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Two views from behind the lines in El Salvador's civil war

Two men who once met on the same side of the guerrilla war in El Salvador now hold opposing views. Charles Clements, a former US Air Force officer who is a Quaker and a physician, has worked for a year as a physician with the civilian population in a guerrilla-held region north of El Salvador's capital city of San Salvador. Arquimedes Antonio Canadas, better known in El Salvador by his guerrilla name Alejandro Montenegro, met Dr. Clements when Canadas commanded the central front for a guerrilla faction known as the People's Revolutionary Army. Canadas was captured last year and changed his views on the war. Canadas now favors American military aid to the Salvadorean government. Clements has argued in congressional hearings that it ought to be cut.m

The former Salvadorean guerrilla commander known as Alejandro Montenegro says his most bitter moment came just two weeks before the 1982 Salvadorean elections.

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He and his men had moved down from the Guazapa volcano into the northern outskirts of San Salvador. The idea was to occupy a workers' barrio at Cuscatancingo and to hold a propaganda meeting.

But the workers and their families did not welcome the guerrillas as they might have done a few years previously. They kept their doors closed. It was March 15, 1982.

''Before, they gave us water, food, even clothes,'' says Arquimedes Antonio Canadas, alias Alejandro Montenegro. ''This time no one came out. No one offered us even a glass of water.''

The original order was for the guerrillas to stay in the barrio for three days. Mr. Canadas knew from the start that this was unrealistic. The headquarters of the Salvadorean government's National Guard was close by. After coming under fire from the National Guard and the Army, the guerrillas were barely able to cling to their positions for four hours, much less three days. Ten of Canadas' men were killed, including Xavier, the chief of a column of troops and member of the Guazapa headquarters.

''It was a disaster,'' Canadas recalls.

The guerrilla commander says that when the national elections came on March 28, his unit did not have orders to disrupt the voting. But some of his men were so angry and frustrated about the large turnout, he says, that they fired on voters going to the polls at the outskirts of San Salvador. The turnout was ''final proof'' the guerrillas no longer had enough popular support to win the war, Canadas says.

The stocky Canadas was captured in Honduras last August. By that time, he said in an interview, his disillusionment with the guerrilla movement was complete. He said he and several others who had been captured were sent back to El Salvador, where he was persuaded to accept an offer of amnesty. His former comrades in the People's Revolutionary Army, known as ERP, accused him of treason.

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As Canadas describes it, the guerrilla movement had enjoyed great popular support in the late 1970s, but the guerrilla leaders had fought among themselves , missed opportunities, and finally begun to alienate the civilian population through a strategy of economic sabotage.

Canadas said he joined a clandestine, antigovernment organization in 1976, when it was a popular thing for him and his fellow secondary-school students to do. The 1972 elections had been a farce, he says, with the Army arresting the winning presidential candidate and throwing him out of the country. When the Army and security forces cracked down on the students, it merely served to ''radicalize'' them, he says.

Canadas says his first jobs with the guerrillas consisted of supplying information on banks in the city of San Salvador, doing propaganda work with transportation workers, and planting bombs aimed at blowing up political party buildings.

The former guerrilla commander says that by 1980, when he was serving in an important position on the central front, based in the Guazapa region, he began to find fault with the ERP's top leader, Commander Joaquin Villalobos. The ERP has the most powerful military force of the five main guerrilla factions. Mr. Villalobos is now considered by some observers to be the most important of all guerrilla commanders in El Salvador.

According to Canadas, the ERP started out as a nonaligned movement. He says he and the other students who joined the movement did not want it to be linked with either the United States or the Soviet Union. Some members were critical of Cuba's actions, in Angola, for example. But Canadas accused Villalobos of betraying the movement's principles and tying it to Cuba in a manner that allowed the Cubans to ''direct'' the movement. He also accuses Villalobos and other top guerrilla commanders of spending too much time outside El Salvador, mostly in Nicaragua.

Villalobos had become ''vain and arrogant,'' and the guerrilla commanders had all ''converted themselves into bureaucrats,'' says Canadas.

Canadas says he visited Cuba in July 1981, along with three other ERP commanders. In Havana, he says, they met with Cuban intelligence officers and briefed them on the progress of the war. The Cubans, he says, gave the four men instructions as to how they ought to proceed.

Canadas quoted Villalobos as saying the Cubans were the ''pivot'' of the revolution in Central America.

Canadas asserts that the M-16 rifles his ERP guerrillas used had come to El Salvador from Cuba by way of Nicaragua. They were American-made weapons that had been captured by the Vietnamese communists, he says.

''The Cubans didn't create the problems of El Salvador, but they have manipulated them,'' the former guerrilla commander says.

Canadas, who says he directed the successful January 1982 guerrilla attack on the Ilopango air base on the eastern outskirts of San Salvador, says the Salvadorean guerrillas who carried out that action were trained in Cuba.

He says political and economic reforms carried out by the US-supported government of El Salvador have diminished support for the guerrillas during the past few years. But, he says that it would not be possible to defeat the guerrillas in the short-term through military means and that the government forces should not even try to do this.

He recommends instead a political settlement that would include elections and offer the guerrillas a way out of the armed struggle.

If the guerrillas were destroyed, it might prevent El Salvador from developing into a pluralistic society, he says, because there would be no ''counterweight'' to balance the powerful right-wing forces in El Salvador.

Canadas considers it too dangerous to live in El Salvador at the moment. While visiting the United States, he is said to have had US government protection.

The ERP, meanwhile, has accused Canadas of giving information to the Salvadorean Army about the location of guerrilla camps and positions in the guerrillas' Guazapa zone. According to a guerrilla radio broadcast, this has resulted in more effective ground and air attacks on guerrilla positions there.

Charlie Clements was hiding in the bush on a Saturday in El Salvador, listening on his radio to a Notre Dame football game.

He could imagine 60,000 fans cheering wildly and eating hot dogs.

Dr. Clements had been eating tortillas.

For Charlie Clements, El Salvador was no game. He is an American physician who has worked for a year in villages in the guerrilla-held Guazapa zone north of the capital city of San Salvador. Now he was fleeing with those civilians. A US-trained Army battalion had moved into one of the villages. People were now hiding in a forested area, waiting for the government troops to leave.

It was Oct. 16, 1982. Notre Dame lost the game to Arizona 16-13.

''That was a time of reflection for me on the contradictions that exist in this world,'' Clements recalls. ''I carry a small radio, usually to listen to the news reports, and we can often figure out where soldiers are from what the radio in San Salvador is saying.

''I picked up the Notre Dame football game. . . . It was just such a contrast to the 350 civilians I was hiding with, who were hovering there, wondering if these US-trained soldiers were going to come after them in the hills and slaughter them.''

''We hid in the bush for two and a half days, and were very lucky, because sometimes these stints in the bush last two weeks, depending on how long the soldiers stay,'' Clements says. ''Luckily the tortillas lasted long enough. . . . We watched the smoke from the village and heard a lot of gunfire.

''According to Clements, such a stint in the bush is called an aguinda,m a very Salvadorean word, not found in the dictionary, which he says means, ''to flee in the middle of the night with everything you've got.''

This particular flight into the night ended with the villagers returning to damaged houses and property. The only blessing was that the soldiers, slowed by village militia fighters and apparently fearing they might be isolated, did not have time to burn all the houses.

''The only thing that the guerrillas could figure out was that . . . the soldiers were afraid that they would be cut off if guerrilla reinforcements came ,'' Clements says. ''It takes time to set fire to all the houses, because the houses are made of adobe, and what they set fire to is the roof beams, and then the roofs collapse.

''The soldiers had broken every fork, spoon, children's toy, and picture of family or saint, Clements says. They had burned all the food stores of corn and beans, and killed all the livestock.'

'What struck me was the minuteness of their destruction,'' Clements says. ''Their ability to find what was hidden really surprised me. They dug up everything. . . . They dug up a sewing machine that one family had hidden very, very well.''

''This village had been invaded before, but the destruction hadn't been like this,'' he continues. ''I didn't hear any real sobs. These people are so courageous. They're so used to coming back, and starting over, and rebuilding. But the sobs really started to come when they saw that the pictures of their saints were smashed.''

The physician says that in the midst of the destruction he found an old man, a former patient named Miguel, who had been too feeble to flee the village and who had turned down an offer to be carried.

''Miguel had said, 'I'm tired of running,' and 'What would they do to an old man anyway?' '' Clements recalls.

According to Clements, the soldiers tortured Miguel and then killed him.

''That is not unusual in my experience for civilians that get caught by soldiers in these sweep operations,'' the physician says. ''I've seen many civilians with marks of torture, or mutilation. . . . I think it's worse than Vietnam in terms of the brutality.''

The soft-spoken Clements describes his work as that of a ''country doc,'' constantly moving around a guerrilla region only 20 miles north of San Salvador.

Although the 225-square-mile Guazapa volcano stronghold is small compared with other guerrilla-held zones, it has a certain symbolic significance given its nearness to the capital city.

Clements says he knew of four other North Americans working in the guerrilla zone, one as a medic, one in education, and two as combatants. He claims one of the combatants was a Vietnam veteran.

Clements says the Salvadorean Army had put a price on the heads of all foreigners working with the guerrillas, offering as much as $5,000 or more to anyone who turned in such a foreigner. But he says the Salvadorean guerrillas were not eager to have foreigners carry on their struggle for them. He said there were no Cubans or Nicaraguans fighting in the Guazapa region.

''They will not allow them [Cubans and Nicaraguans],'' Clements says. ''They are afraid that it would provoke - or give a pretext - to the US to respond. They have said the Cubans may come there as teachers afterward. They aren't sure about that. But they would not allow them to participate now.''

Clements also says he saw no evidence that the Cubans or Nicaraguans had shipped arms to the Salvadorean guerrillas. He says guerrillas told him they had obtained their M-16 rifles from the international market - in Panama and in the United States - and not from Nicaragua, as the Reagan administration alleges.

Clements says the guerrillas' treatment of noncombatants and prisoners in the Guazapa zone has been humane.

In three incidents this year, guerrillas in the most radical of the leftist-led groups in El Salvador - the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL) - reportedly have executed prisoners of war.

Clements says he is certain this is not the policy of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the umbrella organization of the five main guerrilla factions in El Salvador. He suspects there may be a breakaway faction of the FPL that has been mistreating prisoners.

Clementshas been working with prisoners in the rebel-held zone, checking their health and making contact with the International Red Cross so prisoners can send letters to families.The physician says he does not think government-sponsored elections in El Salvador offer a solution to the conflict, as the Reagan administration proposes. In his view, it would be impossible for the guerrillas to participate in such elections, given the losses their political representatives have suffered in previous years in San Salvador at the hands of assassination teams.

He attributes the large turnout in the March 1982 election to a desire for peace and a desire on the part of many Salvadoreans to get their identity cards stamped and thus stay on the right side of the authorities.

Clements acknowledges that most of the military leaders in the guerrilla movement are Marxists. He thinks they will try to establish a ''socialist government'' in El Salvador, which would permit private enterprise. But he does not see that as a threat to the US. He favors a negotiated settlement

Before going to El Salvador, Clements worked as a family physician in Salinas , Calif., where he met Salvadorean refugees, many of whom, he says, were farm workers and bore marks of torture. The experience ''transformed abstractions about repression into very real human tragedy,'' he says.

Clements, who says he graduated No. 2 in his US Air Force Academy class, served as an Air Force/transport pilot in Vietnam. He says became disillusioned with the r and decided to stop flying. As a result; the Air Force gave him a psychiatric discharge, he says. Clements adds that he was willing to fly for the Air Force elsewhere, but his superiors couldn't tolerate his refusal to continue to fly in Vietnam. ''I was disobeying orders . . . and they didn't know what to do with me,'' he says.

During his current stay in the United States, Clements has gathered, mostly through speaking appearances, more than $100,000 to buymedicine, which he intends to send back to the guerrilla zone.

A Quaker, Clements says he is committed to nonviolence.Does he think that the guerrillas' use of violence is justified?''The Christian principle of nonviolence depends on your oppressor having some sort of conscience. And the sacrifice of those who are trying to bring about a change of circumstances is with the idea of bringing to bear pressure by people who can affect that. . .oppressor's conscience themselves. In El Salvador, I just don't see any evidence of their being a conscience there that would allow nonviolent principles to have an effect.''

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