US role in resettling Salvadoreans under fire. Critics say US money helps Army's fight against guerrillas

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Some 50 families are rebuilding their houses here under the shadow of the Guazapa volcano - site of the Salvadorean government's first resettlement project. The villagers, mostly poor farmers, left their homes here six years ago when the Army ordered them to leave. ``They told us to leave for 15 days, and it ended up being six years,'' one wrinkled elderly woman said.

There wasn't much to return to. Army operations and heavy bombing had left the hamlet's small church roofless and many homes destroyed. And thieves had taken what was left. Nevertheless, the villagers are happy to be home.

Most of the project's funds come from the United States Agency for International Development (AID), which characterizes the assistance as purely humanitarian.

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AID's critics disagree. Many relief and development agencies say AID's shift from relief work to resettling people displaced by the civil war corresponds to a similar shift in the Army's strategy. The Army has removed people from areas of conflict, but now it is beginning to resettle the displaced in areas where fighting continues, though not necessarily in their original villages. Critics say AID's program is aimed more at helping the Army consolidate control of strategic parts of the countryside than helping the displaced return home.

AID ``told us the Army was making all the critical decisions in the resettlement program. AID told us the military will choose the projects, the locations, and even who the beneficiaries are,'' said a member of an agency approached by AID to participate in the program. AID ``said, in effect, that if we couldn't handle that, not to get on board,'' he added, asking not to be identified.

Many US private voluntary agencies have long refused to work with AID because they view AID as a major protagonist in El Salvador's seven-year war against leftist guerrillas. AID has played a major role in feeding and housing those displaced by the war. But some relief organizations say that in its relief work AID has collaborated with the Army's strategy of forcibly removing civilians from their homes in the rebel zones.

AID has had trouble finding agencies to accept funding for its resettlement project. AID's program ``was one step too far,'' said an agency head who declined to participate. ``It was involving us with AID's and the Army's counterinsurgency plans, and that wasn't acceptable.''

AID officials deny the military controls their resettlement effort or that it is part of the Army's war plan. But Ichanqueso and several other resettlement sites being prepared with AID funding are located in the strategic military zone near the Guazapa volcano, which the Army has designated a priority area under its counterinsurgency plan.

The volcano region was a major guerrilla stronghold until January 1986 when the Army launched its longest, most intense operation to clear the sides of the volcano of rebels and their civilian supporters. At the time, the Army said that once the volcano flanks were cleared they would resettle the area as part of its plan.

World Relief, a conservative evangelical group carrying out AID's resettlement program here, agrees the Army played a major role in selecting sites in the Guazapa area. Asked if World Relief's work might be seen as political, one member said,``Not as long as they can't pinpoint World Relief and say we're 100 percent connected to the US or the Salvadorean government. We manage to be in the middle. The way we work with the military is not direct. It's through CONARA [the National Committee for the Reconstruction of Areas].''

CONARA, a civilian agency, was formed in 1983 to help carry out the Army's counterinsurgency plan in two strategic provinces. The Army's 1983 National Plan tried to clear entire provinces of the rebels. Its new plan, United to Rebuild, is concentrating on controlling priority areas in each of the country's 14 provinces.

AID gives CONARA money. In 1986, AID quadrupled CONARA's budget to $18 million. General Adolfo Blandon said he hopes AID will give $56 million this year to the Army's war projects. He said AID gave 70 percent of the funds last year. The government gave the rest.

``Without AID there would be no United to Rebuild,'' one nongovernmental political analyst said.

AID has had trouble finding agencies to work with because of its role in Vietnam pacification programs. Many agencies, working with AID funding, felt their principles of humanitarian aid had been compromised by their close involvement in what later became publicly recognized as a counterinsurgency plan - the AID-funded CORDS pacification program. And it turned out that the CORDS program had close links with the US Central Intelligence Agency. US advisers who designed El Salvador's 1983 counterinsurgency plan said it was modeled on the CORDS pacification plan.

Shunned by many main-line agencies, AID has come to depend on World Relief, a branch of the National Association of Evangelicals. World Relief gets its $1.31 million budget for El Salvador from AID. AID relies on other conservative groups such as the Knights of Malta and Family Foundation USA to help in its resettlement plans.

While people are glad to be back, there is no doubt who is in control. The Army checks those entering the village and it patrols the village's edges. ``They still don't trust us completely,'' a villager said.

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