AS El Salvador's civil war enters its sixth year, the Army is focusing on what it sees as the rebels' weak point: civilian supporters living in rebel zones. Since January, more than 2,000 civilians have been removed or forced to flee their homes because of Army operations in these zones. Mao Tse-tung once wrote that guerrillas ``swim among the people like a fish in the sea.'' The Army's goal is clear: drain the sea.
Although the Army's strategy isn't new, its tactics are. The Army has targeted the civilian population living in rebel zones since the beginning of the war because the Army says the civilians are guerrilla sympathizers. Civilian families grow food for the guerrillas, who are often family members. Early in the war the Army massacred large numbers of civilians during sweeps through the zones. This reinforced civilian hatred of the Army and strengthened their commitment to the rebel cause.
In 1982 and 1983, as rebel ranks grew, the rebels were able to prevent the Army from easily entering the increasingly consolidated rebel ``zones of control.'' They began to elect local governments.
But in 1984, the tide of war shifted in favor of the government. The Army, backed by a growing arsenal of planes and helicopters, increasingly forced the civilians to leave their homes by bombing and restricting the entry of food and medicine into the area.
A major increase in United States-supplied helicopters in 1985 allowed the Army to quickly transport troops into the middle of a rebel zone. Last April, helicopter-borne troops swooped into the rebel zone around the Guazapa volcano. They quickly captured and removed more than 400 civilians.
The biggest removal of civilians took place earlier this year when the Army began its Operation Phoenix program. The Army removed more than 1,000 civilians living in the Guazapa rebel zone. It was the longest and most thorough of more than 20 operations carried out on the volcano in the last five years.
The Army then captured more civilians in Chalatenango Province, including some who had fled Guazapa.
The captured civilians have been placed in Roman Catholic Church refugee camps or turned over to families. Calle Real, the church's largest refugee camp, grew from 150, before the Army operations, to about 700. Other church camps have also grown rapidly.
The displaced say they want to return to their homes in the rebel zones. Until now, they have tenaciously stayed in the rebel zones despite aerial bombardment and attempts to starve them out. During Operation Phoenix many civilians spent more than two weeks hiding in caves and bomb shelters before Army troops, burning everything in their path, discovered their hideouts and flushed them out.
One group made an eight-day journey from Guazapa north to Chalatenango Province, which included a night-long crossing of a reservoir on makeshift rafts. Traveling by night they avoided Army patrols with the help of local people. Finally they sought sanctuary in a church in El Carrizal. But they were forced to surrender to the Army. Before the civilians were taken to the Calle Real refugee camp, many of the men were fingerprinted and photographed.
``We all want to go back,'' says one woman who made the trek. ``We want to work our lands, that's what we are used to. We don't want to live as refugees on charity.''
But the government and the Army oppose their return.
``Many of them have been influenced to be a rear-guard for the guerrillas,'' says Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes, El Salvador's minister of communications. ``It would be absurd to let people who support the guerrillas be able to return to where they could help the guerrillas again.''
Although the Geneva Conventions governing warfare say that civilians can only be relocated to protect their own safety (and not because they might support a guerrilla insurgency), population relocation has been a standard part of most counterinsurgency efforts. Examples: the British campaign in Malaysia in the 1950s, the strategic hamlets in Vietnam, the model villages in Guatemala, and last year's relocation of Nicaraguans in the northern border conflict zones.
The Catholic Church thinks the peasants should be allowed to return to their homes. ``The church supports their return but the Archbishop [Arturo Rivera y Damas] is aware that the government and the Army aren't very willing,'' says one church official who asked not to be named. ``But still the desire is that they return and we will do what we can within the possibilities of the church.''
When the church opened its refugee camps in 1980, few imagined that the war would last six years. Now, with no end to the war in sight, the church is closing its refugee camps in the capital. It is transferring the people to the Calle Real camp, apparently for no more than six months, until they can find a longer-term solution. In the past, the church resettled some of the refugees. However, land is scarce in El Salvador and the refugees were sometimes persecuted by local authorities who distrusted them for their previous ties to the rebels, church sources say.
Analysts agree that both the church and the government lack the capability to resettle the new refugees. The war has already displaced half a million civilians (out of a population of nearly 5 million).
Most of the displaced live in poor shantytowns in urban areas. Most are ill-equipped for urban existence because many are illiterate peasant farmers and know only how to work the land.
Even if they had the necessary skills to find work, it would be difficult to find work since more than half of all Salvadoreans are under- or unemployed, according to government statistics.