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Of Peace Accords and Firecrackers: A Christmas in El Salvador

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

On a hot, summer afternoon the women beckoned to us in lilting Spanish. “Honey,” they called out. “My heart, come here. What can I offer you, my love?”

What the market women were offering was not love but gunpowder, huge blasts of it rolled into over-sized fireworks called “mortars,” “bombs” and “machine guns.” The vuela patas --literally, blow off your foot--were copies of a guerrilla mine.

El Salvador’s civil war had been good for the fireworks business. The longer the fighting lasted, the more belligerent the pyrotechnics became. Bigger, louder, more shrieking. Even little firecrackers were sold with cardboard machine guns and tanks attached.

But suddenly this Christmas and New Year’s, sales were down. Maybe it’s the economy, the vendors speculated. People are poorer and can’t afford to burn money anymore. Or, said Maria Flores, maybe it’s the war.

After 12 years of combat, the guerrillas declared a permanent, unilateral truce in November. For the most part, the army was off the streets. The two sides were talking peace at that very moment.

“If there’s peace,” Flores said, “maybe people aren’t going to want to buy these fireworks anymore. They’re going to want to forget about the war.”

It’s not easy to forget a war that took 75,000 lives. Both sides still have their guns, even if they are quiet now. The threat of new fighting hangs in the air, as well as the threat of a reaction from those opposed to a negotiated peace with the guerrillas.

And yet, in many ways El Salvador today is different from the tense country I left two years ago, shortly after the guerrillas launched a vast offensive in the capital and the army retaliated by assassinating six Jesuit priests whom they accused of masterminding the rebel movement.

Given that previous experience, I wasn’t surprised to see a body on the road from the airport to San Salvador--like a perverse billboard welcoming me back to the country.

But this man, unlike so many in the past, was apparently the victim of a traffic accident rather than a death squad. The city, meanwhile, seemed alive with shoppers and students on vacation. The traffic lights worked, since guerrillas had stopped their sabotage campaign. A chain of gas stations and 24-hour markets had sprouted up in a city where service stations once were a rebel target and most people avoided going out after 10 p.m.

A bad sign was the so-called “Tower of Democracy,” a steel-and-glass high-rise office building bombed by the guerrillas before it ever opened and occupied by the army during the November, 1989, rebel offensive. The owners apparently gave up on their monument to democracy. The windows, shot out by both sides in target practice, are unrepaired. The army is still there, holding a strategic point near the entrance to the Central AmericanUniversity, where the Jesuits were killed, and watching the back of the army high command’s headquarters.

Out to breakfast on my first morning back, a marimba band played “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” against a chorus of tropical birds. The newspapers reported that President Alfredo Cristiani most definitely would not meet the guerrillas in New York--even as he was on his way. And a warm breeze rolled off of the San Salvador volcano, the target of heavy government bombing during the rebel offensive, stirring the hibiscus and bougainvillea.

Like before, I could hear the popping and blasts of gunpowder in the background. But this time they came from fireworks.

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY PERIL

For many years, the dirt road from Aguilares to Suchitoto in Cuscatlan province was a scary place, abandoned, studded with land mines and subject to fits of combat. I had not been there since January, 1986, when I accompanied the army on Operation Fenix, one of countless offensives to rout the rebels and their civilian sympathizers from Guazapa volcano.

During that trip, I watched the army dig 100 civilians--most of them women, children and elderly--out of rat-infested caves where they had been hiding for two weeks with little food. Separating the fish from water, the army called it. They wanted to remove the rebel support system, cut off their supply of food.

As I sat at dusk surrounded by these people with sunken cheeks, matted hair and petrified eyes, a slight, toothless woman turned to me. “Dreams are never like reality, are they?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Not usually.”

“Last night, I dreamed I ate chicken,” she said wistfully.

I thought of that woman again as I drove down the road the other day. For many Salvadorans, eating chicken remains an unfulfilled dream. The war is coming to an end, but not the poverty that encouraged people like her to support the guerrillas.

Yet today, the road from Aguilares to Suchitoto is busy with farmers on their way to the fields and trucks delivering cane to the San Francisco sugar mill. Straight-backed women walk barefoot carrying jugs of water on their heads.

The checkpoint of armed police in combat fatigues would have been a hindrance to us in the past. The army didn’t like us going where we could interview guerrillas. They were also fighting a propaganda war, after all. But now they have orders to let us pass. They checked our credentials but not our jeep.

We watched for rebels, but what we found were three little boys playing war. Seven-year-old Moises carried a long stick with an army strap tied to each end. His 4-year-old cousin Ulises wore an empty mortar case as his weapon.

“What’s that?” I asked Ulises.

“A bomb,” he said, sniffing back a runny nose.

“This is my pistol,” said Moises.

“This is my rifle,” Ulises said.

“Are you guerrillas or army?” another journalist asked.

“We’re guerrillas. He’s the army,” Moises said, pointing to his big brother in the distance. “He’s got the machine gun.”

We found the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas farther down the road. They, too, waved us through without inspection. They were relaxed, happy, celebrating the New Year. All 300 of them. Friends and family had come from the city to visit.

The guerrillas played soccer with their FMLN flags flying in the stands. Although five rebel armies joined forces in the Farabundo Marti front in 1980, they retained their separate identities. On this day, the Armed Liberation Forces team played the National Resistance team as a regional rebel commander gave a press conference.

“Cristiani may sign the peace accords, but we are the protagonists here,” said Damian Alegria. “We will do everything to make sure the accords are respected.”

The soccer crowd, wearing new boots and fatigues, cheered in the background as National Resistance scored a goal.

“Our guns are our guarantee. We know the government and know we don’t just disarm and assume they will comply with the accords. That is why it is a gradual process. . . . We’ll put down our guns when our high command tells us to.”

A mongrel dog dressed in a fatigue shirt wandered over to the commander and lay down in his shade.

“Maybe, if we get (security) guarantees and if the bloodletting that happened in Colombia (when rebels disarmed) doesn’t happen here, maybe next year we’ll be working on the reconstruction of the country.

“Armed struggle is the factor that has determined the political changes in this country. . . . The signing of this peace agreement is a partial victory that creates the conditions for us to fight for (peaceful) change,” he said.

Another cheer erupted from the stands as the game ended, the National Resistance team winning 2-0.

REAL BOMBS AT MIDNIGHT

The explosion on New Year’s Eve could be heard even above the swell of “mortars” and “machine guns” fired at midnight. This was a real bomb, not fireworks.

Minutes after the announcement that the government and guerrillas had signed an agreement for a Feb. 1 cease-fire, a bomb destroyed a jeep belonging to the Reuters news agency that was parked outside of the hotel where most correspondents have their offices. Two other vehicles were ruined and four more were damaged.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, which was seen as a message from rightists opposed to the accords. Suddenly, the city did not seem as safe as it had minutes before. A bomb that killed no one was an effective reminder of so much anger and hatred, so many people murdered in years past.

Journalists gathered around the charred cars. Police arrived to search for evidence. And tipsy party-goers emerged from the hotel in cocktail dresses and sequined crowns with white plumes.

Fear gave way to absurdity. A Japanese businessman made his way to the parking lot to find the windows of his Japanese car blown out.

“I come here, I spend money. Who’s going to pay for my car?” he yelled at anyone who would listen.

“Mister,” said one incredulous journalist, “be glad you’re alive.”

“I come, spend money. Who’s going to pay for my car?” he shouted again, this time to a police officer in combat fatigues.

“No one worries when we get killed,” the officer shrugged.

A well-dressed Salvadoran appeared on the scene to find his armored jeep in front of the wreckage. It looked untouched, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

“Listen,” he said to one of the officers, “I have an important position in the government. I want you to go over my car before I get in it.”

Well after 1 a.m., the government official was still waiting when the last of the journalists got in their cars to go home.

“Happy New Year,” someone said.


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