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Salvador rebels: soccer, song, M-16s

Irma, the local political leader, interrupts the afternoon festivities with an announcement: A government military attack is expected very soon on this guerrilla mountain base.

Despite the news, the crowd of men, women, and children -- supporters of the guerrilla cause -- lingers to hear the last few songs in this afternoon's gathering. Except for the songs and the revolutionary slogans, the only difference from a typical Salvadoran rural scene is the firearms. The men, many of them teen-agers, carry automatic weapons over their shoulders.

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Less than 15 miles as a crow flies north of San Salvador, the nation's capital, the Guazapa area lies in one of four major regions that guerrillas claim to control.

This reporter and three other journalists have traveled to rebel-held territory to better understand the rebellion under way here. We spent two days with guerrilla forces and their families.

Several hundred people have gathered for this afternoon's meeting. Women in the crowd nurse babies; girls in clean, brightly colored dresses laugh self-consciously; and young children run through a sea of legs. It is an afternoon off from the daily chores of tending crops and livestock, grinding corn for tortillas -- and planning nighttime sabotage missions and running political training and weapons classes.

The intense fighting in this country follows a period of 50 years of military rule and of two elections in the 1970s in which the military refused to allow winners to take office.

The current full-scale guerrilla war traces back in part to a 1979 coup by military ''progressives.'' From the military point of view, that step and the others before it were seen at the time as necessary to maintain order.

But the left refused to support the 1979 coup. And then even some moderate members of the civilian-military leadership left the government, claiming the military would not permit reforms; two of these former ruling officials joined the left. The guerrillas now seek broader popular support to try to topple the government.

Visits to guerrilla-held areas by some reporters are pre-arranged with the help of guerrilla leaders who have become very adept at public relations. Our visit was not pre-arranged. (The visit came after this reporter's request for interviews with military leaders of the government was denied. A government military spokesman said the military felt swamped by the requests from the scores of international journalists here now.)

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US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger emphasize the outside influence in the revolt here. They blame Cuba, Nicaragua, and, indirectly, the Soviet Union for sending arms here and training troops in an effort to establish a communist government.

The United States is sending arms to El Salvador and training troops both here and in the US in an effort to keep a noncommunist government.

Leftist leaders do not deny receiving arms from other nations, including arms made in the US and sold through black-market channels. But there is little evidence of much outside military personnel except for the 50-or-so military advisers the US has sent here to help the government forces.

El Salvador's defense minister, Jose Guillermo Garcia, recently told reporters a Nicaraguan ''commander'' had been caught in this country helping leftists. But, he says, no other foreign combat personnel are known to be in the country - on either side.

The most visible element of the guerrilla effort here is a local one. Most of the guerrillas, family members, and others living in this guerrilla territory say this is their home. They went to school here and grew up in this rural area. Others, like Irma (a name not her own but one she uses during the war - a common practice here) came here from nearby villages. Still others who once lived here have fled to refugee camps or other lodging.

To reach this area, we used a rented pickup truck (with two of us sitting in the open in back) to travel through and beyond government-controlled military lines. We entered a sort of no man's territory and drove up a narrow, unpaved road with cliffs on either side. With a sign ''International Press'' (in Spanish) on the windshield and the letters ''TV'' on the roof to reduce risk of strafing by a government plane, we drove slowly into guerrilla territory, honking the horn.

We had not gone far when a group of young guerrillas on guard at a house spotted us and, waving automatic weapons at us, yelled for us to get out with our hands out. We did . . . promptly.

After a few minutes of explaining who we were and why we had come, we were taken further up the road to a tiny, deserted village badly damaged in previous battles. While waiting for an answer to a written message they sent further up the mountainside about our arrival, several guerrillas alleged that a ''massacre'' by government troops had taken place nearby last year in which many women and children were murdered.

Such allegations are frequent here - by both sides. Efforts to track down such claims take considerable time and are seldom definitive.

On the one hand, many of the guerrillas here live with their families and flee with them in case of government attack. This increases the risk to civilians in time of an attack like the one pending as we sat interviewing people at the gathering near Guazapa.

El Salvador leaders have complained that the international press often is biased and paints a positive picture of the left and a negative picture of the center-right government.

According to both El Salvador's military, and even some who support the left, some civilians have been killed by the guerrillas. And the guerrillas are wreaking considerable economic havoc here by blowing up bridges, electrical generating stations, buses, and other targets, according to the government.

Amnesty International (a human-rights organization), a legal aid office of the Salvadoran Roman Catholic Church, and other sources contend that the military and paramilitary forces of the right are responsible for many excesses in their crackdowns. These excesses account for the vast majority of civilian deaths, according to Amnesty and the other sources.

A government spokesman here, when asked about the alleged excesses by the right, said: ''We have a new army.''

At an evening meal here in the dark (electricity has long been cut to this rebel area), our host said that we were in his house. It is a small, adobe brick house with a tin roof. Our meal of beans and tortillas, the most common meal here, had been prepared in an open lean-to kitchen behind the house.

Nearby are small plots of corn and beans. A few cows, pigs, and horses graze within sight of the house. The family's large plastic water jug is filled regularly at a nearby spring.

Unless government troops destroy the crops here and stop the constant guerrilla filtration through military lines, people here will have enough food to last for a long war.

We are offered salt, a precious commodity up here since it must be brought in -- at considerable risk. Corn, beans, and coffee are also snuck in to supplement supplies grown locally. Things like batteries, paper, and shoes must also be smuggled through the government lines.

Our first night we sleep on the floor of a one-classroom school with a small adjoining office that now serves as a clinic. In the clinic, a teen-age boy explains how he and three young girls treat uncomplicated wounds of guerrillas.

The four have had only a week or so of training. Minor surgery is performed by a local woman working with the resistance, according to Irma. But there is no doctor or priest in the area. We saw two local churches lying in desecrated waste.

Teen-agers and older guerrillas get only ''a day -- a week'' of initial training before they may go into battle, with a total of 15 days to a month of training later on, says Irma.

In a notebook of one of the medical attendants are lessons from a local political class. The apparently copied paragraphs include these phrases under the heading ''Political Education'': ''We should leave personal love to liberate the people from the oppression to which they have been submitted. . . . Never look for personal interests but (to) collective interests. . . . Honesty is the moral basis for a militant revolutionary.''

Not long after the songs that afternoon, on a hillside clearing, a group of shirtless young men are hard at play - soccer with a deflated ball. A machine gun belonging to one of the players lies on a rock on the sidelines.

Among weapons this reporter saw during the visit here were M-16s (an American automatic rifle used in Vietnam), M-1s (an American semi-automatic rifle in World War II), various makes of machine guns, a German automatic weapon, Smith and Wesson pistols, a High Standard pistol made in Connecticut with the serial number appearing to be S59368.

The March 1 issue of Business Week magazine reports that guerrillas also are getting their hands on more sophisticated weaponry. Among these weapons: hand-held, armor-piercing RPG-2 rockets; M-60s and 30-mm. machine guns; and the recently acquired RPG-7s, rockets capable of bringing down helicopters.

Teen-agers walk about with machine guns over their shoulders or pistols stuck into their belts. Irma had a pistol stuck in her back pocket while giving her speech at the festivities.

The sounds of mortars and rifles being fired are heard frequently here on most days. Guerrillas claim that often the military fires them in the air. During this reporter's stay in the area, only a few kilometers from a highway lined with government soldiers, there was no evidence of mortar or rifles doing any damage.

Government forces have entered this area at least eight times in the past two years, according to the guerrillas. But there has not been an attack here for more than five months, they say.

Irma offers a theory for the lull (which ended with the latest government attack): It maintains the ''farce'' of a peaceful time and thereby encourages all sides to campaign for the March 28 elections of the national constituent assembly. The left has refused to run candidates; members of the left say it would be unsafe to do so.

General Garcia says the military's latest attacks on guerrilla areas are in response to guerrilla efforts to sabotage the electoral process.

Yet with an attack likely at any moment, there are smiles, laughs, and a relaxed atmosphere. Only one elderly woman looks tense. Repeatedly, when asked, young guerrillas casually tell this reporter they are not afraid.

Political speeches by people like Irma, who now study Lenin, Mao, and other communists, may stir the people. But there is something here -- something has had to bother them for a long time to make them take up arms, risking not only their lives but the lives of their families.

Our dinner host explained one reason. For years, he says, he has worked for very little on land belonging to someone else. Now, he says quietly, he is looking for ''justice.''

It should be noted here that government-sponsored land reform - to help farmers like our host -- is making progress in other (non-rebel) parts of the country. While land reform has not move ahead as fast or as far as once hoped, it has proven to be one of the most progressive programs in Latin America.

And so the guerrillas go about their daily chores, plus the new task of fighting a war, using pseudonyms as a slim possible protection in case they lose.

But how long can they go on? Can they win? How? And who is winning now? Both sides claim they are gaining. But that is not clear from here. How does one measure the progress of a war with shifting fronts and some semi-stationary fronts that have to be reestablished over and over again?

With these unanswered questions, we four journalists leave the guerrilla territory, waving a white flag, and hoping not to surprise any government soldiers into firing as we head their way. But our exit goes without event.

As we drive back to San Salvador, we pass truckloads of soldiers heading back the way we have just come. They attacked the area a few hours later.

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