An American graduate student doing research in El Salvador says that he saw Salvadoran government troops attack civilians during a military operation late last year.
It was not merely a matter of civilians being caught in a cross fire, says Philippe Bourgois, a student of social anthropology at Stanford University. The soldiers, he says, deliberately and repeatedly fired at the fleeing, unarmed civilians, most of them the relatives of antigovernment guerrillas.
Mr. Bourgois estimates that as many as 50 civilian noncombatants were killed and a considerably larger number wounded during the two-week-long military operation that took place starting Nov. 11 in the department of Cabanas, in northern El Salvador. Bourgois says he himself witnessed two killings, one of a boy who was hit by grenade fragments and the other of a woman who was struck by automatic weapons fire.
According to Bourgois, the Salvadoran military's ''cleanup'' operation, which took place in a 30-square-mile area bordering Honduras, amounted to a scorched-earth campaign. He says that government soldiers ripped apart granaries , trampled fields, burned huts, and shot farm animals. He says that guerrillas attempted to protect fleeing civilians by staying between them and the government troops but that when the guerrillas fired on the government troops there was a clear distance between them and the civilians. In other words, it was not a question of government troops firing at the civilians because guerrillas were mixed in among them. The civilians were, for the most part, on their own, Bourgois says, hiding during the day and moving at night.
Bourgois's account of the Cabanas operation coincides with reports from other sources of the mistreatment of civilians by the American-supported Salvadoran military forces. On Jan. 27, the Washington Post published a report from El Salvador quoting three survivors of an alleged massacre as saying that several hundred civilians, including women and children, were taken from their homes and killed in and around a village in the department of Morazon, located to the east of Cabanas during a December military operation. The New York Times, in an account published Jan. 28, said that villagers had compiled a list of the names, ages and villages of 733 peasants, mostly children, women and old people, who said they were murdered in that operation by soldiers of the American-trained Atlacatl brigade.
These reports assumed added relevance this week, because President Reagan has submitted to the US Congress a document certifying among other things that the Salvadoran security forces have made a ''concerted and significant effort'' to end the killing and torture of civilians and to respect internationally recognized human rights. On Jan. 28, El Salvador's defense minister, Jose Guillermo Garcia, denied the report that as many as 733 civilians had been massacred in one area alone and charged that it was a propaganda event manufactured by internatinal subversives at a moment when El Salvador is seeking additional economic and military aid.
A guerrilla attack on Ilopango, El Salvador's largest air base, on Jan. 27 resulted in damage to a number of airplanes and American-supplied UH-1H helicopters. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., had indicated in an interview with the Monitor last August that El Salvador would need more helicopters. Following the attack on Ilopango, State Department spokesman Alan Romberg said that the US was reassessing El Salvador's assistance needs on an urgent basis.
In his account of the Cabanas military operation, meanwhile, Philippe Bourgois says that American-supplied helicopters fired with their machine guns at anything that moved. French-made Fouga-Magister jets, acquired by the El Salvador government some years ago from Israel, dropped bombs. At one point he said that the cries of babies gave away the nighttime position he and other civilians were in, and government troops shot directly into the sound of the crying infants.
''You hear about human-rights violations in El Salvador,'' said Bourgois in an interview. ''But when you see women and children getting killed, then you understand what human rights mean.''
Bourgois is an American citizen whose father, a Frenchman, Pierre Bourgois, works in New York as director of United Nations development programs for Europe. Bourgois traveled to Honduras to examine the feasibility of doing fieldwork among Salvadoran refugees and then went to the region in El Salvador which the refugees formerly inhabited. There had been no fighting there since March 1981. Bourgois intended to stay there only 48 hours, he says, but got caught in the military operation and only escaped 16 days later by swimming across the Rio Lempa to Honduras.