The Wounds of War
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.
The psychological damage is massive. Recovery, says Central American University psychologist Luis Hernandez, means coming to terms with this violent past. “The dead have been buried in the ground,” Hernandez says. “Now they must be buried in our hearts.”
APOLINARIO MARTI WAS 7 YEARS OLD IN 1979 when his family started running from the army. He remembers young leftists visiting his school in the lowlands of the colossal Guazapa volcano to explain how rich plantation owners exploited poor families like his own. His father, a day laborer at the surrounding sugar plantations, decided the organizers made sense, and he supported strikes for better farm wages.
The landowners retaliated. They called out the army and civilian vigilantes. First they killed the young people, whom they accused of fomenting class struggle, then their families, even those who had nothing to do with politics. “That’s when my parents began to flee,” Apolinario recalls. His world divided into “them” and “us,” the enemy and the companeros.
Apolinario Marti is a nom de guerre that the 19-year-old continues to use even though the war is over. When asked his real name, he shrugs and looks away. Most people call him Polin, he says. He has curly hair, hazel eyes with a nervous twitch and an adolescent’s mustache. But he is self-assured and at ease with his gun.
The veteran guerrilla has only vague memories of life before the war. One of those is of picking watermelons with his father on a full-moon night. Polin was 5. He was sitting with his parents outside their two-room house, resting from work, when his father pointed to an orange tree. “When I die, I want to be buried under there,” he said.
Polin’s father supported the revolutionaries who took up arms. He cooked for them, ran messages and did other civilian chores; there were younger men to carry guns. The army assembled a network of snitches and gunmen in the Nationalist Democratic Organization (ORDEN), and bodies began to appear in the rivers and roadsides overnight. A few at first, then more. Retired army major Roberto D’Aubuisson was said to be the national godfather of death squads, but in San Antonio, where Polin lived, it was the local ORDEN chief, Fabian Ventura.
“He was a death-squad leader, and he killed more than 600 people,” Polin says. In 1980, the guerrillas launched an assault on Ventura’s house. " He was a thorn in the side of the masses and the revolution. The compas left him dead in his house, but the people took his body out the next day, tied it to the tail of a horse and paraded it around town.”
Aware of a quizzical look on his listener’s face, he adds matter-of-factly, “Children and grandmothers had lost loved ones to him. We had to flee because of him. If he were to revive today, I personally would take responsibility for killing him again.”
Polin stretches on the ground and leans against a rock as if it were an armchair. His unit has gathered in the bombed-out ruins of Aguacayo, an abandoned town that is a rebel cease-fire zone. They have been assigned to wait here to be demobilized under the peace accords.
The army launched a huge offensive in this area in March, 1981, Polin says. The guerrillas tried to defend the civilians and led thousands up the volcano. About 50 people stayed behind, believing the army wouldn’t kill civilians. But they did. They killed the people and burned their houses, Polin says.
Polin and his family hid at a ranch, El Sitio. As the army closed in, they ran, but his mother and the four younger siblings fell back. While waiting for them to catch up, his father decided they should try to collect the belongings they had left behind.
“He told me to go get them, but I said no, that ORDEN was coming and I was afraid.”
“OK,” his father answered. “I’ll go. You wait for your mother.”
His mother arrived in time to hear the shooting. The next day the companeros told Polin they had found his father’s body.
“That’s when I made the decision to carry a gun and contribute what I could,” Polin says.
He was 9 years old.
THE LIEUTENANT COLONEL WILL NOT ALlow his name to be used. Sure the war has ended, he says, but the wounds are fresh. “Time has to pass before people will get over the things that have happened. There may be someone whose family was badly hit and who has not recovered. If I show my face, and tomorrow they recognize me in a restaurant, they might take a shot at me.”
The son of an army major, he spent his childhood devouring books about World War II and great armies of the world. He entered military school in 1972, before he ever considered there could be a civil war. “Even if they didn’t pay me to be a soldier, I would have been in the military. I like free-fall parachuting, anything with risk. You don’t get that anywhere else. Even in peace, there’s risk in the military.”
He was an instructor at the military school when the war began but soon was sent into battle with one of the new immediate-reaction battalions, known as BIRIs. The Belloso Batallon, where he spent the next nine years, is one of the elite units to be disbanded. Under the peace accords, the army will no longer be a counterinsurgency force fighting the enemy within.
“The BIRIs have an ingredient of mystique,” he says. “You are continually in the field. You and your men are constantly living at risk. Risk identifies you. A BIRI is a family. You spend so much time with them in the terrain, learn who snores and who doesn’t, who lies, who tells the truth. They are the ones who save your life.”
The Sandinista guerrillas took power in Nicaragua in 1979 vowing to help their revolutionary brothers in El Salvador. Three years later, the lieutenant colonel said, he began to see the influx of arms. “A (guerrilla) movement of that magnitude had to be supported by someone other than just the local population. They were getting AR-15s from Vietnam,” he says. Then the guerrillas began to define themselves, putting communist ideas into their pamphlets. “You could see the intellectual influence. It wasn’t just the banner of land and justice anymore but of Marxism. I felt I had to motivate my troops to fight harder against a system that wasn’t ours.”
He fought the rebels on nearly every front, but the toughest by far was around Guazapa. “That was the best-organized area for the FMLN. This was their immediate rear guard. The geography of the Guazapa region made operations difficult for the attacker, but they also had clandestine militia and a network of information all over the place. We could never count on surprise.”
The lieutenant colonel is 39, tall and lanky with broad shoulders and a firm handshake. He has received infantry training in Colombia and officer training in the United States, at Ft. Benning, Ga. In a military planning room with maps of past operations, his angular face beams under fluorescent lights. He is proud of being a soldier and tells of protecting civilians, not terrorizing them.
One time, he recalls, in the steamy eastern province of Usulutan, the Belloso Batallon moved into the village of Linares Caulotal. The civilians got wind of its movements and fled their homes, but a 2-year-old girl was left behind, crying, with a dog gnawing on her leg.
“The dogs were so hungry, and she was wounded,” he says, wincing at the memory. “I rescued her.”
THE ARMY OPERATIONS were relentless. Bombs, rocket fire, shooting in the hills. The soldiers made house-to-house raids. Six of them burst into Esperanza Torres’ hut in Cabanas province one night in 1979. They hit her with a rifle butt and demanded to know where all of the men had gone. “They were going to kill me,” she says. “I grabbed my little girl and closed my eyes. They said if we didn’t leave the house, they were going to burn it down with me and the children in it.”
Most of the men were sleeping in the hills, she says, fearing just such a raid. But two of Torres’ sons had taken up with the guerrillas. A third, Jose Adolfo, had joined briefly, but quit. “The situation was difficult,” Jose recalls. “We didn’t have any guns back then, just machetes. I wasn’t going to get killed without a gun to defend myself.” He left El Salvador to look for work. Esperanza Torres, like thousands of other women, gathered her four smaller children and fled to Honduras, returning last year.
On the patio of her one-room house in the Salvadoran village of Santa Marta, the 53-year-old Torres ties back her long, just-washed hair and sits down to take a crying grandson onto her lap. The baby is suffering from dysentery, and Torres is worried, having lost three infants of her own to diarrhea. The strain is visible in her dark eyes. Then Torres is up again, handing off the baby and washing dishes to prepare for lunch.
She spent a decade at the Mesa Grande refugee camp in Honduras, where she cooked in a collective kitchen and took care of children. “We never lacked food there, but we were prisoners. The Honduran military had us surrounded,” she recounts in nervous spurts. “We couldn’t go out to gather wood or wash our clothes. If we crossed the line, they fired at us. One boy went out to cut a branch for an ax handle. They shot him in the head. They blew his head open. His mother gathered up his brains in her apron.”
With this story, Torres’ face grows taut. She looks into her own apron and seems to see the past woven into its worn cloth. “His name was Jose Maria.”
THE LIEUTENANT COLONEL, A CAPTAIN then, led 40 men into Arambala one afternoon in 1983. They ran into the guerrillas and were outnumbered.
“They shot me in the stomach and shot my rifle out of my hands,” he says. “I was conscious the whole time. I have always believed that the day and hour one will die is set. It is destiny. You can be in the greatest risk, and if it’s not your day, nothing will happen.” The fighting lasted for three hours until reinforcements and air support arrived. The guerrillas retreated, and he was evacuated by helicopter. The toll: four dead and seven wounded. But he was still alive.
“It wasn’t my time to die.”
POLIN WAS HAUNTED BY HIS FATHER’S WISH. During a lull between army operations, the 10-year-old boy found his father’s grave and unearthed the bones. He hauled them a mile to the family’s old home. The house was gone, but the orange tree still stood.
He dug a grave and laid his father to rest.
The civilians who remained in Guazapa with the guerrillas dug caves called tatus. They stocked them with millet and yucca and hid for days at a time when the army came through. With his father gone, Polin felt responsible for his family and helped dig their tatu. During one army operation in 1985, they were caught underground without water.
“We had been hiding for two days. We were packed in there and had to sleep standing up. Sometimes I felt I was going to suffocate. By the third day, they still hadn’t left, and I told my mother we should give up, that they wouldn’t kill us. But she said no. She said we were born here, we lived here, and we would die here.”
Polin couldn’t stand the thirst any more. That night he decided to go for water to the only well nearby, although he knew it would be guarded by soldiers. He hoped they would be asleep. His mother didn’t want him to leave. When he insisted, she issued the pained warning of a mother torn between her children: “If they start shooting at you, don’t run back here, or you’ll give us away.”
POLITICIANS AND WEALTHY SALVADORANS lived in a kind of public hiding, with armored cars, tinted glass and armed bodyguards. They raised the walls around their expensive houses and varied the routes they took to and from work. But Jaime Hill thought that was pointless, because the guerrillas had shown him many photographs that they took of him all over town to prepare for his abduction. As for his armored car, the guerrillas got that in the deal for his release.
Hill’s family businesses--coffee, banking, cement, construction--struggled from 1979 to 1983 but gradually picked up as the country grew accustomed to war. The combat continued year after year, but mostly in the countryside. Neither army could win, both refused to lose. They came from the same stubborn stock, one side supported by the United States, the other by the Soviet bloc. The home-grown war had become a proxy for the superpowers. But it was up to Salvadorans to decide when it would end.
The turning point came in November, 1989, when the guerrillas moved into the capital for their biggest offensive of the war. For two weeks, hundreds of well-armed, well-trained rebels fought the army block by block. First the guerrillas took over barrios, expecting people there to rise up in arms. When the army answered with bombs and gunships, the people fled instead.
The army was at its wits’ end. Five nights into the offensive, soldiers from an elite battalion entered the Central American University and assassinated six Jesuit priests, whom they accused of masterminding the guerrilla war. Then the rebels moved into the neighborhoods where people like Hill lived. Most of the fighters had never seen the kind of luxury they found in Escalon mansions: lush gardens, enormous dining rooms, closets full of fancy clothes. Most of the rich residents had never before seen armed peasants.
When the guerrillas walked into the home of one of Hill’s friends, the man was petrified. “They told him not to worry, but that they would be using his house. At one point, they went into his pantry and took out 12 bottles of expensive champagne, and, what really galled him, they mixed it with Coke,” Hill says.
In the end, the guerrillas realized there had been no popular insurrection; the army understood that they had nearly been overwhelmed. Much of the U.S. Congress decided that the $4 billion it had spent in El Salvador was for naught, and it was reluctant to spend more. And the rich, Hill says, realized it was time to negotiate.
“My friend saw the guerrillas’ power and thought, ‘Next time they aren’t going to come in and drink champagne, they’re going to kill us.’ He saw the war close up and decided better a bad agreement than a good fight,” Hill says. He, too, has changed. He gave up drinking; the key to the future, he decided, is a clear and open mind. “We have to recognize that, although there were only 10,000 of them, they were a force, and they had us in check.”
AS THE AMERICAN BLACKHAWK HELICOPTER carrying U.S. Ambassador William G. Walker turns in a gale of dust to land, Polin raises his sight and takes aim--with a video camera. The government and guerrillas had just signed the peace agreement on Jan. 16, and Walker was coming to Guazapa to offer an olive branch. Polin, now a cadre in the rebel propaganda machine, is filming the remarkable postwar event.
The peace accords attempt to rebuild the country’s legal and political institutions and to provide an alternative to violence. They commit the government to respect human rights and the guerrillas to abandon armed struggle. The guerrillas say the accords amount to a “negotiated revolution” with far-reaching social changes; the government and army argue that they achieve the goal of preventing a Communist takeover of El Salvador.
The accords break the power of El Salvador’s right-wing armed forces, which have dominated the country for 60 years, and create a new civilian police force to replace three security forces with a history of repression. But they do not resolve many of the social and economic problems that contributed to the war. Land ownership is an issue that still threatens to ignite violence, and two-thirds of all Salvadorans remain in poverty.
Dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, Walker makes his way into a one-room schoolhouse in La Mora. Men in faded shirts and frayed pants file into the room. The women with cracked and callused hands sit on wooden benches surrounded by their children. They are the civilians of Guazapa, members of the rebel-run Repopulation Committee of Cabanas and Cuscatlan.
“I am here to extend my hand, the hand of the U.S. government, to this community,” Walker tells the group in Spanish. “We have not had any contact in the past, but I’m here to say we’re going to have much contact in the future. I want to know your problems and in what way we in the U.S. Embassy can help you.”
They eye him doubtfully. The Salvadoran government estimates it needs $1.9 billion to rebuild the bombed-out towns, broken roads and ruined electric system that are the ruins of war. Rebel supporters want a share for their communities, but in the past, American aid went to their enemies. Is this a trick, an attempt to buy them off? A few raise tentative hands. “We need land,” says one man. “We need land to work,” says another. One by one, they ask for tools, machinery and public works. Walker listens quietly until one young man raises his hand.
“The U.S. government sent all of the bombs that were dropped on us,” says 19-year-old Oscar Marroquin. “Are you really going to send aid to rebuild here?”
“You know,” Walker snaps, “for every bomb we sent, we sent many more things in the way of economic and social assistance.”
Guerrilla leaders assert that their families and former combatants should be given the land in zones that they have occupied for most of the war. The government argues that farmers must buy the land at market prices with loans the government will provide. Walker, they see, is on the government’s side when he introduces Rafael Montalvo, head of a U.S.-endowed bank to fund land purchases.
“There is not enough land in this country to give to everyone unless you want it in a flower pot,” Montalvo tells the crowd. “All land in this country has an owner. The government has a little bit, and many people want to sell. But we are not going to give it away.”
“But what price are you going to put on it?” one man yells.
“What about interest rates?” asks another. “You charge too much, and we can’t pay.”
As tempers begin to escalate, one of the committee leaders intervenes. “When it comes to land, we have to negotiate,” cautions Ana Maria Menjivar. “You have to trust that we aren’t going to accept anything against our principles.”
Walker acknowledges the farmers’ distrust, but adds, “You know, there are people in this country who are afraid of the FMLN. You’ve lost family, but the other side has, too. I would like to impress on you that I am here to help you, not to conquer you.”
Still, they are not sure. “It is only fair that the United States pay to rebuild this country,” Menjivar says. “People will not feel confident until they see some results. And they are right.”
ESPERANZA TORRES’ FEAR HAS NOT SUBSIDED with the war. She turns suddenly to see a strange man walk through her open doorway. She is confused at first, then recognition washes over her face and she bursts into tears. “Thank God,” she says, embracing her son, Jose Adolfo. “I thought I would never see you again.”
Jose Adolfo had been gone 13 years. He has a job in Belize and a son of his own now. But when he heard about the peace accords, he came home to Cabanas province to look for his family. One of Torres’ guerrilla sons is also home, wounded but very much alive; the other is safe in a cease-fire zone.
Yet trauma overshadows her reunited family. “If you stayed four days, I wouldn’t finish telling you everything that has happened to us,” she says. “I have a friend who used to hit the ground every time she saw a soldier. She worried so much she shook. We don’t eat well, and we’re weak.” Others seem to have been strengthened by their pain. Torres’ neighbor, Aida Hernandez, lost her first husband in 1980, her eldest son in 1990 and her second husband during the 1989 offensive in San Salvador. “He’s dead. No one knows what happened to him,” Hernandez says.
At 42, Hernandez is a slender woman with gold-capped teeth and her hair pulled back in a tight bun. For her, peace means more time to look after her five remaining children.
“What is best for us now is to work and produce. I have to support my children. I want them to learn something. I only went to school for two years. I can read and write only a little bit,” Hernandez says.
As for making peace with the army, she says, “I may say hello to them, but to be friends would be difficult.” The guerrillas fought a just war, she says. “They were looking for a better life for the poor. We lost a lot of people, but this was a forgotten corner of the country, and now we have people who worry about us. Before, no one even knew we were here.”
THE LIEUTENANT COLOnel feels the elimination of his old Belloso Batallon like the loss of family. Although he concedes the army’s future in El Salvador is blunted, he is clever and clearly has a future in the army. “But I am conscious of the political changes and back the political decision.”
His superior, a full colonel, is skeptical about the agreements. “I don’t believe the subversives will comply with the accords,” he confides in his air-conditioned office one night. “Communists modify their discourse, but not the way they think.”
The two of them sat face-to-face with the guerrillas to negotiate the logistics of the cease-fire. “It was difficult at first,” the colonel says. “I never thought I would see them so close. But over time you understand that this is a process and part of our work. That does not mean we accept them or that they share our ideology, but we are no longer enemies on the battlefield. I know they have other intentions. They want to dismantle the armed forces. I cannot share the criteria of people who want to take apart the institution to which I have dedicated my life.”
The army officers rule out a military coup, which was so often seen as a solution in the past. Not that they necessarily reject it in principle, but they are convinced it would not succeed. “All coups led by the armed forces in the past had a justification at the time,” the colonel explains. “But for a coup to be successful the conditions must be right. We saw in Venezuela and the Soviet Union that the conditions are not right.”
The lieutenant colonel acknowledges that the leftists will compete in the congressional and presidential elections in 1994 and insists the army will abide by the outcome. “If they win, the armed forces will adopt an institutional posture, a professional posture and respect subordination to civilian authority and the principles of the constitution,” he says. It is a line he seems to have memorized. But what, he is asked, if the candidate is guerrilla commander Joaquin Villalobos, the rebels’ top military strategist during 12 years of war?
He swallows hard. “If Villalobos were to win an election with a majority, we would respect it. The armed forces have to be an apolitical instrument of the government,” he says. Reflecting on what he has just said, he adds: “The polarization of this country is going to end when there is a new generation. Now, it is difficult to recover from our problems overnight.”
POLIN CANNOT BEGIN to count the friends he has lost in the war. Most of the children who went to his rural elementary school are gone, dead or moved from the area.
During the war, the death of a companero served to fuel the rebel mystique, the commitment of the remaining combatants. “If a friend dies, you have to work harder so that his death serves for something. It must animate you, inspire you, not demoralize you.”
But as the rebel army begins to disband, a little sadness has set in. “We all talk about staying together, but some will work in the city, others in the countryside . . . and then I start to think about all my companeros who died.”
Polin’s ideas about the future are as vague as his prewar past. “I have imagined a country without war, a country without so many bad people who kill their brothers, but there is lots of resentment here,” he says. “We’ll have to see how it works. I have my doubts about the other side.”
He does not address the rumors that guerrillas are stockpiling guns--just in case. Polin says he wants to stay in Guazapa, where “my umbilical cord is buried” near his father’s grave, to farm the lands, study and write poetry. Most of all, he says, “I want to live the childhood I never had. I want to get to know the country. I have only walked these mountains with a gun. I don’t know the capital, the beaches and ocean, a zoo or any of the beautiful things this country might have.”
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