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The Wounds of War

After 12 years of fighting, the people of El Salvador, from former guerrillas to wealthy businessmen, are beginning to come together in an uneasy journey toward peace.

March 29, 1992|By Marjorie Miller | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

JAIME HILL GIVES A SHORT, amused laugh as he recalls the first time he met Ana Guadalupe Martinez in 1979. He was a prisoner of the guerrillas, locked in a closet-sized cell while the rebels negotiated his release for a ransom that would top $3 million. Martinez, dressed in olive-drab fatigues, was a leader of the incipient guerrilla force that was trying to finance a revolution against the Salvadoran oligarchy--people like Hill. She stayed nearly five hours to talk about politics and prospects for economic reform.

When they met again last month at the end of a 12-year civil war, Hill was struck that Martinez was wearing civilian clothes--a sophisticated dress. She arrived at a house in San Salvador's fashionable Escalon neighborhood with four of the top five commanders of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

"It's been a long time," Hill said as he shook Martinez's hand.

"A long time," she answered with a slightly embarrassed smile.

On a shaded patio overlooking a flower garden, they again talked about economic reform. The rebels had just signed a United Nations-brokered peace agreement with the government and returned to the capital to form a legal political party. They wanted Hill to know that their battle for social change was not over. But they also wanted to see if he would introduce them to other businessmen. Now they hoped to work with the ruling class, not destroy it. Hill agreed to try.

"This was a chance for us to begin getting to know each other face-to-face and to forgive," Hill said. "I always understood that this was a war, and they were fighting for their ideology. I will never forget my kidnaping, but I can forgive it."

How could he forget? Five gunmen had shot their way through the steel door into Hill's office on Oct. 31, 1979, and dragged him, blindfolded, into the back of a pickup truck. There were at least 30 guerrillas in police uniforms, blocking traffic to get out of downtown to a hide-out in western El Salvador.

Hill was an affable, hard-drinking son of the so-called 14 Families, the elite that reaped its immense fortune from producing and exporting coffee. The rebels figured there was no better way to fund a war than with the enemy's own coffee money. Despite this, Hill was impressed with the guerrillas' discipline and their commitment to the cause of social justice. During his 4 1/2 months' captivity, he examined his own privileged life--his fancy houses, foreign vacations and stable of polo horses--and found it wanting.

"I was a very arrogant man. I hadn't realized that all of the things I owned were not as valuable as life itself," Hill says. Before he was released, Hill experienced a religious awakening. "What brought me closer to God was suffering. The kidnaping made me much more humane."

Others were embittered by the war, however, and Hill fears they are less willing to forgive. Most of the ruling class boycotted the Feb. 1 ceremony marking the beginning of a final cease-fire. Hill has told few of his friends about his recent encounter with the rebel leadership. "Many people still do not agree with the signing of the peace agreement. I am not sure everyone below Ana Guadalupe agrees with this. They may feel they have been betrayed. On the other side, there may be people who feel that Jaime Hill backs the government's decision to sell out, that I have betrayed them. There could be reprisals."

Such meetings in postwar El Salvador are the first tentative steps in what is sure to be an arduous reconciliation of a fractured nation. There are others. To celebrate the signing of a peace accord, the two sides held raucous rallies within blocks of each other--separate but nonviolent. Stiffly, soldiers and guerrillas sat down together to draw up a plan to move rebels into cease-fire zones and the army into its barracks; the two sides separated without a clash.

No one imagined in 1979 that a war could last so long and scar so many lives. Every year, the army launched massive operations to wipe out the insurgency, and every year the rebels not only survived but came back with surprising force. Human-rights groups estimate that 75,000 people died in the country of 5.4 million, many of them civilians assassinated by right-wing death squads linked to the military. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans were widowed, orphaned, maimed or uprooted from their homes.

Like Hill, each has a tale of violence to tell, and some recount far worse horrors with chilling calm. The war produced a militarized society and a generation of suspicious youths who have never known peace. Ignacio Martin-Baro, one of six Jesuit priests murdered by soldiers during a guerrilla offensive in November, 1989, once described El Salvador as a place where security forces were the principle sources of insecurity, justices were the purveyors of injustice, and the media were perpetrators of propaganda. Violence became the accepted means to answer violence.

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