During half a decade of civil war, no part of El Salvador has been more fiercely contested than rugged and isolated northern Morazán province. The area is now a stronghold for antigovernment rebels, but they won it at a high cost. Years of fighting have devastated once thriving villages. Electrical lines hang limply from wooden poles, and telephone service is just a memory. Correspondent Ricardo Chavira returned last week from a rare tour of the area with officials of the People's Revolutionary Army (E.R.P.), the most powerful faction within the five-member Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (F.M.L.N.). Chavira's report:
Crossing to the northern bank of El Salvador's Torola River is like entering a different country. The neatly uniformed government troops who man checkpoints south of the river are replaced less than a mile down the road by rebels in mix-and-match uniforms and civilian clothes. A guerrilla painstakingly writes down travelers' names, addresses, ages and reasons for coming. Having passed inspection, the visitors drive up the rutted, overgrown road to Perquín, where they are shown the bomb-damaged house in which they will stay, stark evidence of the danger that envelops the 15,000 to 20,000 people who live in northern Morazan. But despite the hardships the war has imposed, the portrait that emerges from a visit behind rebel lines is of an area struggling desperately to return to normality.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Perquín, a coffee and lumber center that in 1980 had a population of 5,000. When the E.R.P. stepped up its guerrilla war, Perquín was repeatedly overrun by battling government and rebel troops, and by 1983 it was a bombed-out ghost town. Today, as those who fled have slowly and steadily returned, it is again home to 4,000 people. Most say that regardless of who is in control, they would rather live in a war zone than in refugee-choked cities.
The guerrillas have carefully nurtured the repopulation of northern Morazán by restoring some basic services that collapsed when the government abandoned the area to the rebels. There is still no electricity or telegraph service. Buses have not been seen for five years, and consumer goods are scarce. But the rebels, through civilian "directorates" that now run the towns, have reopened schools, many of which had not conducted classes for four years. While most of the new teachers are recruited and paid by the directorates, four in Perquín are government employees. One of them, Esperanza Varela de Guevara, 47, moved back to Perquín with her husband a year ago. "When we moved away people accused us of being on the side of the guerrillas," she said, "and when we moved back we were accused of being army spies. We are just caught in the middle."
Like people who live under military occupation anywhere, those whom visitors can talk to in northern Morazán express views that range from overt cooperation with the rebels to resigned tolerance. One center of support is the area around La Joya, where more than 900 residents were killed in late 1981 in a major assault by government troops. Villagers now flee at every approach of the military, whose last attack they say came on Christmas morning.