabitants. This too was the scene of warfare and much looting after strategic military targets came under attack. An overseer in one of the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses there tells his story: “Just before one o’clock on Wednesday morning, the city was awakened by the sound of bombs that fell on the naval headquarters of the Panama Defense Forces, just a few miles outside Colón. The warfare continued throughout the night, and at times the bombs fell quite close.
“By Friday the city was in total chaos and was controlled by outlaws armed with weapons. There was no police supervision or protection. Someone had opened a shipping container that was full of weapons, and anyone could obtain them, even those who had been released from prison. Guns were for sale and on public display in the market. Even minors could be seen carrying them.
“People were running amok, and some in vehicles were firing their weapons into the air. Those who ventured into the streets put their lives in danger. Nevertheless, I decided to go out to see how my fellow Witnesses were. That morning I contacted some of them, and we organized meetings for the afternoon. On returning home, I was just about to eat lunch when I heard the sound of helicopters. I went to the window, and at that moment an American helicopter hovered close by and fired three rockets into a 15-story building, the tallest in the city.
“I was horrified because this was a civilian target where more than a hundred families lived, including four families of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The rockets hit precisely the floors where they lived. Apparently some of the people who were not Witnesses and who were opposed to the invasion had fired on the helicopters from inside the building, and the Americans had retaliated. A dense cloud of black smoke ascended from the building. I telephoned one of the Witnesses who lived there, but nobody answered, so you can imagine how I felt. Later, I called another family, and they told me that all the Witnesses were safe, to my great relief.”
Commenting on the looting that took place, another Witness in the same city says: “For about a week and a half, there was no authority in the city, and the thugs took over and began systematically looting. Among those sharing in the looting were some churchgoing people and people with high-paying jobs, such as lawyers and doctors. They were carrying off stoves, refrigerators, sound equipment, computers, and other things. The office where I work had $22,000 worth of items stolen.
“Some people lost their lives in the looting itself. A group of looters were robbing a container in the area right across the street from the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Several were crushed to death when a container fell on top of them, but the others kept right on looting as if nothing had happened. They fought among themselves with knives and guns over the possession of the booty. This shows what can happen when there are no ‘superior authorities,’ that is, governmental authorities, to control things. At such times, when people do not have Jehovah’s law in their hearts, they just do what their baser instincts dictate.”—Romans 13:1-4.
Organized Relief Work
As soon as the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses here in Panama learned the number of those who had lost their homes and needed material assistance, it was decided to organize relief for them. In Panama City, where almost half of the country’s population live, many of the stores had been ransacked. So the Branch Committee got in touch with Witnesses living in other places where food was still available. The Witnesses wanted to donate money and food, so they were asked to purchase quantities of flour, rice, beans, oil, and other durable foods.
A large truck was loaded with several tons of these items, and within just a few days after the invasion, they were made available and were given free to needy ones. Distribution centers were set up in many Kingdom Halls throughout the affected areas until everyone had been cared for. Some food was left over, which we made available to those who had lost their means of livelihood as a direct result of the war.
Quite a few of those who had lost their material possessions were reluctant to ask for help, which was in sharp contrast with the looters, who were motivated by greed. As is often true when disaster strikes, there are always those who take advantage of the situation for material gain.
Some Panamanians are optimistic about the future of Panama under a new governmental arrangement. Others still consider the war an act of imperialistic aggression. Meanwhile, Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to tell honesthearted people about God’s Kingdom, the only government that will solve the problems not only of Panama but of the whole world.—Daniel 2:44; Matthew 6:9, 10.
[Pictures on page 24, 25]
The Chorrillo area was destroyed in the battle; shops were looted; military installations were devastated
[Pictures on page 26]
Supermarket and stores destroyed by looters