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Despite Aid Cutoff, Rebels Still Fight On

Denim jeans and AK-47's, standard equipment for war - a letter from El Salvador

ON the shady stoop of a mud-brick dwelling "Kelly" chats about her contribution to El Salvador's leftist insurgency. "Did you see our paintings in town?" her voice full of pride. "The caricature of [President Alfredo] Cristiani and the two children with their fists raised," she says, striking the pose.

This 19-year-old's role in the Farabundo Mart 146> National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebel army is that of propagandist, radio operator, and nurse. Drop the Soviet-made AK-47 rifle and Kelly could pass for an American teen. She sports a Malibu surf shirt tucked into faded but clean denim jeans.

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It's hard to reconcile this sunny teen with the images of leftist terrorists and a war that has killed some 75,000 people during the last decade. But should one's sympathies waver, the government has a booth at the international airport displaying posters and pamphlets of children maimed by guerrilla mines.

Until just more than a year ago, Kelly was a university student in the capital city studying health care. She and a group of friends were picked up by the Army on Nov. 11, 1989, just hours before a major FMLN offensive was launched in San Salvador.

She was held for 16 days during an offensive that saw the city's first heavy, house-to-house fighting. "They beat me, but didn't rape me. They seemed very nervous," she says of her Army captors. "When I got out, I knew I couldn't stay in the city alone any longer," she says.

Kelly says her entire family has joined the guerrillas, starting with her father in 1982. But her father is now dead. Her mother is hiding in Nicaragua. Her younger brother and sister are in Cuba on a scholarship from the Cuban government, she says.

She chose this rebel unit in order to be with her cousin, "Ernesto." The group patrols the sun-scorched hills in the province of San Vincente. The unit is part of the smallest of the five factions comprising the FMLN, the Central American Revolutionary Workers' Party.

Ernesto, wearing a black sports cap and Ray Bans, saunters over. He and many of the other two dozen guerrillas in his group are relaxed, but have the battle-hardened air of veterans.

"We could win this war, but it would prolong the resolution and would be at a high cost to the people," he says.

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NOW, for the first time, both the United States-backed government and the FMLN appear to be negotiating in earnest for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. US officials say outside support for the FMLN is drying up. The Sandinistas next door in Nicaragua are no longer in power. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have their own concerns.

"We know there's a movement, a process of world change 201> that could have repercussions for us. Ever since the Berlin Wall fell, they've been saying the FMLN's days are numbered. But we have clearly demonstrated our military power has not waned," says regional commander "Camilo," who arrives a few hours after being notified by radio that journalists are in the area.

Says Ernesto, a 10-year veteran: "We've never been as well supplied, both qualitatively and quantitatively." Several others rebels nod their agreement. Some wear US-Army issue camouflage uniforms. "The backpacks are captured as well. Give our thanks to American taxpayers," Camilo chuckles.

Should a cease-fire be negotiated, does the commander think the FMLN is prepared to enter the Salvadoran political scene as a party? "We can't do it now. When we feel we can make a political fight without being killed [by right-wing death squads], then we'll go ahead," he says.

Indeed, the 30-year-old commander has not given much thought to what he would do in peacetime. But Kelly has.

"I want to go back to the university and get a degree in literature or sociology or communications," she says confidently.

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