Mental Fallout of El Salvador War Feared


Peace may come to El Salvador, but its brutal civil war will live on for years in the minds of children, former fighters and victims, psychologists say.

In the country’s only state-run mental hospital in eastern San Salvador, the agony of 10 years of conflict is hauntingly expressed in a patients’s therapeutic painting.

The work, in the colors of blood and mourning, depicts three black figures huddled together in the scarlet interior of a church.


“We all have the war within us,” chief resident psychiatrist Ricardo Mendez told a visitor who viewed the painting. “One hundred percent of Salvadorans have been affected by the war to one degree or another.”

What is worse, civil and military psychologists say, is that if U.N.-mediated peace talks currently under way succeed in ending the war, El Salvador faces a surge of mental disorders, common violence and dislocation.

“Peace will generate even more pathology,” Mendez said in an interview.

“The people who have the strongest aggressive, antisocial tendencies are those who most enroll as guerrillas, as soldiers,” he said. “They practically got hooked on this war to pour out their aggression.

“What will happen when peace comes? If people remain armed, there will be mass murders.”

Isabel de Pocasangre, a psychiatrist working with amputees at San Salvador’s military hospital, echoed Mendez’s fears.


“It would seem we can see the psychological problems now. But we will see a lot more after the war.”

Pocasangre said combatants from both the armed forces and the leftist guerrilla movement Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front would need to undergo readaptation programs if the war wound down.

“In the United States one of the big problems they have are the Vietnam veterans,” she said. “(Some of) those people are in constant therapy. I think . . . we will do the same thing here.”

Both doctors said no steps had yet been taken to set up such reinsertion programs.

El Salvador’s decade of conflict has claimed some 75,000 lives, most of them civilians, leaving an ever-widening circle of shattered families, orphaned children and displaced or homeless people.

The war also weighs heavily on the general population who have no direct experience of the war, Pocasangre said.

Many Salvadorans recount experiences of drunk or drugged soldiers abusing the civilian population, provoking fights while armed, even lobbing hand grenades into packed dance halls.

The rebels, too, admit to psychological problems among their ranks, although their isolation in the highlands and mountains makes evidence harder to gather.

“War is an abnormal state,” Mariana, a 27-year-old guerrilla, said in the eastern rebel stronghold of Perquin. “You make a great effort not to wind up in an abnormal state yourself.”

“Javier,” a 21-year-old rebel, said he had learned to kill around the time of his 14th birthday, shortly after joining the guerrillas.

“It’s traumatic at first, but you get used to it,” he said.

Cesar Vielman Joya Martinez, an army deserter now under arrest in the United States, who said he took part in military-sanctioned “death squad” killings, cited nightmares about his activities as one of the reasons he deserted and denounced his superiors, according to U.S. media reports.

“Many people get used to the blood and violence,” Mendez said. “But the coldness with which things are sometimes done is striking.”

Pocasangre, speaking of under-age rebel fighters, agreed.

“They become brutalized. They get colder. Such a loss of values makes them a danger at any moment.”

She also said she had noticed many symptoms of guilt among soldiers with whom she has dealt.

“I used to play at war, but we were inspired by cowboy movies,” Mendez said. “Now they talk about tanks, about bazookas, machine guns and bombings.