San Salvador is ringed with slums - with thousands upon thousands of tottering shacks and sod hovels occupied by people who subsist on the generosity of relief agencies or what they can hustle in the streets.
Most of the Salvadoreans who live in these slums are not urban dwellers at heart. The majority fled to the capital to escape Army-guerrilla clashes in or near their villages. They have run away from falling mortar shells and buzzing helicopters. Some have fled from death squads.
They have left their work and all they know behind them. Many came with only a few belongings tucked into old coffee sacks.
The number of such displaced people - both in cities and in displaced persons camps - has reached what can only be called crisis proportions. There are 267, 000 displaced persons in the country - 52,000 of them uprooted since January 1983, according to the Salvadorean government. That is a high figure for a country of only 4.5 million people.
Officials from the United States Agency for International Development (AID) estimate that several thousand more displaced people are not in contact with the government. Thousands more Salvadoreans are in Honduras, Mexico, and the US. And it seems everyone here has a relative in Los Angeles.
Relief programs for the displaced are the largest components of US humanitarian assistance to this country. The relief efforts, which cost $27 million in 1983, are primarily run through two Salvadorean government agencies - the National Committee to Assist the Displaced Population (CONADES) and, to a lesser extent, the Directorate of Community Development (DIDECO).
CONADES supplies monthly rations of food to an estimated 200,000 people. Another 12,004 families get food under the US PL 480 Title II program. AID is also involved in rural work-generation programs, which at one time or another last year employed more than 100,000 people.
Although Salvadoreans and international relief workers are acutely aware of the need for food and work in a nation whose unemployment rate is between 30 and 50 percent, the US programs have come in for some heavy criticism.
Many private voluntary organizations, including the Roman Catholic archbishop's office, generally refuse to work with AID, which sponsors the programs. These organizations claim AID's programs are too closely tied to the Salvadorean military and government. The private groups say the government uses the aid, food aid in particular, as a weapon in the war against leftist guerrillas.
The government ''allows the Army to distribute food to reinforce the local power structures. They view this aid as another way to control the people,'' says a Catholic priest who works with the displaced population.
''When the Army finally comes to the town,'' says another source, ''they arrive with bags of US-donated food and give a self-promotion speech before handing the food out.''
AID also has programs it administers directly. AID has vaccinated 300,000 children and pregnant mothers in marginal areas and camps for displaced people.
Many critics here think CONADES and DIDECO monitor the displaced persons for military security forces. Both groups keep a census of the displaced population. AID officials say the census is used to calculate the number of work projects that should be undertaken in areas with high numbers of displaced persons.
In any case, food supplies for the displaced are sporadic. Often, US-supplied commodities, usually intended as emergency rations, are the only food available for the displaced. The European Community also provides some food.
''The displaced people,'' says a Roman Catholic relief worker who administers programs for displaced persons, ''suffer from severe malnutrition and we are seeing increasing cases of starvation.''
As the level of fighting intensifies here and more regions of the country are swept up in the war, the numbers of Salvadoreans leaving the countryside for the city grows. The level of poverty becomes all the more noticeable as well.
There are three categories of displaced people here.
* Those in dispersed groups, usually in urban areas.
Between 85 and 90 percent of the displaced fall into this group. These people occupy abandoned houses, move in with friends or relatives, or live in the tottering shacks that ring the nation's urban areas. These people may eventually make their way to camps. Relief workers report admitting persons into camps who have been living away from their homes for months.
* Those in ''closed camps.''
Such camps are usually run by private agencies. Those in the camps often have no personal documents and are therefore unable to leave the compounds even briefly. Closed camps offer the most security and sometimes have better resources to handle displaced persons.
* Those in ''open camps.''
These camps often have links with relief organizations but are not administered by any one organization. Occupants often do not have documents. In these camps people without documents are forced to rely on periodic and often inadequate food delivery and medical services. There are 22 such camps here.
In the vast majority of cases, the displaced come from battle zones. The Salvadorean military sometimes view the political allegiance of the people as suspect and closely monitor their activities.
CONADES, which administers some if the US aid, has chief investigators in 12 of El Salvador's 14 provinces. There are several DIDECO people working under each investigator. The organization tries to register and keep tabs on the fluctuating numbers of the displaced.
CONADES also has representatives in each of the major centers of displaced persons. Their representatives, who are chosen from the displaced community, report to local officials in a chain of command that reaches up to the national office. Although such reporting is heatedly criticized by some nongovernment relief officials, CONADES maintains that the local, provincial, and national lines of reporting serve to keep the national office informed about the needs of the displaced people.
Does the Salvadorean government, through CONADES and DIDECO, manipulate US aid as a weapon in the war?
The priest quoted above, who works with displaced persons, maintains that the government does such assistance to manipulate people. He says the government will make food aid available when it wants to, but also ''withholds food when it wants displaced people to return to agricultural production.''
Residents in the northern province of Morazan claim the Army has cut off food supplies north of San Francisco Gotera when rebels were suspected to be near.
The director of the displaced persons program for CONADES, David Antonio Peraza, concedes that the Army has distributed AID-supplied food, ''but only,'' he says, ''in conflictive zones where we cannot enter. We also work with the International Red Cross.''
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