SAN ANTONIO EL BARILLO, El Salvador — For refugees returning to this desolate farming cooperative, the road home passes through three army blockades, a ghost town of roofless houses, and a political maze that requires peasants to maneuver with the savvy of diplomats.
Walking this road on a recent morning, Ruben Guardado explained how he hoped to survive in a war zone evacuated six months earlier.
"We don't want the armed forces and we don't want the guerrillas," he said. "We don't want one side or the other to bother us."
Guardado, 58, is one of thousands of peasants who are fed up with makeshift lives in refugee camps and are moving back to their abandoned villages, even though the six-year-old civil war is far from over.
Some, like Guardado, have moved back in organized groups that appear to challenge the authority of the army. The army originally opposed the return to El Barillo but lately has tried to steer it to its political advantage. Others have returned under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church, and still others on their own, moving back family by family. Some may be returning under the leadership of the guerrillas.
Shift to Political Arena
The return to their original homes of some of El Salvador's 450,000 internal refugees, or displaced peasants, comes at a time when the war between the government and the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front has shifted in emphasis from the battlefield to the political arena. There, the fight is for the support of the country's largely rural population.
The peasants who are repopulating the countryside seem to understand the pitfalls of this political war and watch out for them as carefully as they do for land mines and helicopter gunships. Yet they seem to feel that returning to the land is worth the risks.
"There is nothing like the countryside," Guardado said. "I don't want to be a refugee any more."
Gen. Adolofo Blandon, head of the joint chiefs of staff, last month unveiled "United to Reconstruct," a plan to repopulate and rebuild strategic areas of El Salvador.
A sweeping counterinsurgency program, the army's second in three years, it is the key to winning the war, Blandon and other military leaders believe.
"Considering that 90% of this war is of a political, economic, social and ideological character, and only 10% is military," Blandon said, "it is believed that now is the opportune moment to structure changes in the general strategy of our country."
United to Reconstruct, like its predecessor, the National Plan, is aimed at routing leftist guerrillas from target areas, installing armed civilian defense groups, and restoring public works and services destroyed or disrupted in the war.
Essential to the plan is the repopulation of some of the 160 abandoned towns and villages in the country, the first of which will be Aguacayo, just west of El Barillo and 30 miles north of the capital in the province of Cuscatlan.
To Use U.S. Aid Funds
Blandon said the government will help Aguacayo residents rebuild their bombed-out houses and start their own businesses, using some of the $18 million in U.S. Agency for International Development funds that officials say are available for the program.
The general has criticized the civilian government for allowing bureaucratic problems and fighting among political parties to stall the plan, which has been a year in the making. In private, military sources say that some in the armed forces feel they are winning the war on the battlefield but that the government is losing it on the social and economic front.
The guerrillas have made economic sabotage a central part of their strategy to bring down the U.S.-backed government and are not likely to spare new bridges, electrical systems and other projects that are part of United to Reconstruct.
"They will try to destroy projects, I am sure," said Col. Mauricio Vargas, commander of the 3rd Military Detachment in the northeastern province of Morazan. "But they will isolate themselves from the people, and the struggle is for the people."
Only for Residents
While military and government officials say they want the farmers back in their fields, producing, they also want to make sure that the farmers do not give support and supplies to the guerrillas. Accordingly, the army will restrict the repopulation of Aguacayo to those people who can prove they were born there or were longtime residents.
"Of special importance in this campaign," Blandon said, are psychological operations--civilian-military actions to distribute goods and the training of armed civil defense forces.