El Salvador ghost town: left-right battles drive out those in middle

Nothing stirs in the ghost town of San Lorenzo except three dogs and a cat and the creaking metal door hiding the ruins of the church. Scraps of cloth, empty bottles, shoes and sandals, children's exercise books, and smashed plastic dolls cover the paving stones of the main street. Except for a few chairs, little furniture remains. Even beds and mattresses are gone.

In many of the small pastel pink and green adobe houses jammed together along the main street, the only objects of any value to survive the ransack of the town are framed religious pictures. Both sides in the conflict took care not to damage these symbols of religion.

San Lorenzo is said to have had a few thousand inhabitants at one time. Today there is not a sign of any of them.

With the recent guerrilla offensive and government counteroffensive, abandoned villages are no longer a rare sight in El Salvador.

The International Red Cross recently estimated that some 75,000 persons had fled their homes to other locations inside El Salvador. A Roman Catholic Church official says the figure has now risen to as many as 150,000.

That is a heavy burden for a country with a total population of only 4.7 million. And the Red Cross and church figures do not take into account the thousands of Salvadoran refugees who have fled all the way to neighboring Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.

With new arms apparently coming to both sides from abroad, the toll in refugees and abandoned villages may well grow for some months to come before it diminishes.

Traffic along the main road to San Salvador, which passes near here, appears to be normal. But a few miles off that road, one finds tension.

There are some indications that the government forces -- perhaps emboldened by President Reagan's commitment to the defense of El Salvador and by his promises of additional military aid -- are becoming more lavish in their use of firepower.

The refugees tend to move in two directions: Government supporters tend to head for the towns; guerrilla supporters tend to flee to more remote areas, including the mountains.

At San Lorenzo, meanwhile, the only sign that the guerrillas were here are slogans painted on the walls of the houses. These praise the revolution and proclaim "Death to the Fascist Tyranny." On a piece of cardboard found in a ransacked store, one guerrilla has written in a childish script full of spelling mistakes 18 rules to live by. These include admonitions, among other things, to rise at 5 a.m., to bathe each day, and to respect one's officers and fellow combatants. The fact that life among the guerrillas can be hard is reflected in point No. 10. It calls for "no complaining about the economic situation."

Trying to reconstruct who did what to whom in San Lorenzo is virtually impossible.Its inhabitants have fled. Many may now be with the guerrillas. People living near San Lorenzo are too traumatized to say much about what they know.

What seems clear is that San Lorenzo changed hands at least four times in recent weeks.But there are few signs of fighting in the town -- few bullet holes , for example, and no spent cartridges on the ground. But there were casualties. And the roof of the church collapsed, apparently under the impact of artillery or bombs.

"There were many killed," said an elderly woman at a village about a mile from San Lorenzo. And that was all that I could get from her aside from the words, "I don't know . . . I don't know . . . I don't know."

"I'm afraid of everyone now," declared a white-haired man, who said that his 30-year-old son was shot and killed near the main highway recently while in his sleep.

"If a strange child came down the road right now, I'd be afraid of that child ," the man said.

"There's no protection here."

What did he think of the guerrillas?

"I don't think anything."

Just when a few journalist colleagues and I got the impression that this man was beginning to relax a bit and talk more freely, his lips started to tremble. We decided to leave him in peace.

We saw only two young men in that village near San Lorenzo. It was a place of women, old men, and children.

We had been told that the refugees from San Lorenzo were in the village of Santa Clara, about half an hour by car from San Lorenzo. But at Santa Clara, we found a different group of refugees, numbering several hundred, as well as national guardsmen and civilians carrying rifles who claimed to have been attacked by guerrillas three times in recent weeks.

They said the guerrillas used, among other things, rocket- propelled grenades.Sandbags were piled at strategic corners of the village to protect riflemen. The guardsmen kept their helmets on and weapons ready. And the sergeant commanding the village paramilitary unit grasped his German-made automatic rifle in his hands at all times as he showed us the village. In 18 -degree heat, refugee children played soccer at the cement marketplace.

We were now told that the refugees from abandoned village of San Lorenzo might be in nearby town of San Vicente. But in San Vicente, we found yet another group of refugees. Some 400 of them were jammed together in an empty lot in huts made of tin, burlap bags, and bits and pieces of wood and cloth. The Red Cross and a Catholic relief organization provided food.

A middle-aged man among the refugees said he had fled his farm after the guerrillas asked him to join them. He refused their invitation, he said. Then one night a guerrilla organization left a cardboard sign outside his door denouncing him and his family. He decided it was time to leave. The Army was spread too thin to provide protection, he said.

"How could I join the guerrillas?" he asked."I have seven children to take care of."

We never did find the refugees from San Lorenzo.

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