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Documentary : Warfare Drags On in El Salvador

February 26, 1991|KENNETH FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Freed, The Times El Salvador bureau chief, is currently on assignment on Cairo.

LAS MARIAS, El Salvador — War is a common experience in El Salvador, its everyday quality so seemingly commonplace that the outside world often forgets that the casualty figures, the political debates and the lengthy peace talks mask a daily horror for the people of this bloody land.

What follows are the accounts of four people interviewed at random on four different days about the impact on their lives of a decade-long civil war between the government and the Farbundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

Alicia sensed the noise before she heard it, a sort of rhythmic compressing of the air. Then the thump, thump, thump of the helicopter's rotors shocked her out of bed and sent her running to her sleeping children.

"Get up, get up, the army is coming," she shouted at the sluggish boys as they groaned and protested for more sleep even as the UH-1H gunship swooped low, literally shaking the hut to its foundations and scattering chickens, guinea pigs and dogs across the dirt clearing into the surrounding woods.

"The army is coming." It's a cry heard daily throughout this war-prostrated nation, particularly for those people living, as does Alicia, in the midst of a battle zone. It is a tolling of dread heard here in the mountains of Usulutan province, in the San Salvador slum of Mejicanos, in the fields near Apopa and countless other areas.

"They think anyone who lives here is a guerrilla and they treat us like animals," Alicia said after the American-supplied helicopter made two circle passes over the little settlement in Usulutan and then flew out of sight.

"I never get used to it (the sound)," she said later as she calmly patted corn meal dough into breakfast tortillas. "It always frightens me."

Nothing more happened that day, but Alicia and the two little boys stayed close to home. On previous visits to the area, in the shadow of the contested mountain called Cerro del Tigre, military patrols have been seen detaining dozens of peasants for allegedly harboring the guerrilla forces who operate locally.

"They keep us from working, or they steal food and they take away the young men," said Alicia. "Some are put in the army and some just disappear."

On one earlier trip to the mountain, soldiers placed mines along one of the rocky, winding paths used by the carts that supply the scattered houses with their only water.

"Until the muchachos (as the guerrillas are called) come and clear away the mines, we can't get water and the men can't haul out the wood," Alicia said of the lumber cut and sold by the neighborhood workers.

The day patrols aren't so bad for Antonio, a cabo (private) in the Salvadoran army. In the mornings he is driven from his 1st Brigade barracks on the northern edge of San Salvador to Colonia Mascota, one of the capital's luxury neighborhoods where he and a dozen other soldiers walk the streets past the walled enclaves housing the country's elite.

Rations are delivered for lunch and he gets to talk to the maids as they sweep the sidewalks. "It's not hard and there is little danger," he said during a street-side interview. "Mostly we walk around and stop cars for checks."

Night is different; a time of anxiety and fear.

Antonio's patrol was stationed one recent night at a traffic circle, hunkered down behind a small sandbag barricade trying to find refuge from the driving rain. Every noise brings a start to the soldiers and they nervously finger their M-16 assault rifles when the headlights of approaching cars swing into the street.

"The officers (who seldom accompany the patrols at night) tell us to expect subversives tonight." None attacked Antonio's patrol this time, but a series of explosions a few blocks away and mortar fire on a nearby volcano widens the eyes of the men squatting at the traffic circle.

"Two of my friends were killed near here" during a massive guerrilla offensive in November, 1989, Antonio said. "I wasn't hurt, but it was very bad. They tell us there will be more attacks, but I hope not."

Antonio is 18, a resident of a small village near the eastern city of San Miguel. He was forcibly drafted into the army nearly two years ago when he was taken off a bus as he rode from his home to San Miguel to look for daywork.

"I don't want to be in the army," he said quietly, so that his colleagues won't overhear. "But they shoot deserters." He also nodded agreement when asked if his life in the army didn't provide some benefits he wouldn't have at home--clothes, regular meals and a sense of community.

Still, his cautious statements indicate that Antonio is no hard charging patriot hungering to kill guerrillas. "They tell us the subversives want to destroy our country. I don't know. A couple of my friends (at home) went with the guerrillas. Their family had been killed by the army, so they left."

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