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El Salvador's refugees at home -- an unreported toll of war

Lost amid the headlines about military exercises and possible peace negotiations in El Salvador is the growing human cost of the continued fighting there.

Six members of an ecumenical delegation just back from El Salvador say that the biggest uncovered story of the war is that of the thousands of Salvadoreans who have been displaced by the fighting.

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The number of displaced persons inside the country may now have reached more than 400,000, or nearly a 10th of the total population. This number does not include more than 200,000 refugees who have fled to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In addition to all these, some 500,000 Salvadoreans are believed to have come to the United States over the past four years.

Thus one out of every five Salvadoreans is either a refugee or a person displaced inside his own country. It is the latter group who have gone almost unnoticed by the international press, according to the recently returned ecumenical delegation to El Salvador sponsored by the Salvadorean Humanitarian Aid, Research, and Education Foundation in Washington, D.C. SHARE works closely with the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador.

The six-member team spent a week, July 18-25, looking at conditions in 10 refugee camps and two settlements for the displaced that are administered and supported by the Archdiocese of San Salvador. They also talked with government and private relief and human rights organizations.

One member of the group, Eileen M. Purcell of Catholic Social Service in San Francisco, said that the displaced Salvadoreans had ''a desperate need'' for food, clothing, medical equipment, and services.

But Ms. Purcell said that the greatest problem for the 3,500 people in the camps that her group visited was one of security. She said that some of the refugees spoke of being ''under attack'' by the Salvadorean government's military and security services. The people in these camps have refused to accept government assistance.

Some refugees also told the delegation that thousands of new refugees were being created by the government's drive into areas of San Vicente Province, which had been held by the guerrillas, and that some refugees were fleeing Salvadorean Air Force bombing and sweeps by troops.

Delegation members said that in the camps assisted by the Catholic Church, the refugees - the vast majority of whom are women and children - live in daily fear of surveillance and forced entry into the camps by government security forces. For example, delegation members say that on July 19 at the Domus Mariae camp at a church retreat center in San Salvador, several armed men entered the grounds and attempted to abduct two young refugee men. The intruders were encircled by women and children from the camp who cried and pleaded with the men until they released their captives. But delegation members said that before leaving, the armed men struck an elderly man and woman and broke several windows. Delegation members say this incident was one of several involving security forces that occurred while the group was in El Salvador.

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A report issued recently by Americas Watch, a New York-based human rights organization, also speaks of raids on refugee camps by Salvadorean security forces, and said that those who provide relief services to displaced persons in such camps appear to be particular targets of violence. It cited as one example the case of Angel Ibarra, a physician working with the Lutheran church's refugee program in El Salvador, who was reported to have been arrested by the national police on April 26 of this year and later tortured.

The ecumenical delegation to El Salvador sponsored by SHARE did not visit refugee camps that are receiving government assistance or aid from the US Agency for International Development (AID). A State Department official said that contrary to the allegation made by refugees to the ecumenical delegation, the US-supported government offensive in San Vincente Province was not displacing a significant number of people and that an effort was being made to permit those who had been displaced by earlier fighting to return home.

State Department and AID officials said the Salvadorean government was assisting some 245,000 displaced persons, while the International Committee of the Red Cross and CARITAS were aiding 80,000 and 70,000 respectively.

An AID official said that about $10 million in US government aid was being devoted to a two-year program designed to provide displaced persons with work projects and primary health care, as well as oral rehydration for 20,000 infants and immunizations for 400,000 children under five years of age. The official said that AID was also giving technical assistance to the Salvadorean government commission delivering food to refugees in San Vicente Province.

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