The Battle for San Salvador

On the night of Friday, November 10, several unusual parties took place in the neighborhood of Santa Marta, which clings to the sides of a jagged ravine on the outskirts of San Salvador. Residents were invited to a wedding celebration, though they were never quite sure when the couple had been married. Another party was said to celebrate a young woman’s fifteenth birthday, though many residents thought that she was well past that age. Among the many strangers who turned up at the festivities some guests noticed several women who arrived with one man, danced a few turns with him, then left only to return an hour later with another man.

When, on the evening of the following day, Marxist guerrillas launched attacks in nearly every large working-class neighborhood in El Salvador’s capital, the people in Santa Marta quickly understood that the parties had been the final phase of the rebels’ clandestine infiltration into the capital city in preparation for what soon became their strongest offensive in a decade-old civil war, and their first full-scale combat in San Salvador in seven years.

The people in Santa Marta spent much of the next seven days crouching in the corners and pressed against the floors of their cinder-block houses. They found out that even in their cramped barrio where neighbors watched each other closely, fighters of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, known as the FMLN, had managed to set up several safe houses during the past year, stocked with rifles and ammunition. The guerrillas took up firing positions in the houses, attracting retaliation from government forces, which started with wild sprays of assault-rifle bullets and culminated in mortar barrages and aerial rocketing.

During the first days of the offensive some of the poorest people in Santa Marta, who live in dirt-floor shanties next to a railroad track, helped the guerrillas to build barricades and find food. They became less helpful as the fighting intensified. Soon food ran out in the entire neighborhood, the electricity and water went off, and the bodies of fallen guerrilla fighters lay rotting in the cobbled alleyways. By the end of the fighting asbestos-sheet roofs were blasted off houses, walls were leveled, and street paving stones were torn up. By a miracle, few civilians were injured because they stayed close to the ground for so long.

On Sunday, November 19, the rebels faded into the scrub forest of the surrounding hills. Their week-long siege left behind in Santa Marta a terrible knowledge of how close and randomly lethal the war could become, even in the capital city, and a paralyzing fear that the FMLN might draw the army and the crossfire back to Santa Marta. Therefore the residents returned to a state of fright they had not known since the nationwide terror of the early 1980s, when government security forces waged a campaign of butchery against the left.

None of those I interviewed would consent to having their names published with their accounts. Some observed …

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