Hope flickers among Salvadoreans as bombed town is revived

A hopeful banner reading ``Tenancingo -- seed of peace'' hangs across the dirt road leading into the former ghost town. Six months ago the streets were overgrown with weeds and littered with rusty sewing machines and cash registers. Now the weeds are gone, and the sounds of hammers and trowels repairing the damage done by war and the elements can be heard.

Tenancingo was abandoned in September 1983 when Salvadorean Air Force jets attacked the town in an attempt to prevent guerrillas from overrunning it. At least 50 civilians were killed in what the Army later admitted was ``a tragic mistake.''

After a series of delicate negotiations with both the United States-backed Army and the leftist rebels, the Roman Catholic Church worked out a plan to repopulate the former town of 3,000. In late January of this year, 56 families moved back to Tenancingo. Now, over 80 families have returned and have completed the initial phase of repairing the damages.

In El Salvador, where the six-year civil war has displaced over half a million people, the repopulation of Tenancingo is an important experiment and is being carefully watched. It reflects the hope for local solutions in the midst of a war that seems destined to grind on for many more years.

Still, Tenancingo remains a fragile dream set in the midst of a war zone. It's existence depends on an unwritten agreement, backed by the Catholic Church, between the Army and the rebels not to establish a fixed post in the town. But project organizers are deeply concerned over recent Army actions, which include:

Occupation of the town by several hundred soldiers in early May. They used the town as a command post for operations in surrounding hamlets; set up morters in the main square; and put out land mines at night.

Entrance of the town, on Feb. 14, by troops. They killed an unarmed drunk who had run into a house to hide; reportedly raped one woman; and captured several rebels who had been in town. The Army apologized for the killing and says the unit commander has been disciplined. Since then troops have been better behaved.

The ongoing campaign of harrassment and ``psychological warfare'' against the project. The Army has accused returning civilians of being guerrilla sympathizers. Soldiers have spread rumors trying to discourage more families from returning. The Army has established a checkpoint on the access road to Tenancingo, allowing civilians to bring into the zone only the amount of food and materials that the Army thinks is necessary for them and their families.

Political observers say that although the Army claims to support the resettlement project, the independent nature of the project runs counter to the Army's overall counterinsurgency plan, which seeks to control the activity of the population in the conflictive zones.

Tenancingo sits in the midst of a rebel-dominated zone. Rebels often enter the town, and the Army says they make purchases there. Townspeople and Fundasal employees say the purchases are minimal and that they leave the townspeople alone. Fundasal -- the Salvadorean Foundation for Development and Basic Housing -- is an independent private foundation that is lending technical assistance to the town. Still, the employees would prefer that the rebels came to town less often, because they say it gives the Army a reason to come in.

``Tenancingo is [in] a zone of revolutionary control. This is a zone liberated by the [Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front] FMLN [guerrillas], and we would have to defend it,'' says guerrilla leader C'esar Ortiz, a soft-spoken young man. But most of the time the guerrillas just melt away when the more heavily armed and more numerous Army troops enter the area.

Political analysts suspect that the Army wants to regain control over the town by establishing a police force or a civil defense unit. But the townspeople are opposed to civil defense. The Army promotes civil defense patrols throughout the country, which arm the townspeople as a paramilitary force against rebels.

``We don't want any authority [the word used for government police forces] here,'' says an old woman in a white dress. ``What we want is peace. We're safe here. We're better off by ourselves.''

``People's opposition to civil defense isn't an ideological question. It's not a question of disliking the Army or liking the guerrillas,'' says a knowledgeable source. ``The people know that if the Army establishes a base or civil defense [program], the guerrillas will attack it, and the whole cycle will start again.''

Observers say the Army is trying new tactics. The latest ploy, they say, was to circulate a story that 25 families were leaving Tenancingo because they were scared of the guerrillas and because there was no government security. In reality, the evacuated families turned out to be civilian rebel supporters from an area north of Tenancingo who had asked the International Red Cross to remove them because of increased Army pressure. The observers say that with the false stories the Army is trying to justify civil defense or a police presence.

Some observers doubt if Tenancingo can be a model for the rest of El Salvador.

``I think it's worth doing but [it is] not the solution,'' says a Salvadorean development worker. ``It's not Salvadorean reality. In Tenancingo, the Army won't abuse the people. Those 80 families are safe [because] the whole world is watching. But anywhere else in the Salvadorean countryside, the Army does what they want . . . that still leaves another 5 million Salvadoreans.''

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