ICHANQUEZO, El Salvador — The stooped woman recalled how it was six years ago.
"The armed boys came here," Maria del Carmen Borja said, using the slang for the leftist rebels fighting the U.S.-backed government. "It was back in '81. And they killed; they killed."
The 70-year-old woman, along with 500,000 other Salvadorans, fled her home when the war reached her doorstep. Some left to escape vengeful guerrillas, others ran from a repressive army. But most said they feared that the two sides would meet--and fight--in their villages.
But last year the trend began to turn. The Salvadoran military and the U.S. Embassy report that 100,000 people, mostly peasants, returned to their villages and towns.
Most of the heavy fighting in the nearly 8-year-old war now is sporadic and in the isolated northern and eastern parts of this Massachusetts-sized nation.
Additionally, the military offers substantially more protection, and its human rights abuses have diminished. The army's strength has grown since 1980 almost fivefold to 56,000. The number of guerrillas is said to stand at about 4,000, half of what it was a few years back.
Many of the civilians who went back to their homes in the central province of Cuscatlan said they simply grew tired of rootless urban living. City life in Central America's most densely populated nation offers misery for many of the Salvadorans used to having at least a small plot of land to grow corn.
Besides the squalor, the refugees face a shattered economy and little work in urban areas.
"Most of us just got tired of living in cities. We miss the land and don't like the crowds," said Borja, who returned home 10 months ago. The petite, wrinkled woman was born in Ichanquezo, a small farming village that once boasted several hundred families and two schools.
A year ago Ichanquezo was all but deserted. The armed forces, in granting permission for two visitors to pass through, insisted that they be accompanied by a six-man army patrol. And the soldiers told of rebel land mines in the village.
Typical of hamlets that suffered heavy battles, bombed-out shells of sun-baked brick homes stood idle. Thick vines curled over bullet-pocked walls, and debris littered the grass-covered paths.
On a recent visit there were scores of children playing outside the school, which is undergoing refurbishing. Men worked to cut back jungle foliage. Women ground corn for tortillas outside homes of laminated zinc.
Residents said that about 60 families have returned since August of last year.
"It used to be so pretty here," Borja said with a smile, pointing toward the stone paths. "And then we lost everything. We used to have electricity, phone service and running water. But we'll start again."
The U.S. government, as part of a $72.5-million program to aid El Salvador's displaced people, provides seeds and the zinc siding for buildings.
Army patrols based along the road outside the village examine the identification papers of passers-by and travelers. Bus passengers wait in lines to have their documents examined.
The guerrillas frequently strike military targets--personnel and trucks--in the area. But residents say that the rebels don't enter Ichanquezo.
"We know they are around but they don't enter," said Vilma Antonia Alfara, a teacher, standing in front of the schoolhouse. "Thank God it's calm here."
Two soldiers meandered through the village, but Alfara said they usually stay outside.
"They protect us, there's no doubt," she said.