San Salvador — Today some 20,000 students begin classes at El Salvador's National University - the first day of school since the Army closed the university in 1980. They say they are happy to be strolling down the campus paths again, but they know it will take a lot to turn their ravaged school back into a really good university.
After Army tanks and 600 troops moved onto the campus on June 27, 1980 - in response, the government says, to shots fired from the school at soldiers conducting a military operation nearby - much of the school was destroyed.
When the students go to the library this week, they will not have anywhere to sit, for there are no tables or chairs. They will find that the library's collection - only some 30,000 of its 1980 holding of 80,000 books - ''are (mostly) obsolete volumes that are of little use to us,'' says head librarian Antonio Mendez. The library does not even have a dictionary, he notes.
Students will discover that all of the medical equipment and some 75 percent of the medical books are gone, says medical school head librarian Luz Alfaro de Castellanos.
The library and med school are better off than the humanities and dental schools, however. The humanities building was burned to the ground three days into the army occupation. Nothing remains of the dental school but a few concrete pylons and rusting iron reinforcing rods.
Nonetheless, many students are optimistic.
''We are happy to be here,'' says Patricia Lemus, a medical student, even if the school lacks equipment and books.
''It's important for every (Salvadorean), for every student, for every social level. Every student will have the opportunity to enter the university,'' she says. And eventually, ''El Salvador will have a lot of professionals.''
Salvadorean President Jose Napoleon Duarte turned the gutted buildings over to the university's rector, Dr. Miguel Angel Parada, two months ago.
The government will pay faculty and staff salaries at the reopened university , but repairs and purchase of new equipment will come from $10 monthly fees paid by each student to a special reconstruction fund. So it will be a long time before the school reaches its earlier standard of operation.
''The students didn't destroy the university,'' says Dr. Manuel Adair Mejia Rodriguez, dean of the law school, ''but they must pay for its rehabilitation. Given the resources of most of our students this, I am afraid, is an impossible task.''
Students interviewed here studiously avoid comments that might sound political or that might anger local authorities.
''All we want to be able to do is study,'' says one medical student standing with a mop in a dank corridor of the medical school. ''We look around us and we wonder where our supplies and equipment will come from, but we must at least try.''
When the troops and tanks moved onto campus in 1980, leftist groups headquartered at the university mounted a futile effort to resist them. The leftists fought with antiquated rifles and small-caliber pistols they had stored in clandestine caches at the school.
Sixteen students were killed during the seizure. Hundreds more who had been involved in leftist political groups later were killed or ''disappeared,'' reportedly the victims of death squads.
Some 30 faculty members, according to Dr. Parada, also were murdered or disappeared.
Damage and equipment loss at the school is estimated at some $30 million, he says.
''How long does it take to seize and expel agitators from a campus?'' the rector asks rhetorically. ''A few hours, a few days, but not four years,'' he answers in his makeshift office on the fifth floor of the government bureau in charge of budget appropriations.
For weeks after the occupation, the National Guardsmen stood on the street corners around the edge of the university selling typewriters, books, medical equipment, until everything was either sold, stolen, or destroyed, says Dr. Roberto Calderon, dean of the law school at the time of the seizure.
''We have returned to buildings where even the electrical wiring has been ripped out of the walls,'' he says.
Librarian Mendez says: ''Perhaps the government can justify the occupation, but they can never, never justify what followed.
''No public official, including President Duarte, who was the president of the junta at the time of the occupation, has ever condemned what happened or proposed some sort of retribution,'' he says.
Mendez says the library's card catalogues, audio visual department and rare book collection - which included ancient Mayan texts and priceless Spanish colonial documents - have been destroyed or are missing.
He points to the small wood fires his staff has set between the sparse stacks of books. ''We can't afford insecticide, and we have to get rid of the bugs,'' he says.
In front of the balding librarian are piles of English textbooks and Canadian magazines collected by students in Canada and shipped to the needy library. These books are the only books the library is slated to receive.
''Canada sends us culture,'' he muses, ''the US sends us bullets.''
He leads this writer downstairs to what was once the audio visual center, on the way pointing to a gap in the stacks.
''Here is where we used to keep the volumes of the Book Publishing Record but when the soldiers saw the letters BPR they mistook the acronym for one of our leftist organizations here and destroyed all the copies. They also burned our maps of Nicaragua.''
Both Mendez and medical school librarian Castellanos contend that the occupying National Guardsmen desecrated many of their volumes.
During the years the school was closed, some 35 small universities, run for profit, opened up across the city. The equipment in some of these private schools, says Dr. Parada, is National University equipment that was sold to the owners by enterprising National Guardsmen.
''At least,'' he says, ''we have the consolation of seeing these profit-making schools go out of business as students return to the main campus.''
Groups like the People's Revolutionary Block (BPR), UR-19 (Revolutionary University Students) and FAPU (United People's Action Front) - which drew hundred of thousands of Salvadoreans into the streets in protest in 1980 - have left behind at the university only their signatures and painted slogans calling for revolution.
Most of the leaders and members of these groups have been killed. Those that remain are in the barren hills of Morazan or Chalatenango provinces, more preoccupied with military discipline than mass appeal.
''The students we have now are very different from the ones we had in 1980,'' Dr. Parada says. ''Then there was the romance of the fight, a kind of euphoria. I do not believe they are crushed, but wiser. They will organize again but with more caution and more thought. I hope they will attempt to participate in the building of a democratic society.''
Perhaps the difference between the students of four years ago and those today is evident from the graffiti that remain on the walls of the campus.
''It was a time of innocence,'' Parada says, ''and for this many young people were sacrificed.''
Still, the Salvadorean right appears to be taking no chances. Two weeks ago two student leaders were abducted. One is being detained by the police and the other has ''disappeared.''
''They don't want us to forget what they are capable of,'' one student says, referring to the abductions. ''When we look around how can we?''