The helicopter of Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, minister of defense and the only general in the Salvadoran army, circled this town once and then set down in a field of weeds. Vides Casanova was greeted by two colonels, scores of lesser officers, many troops, lots of children, some chickens, an occasional dog and a pig. He saluted them all.

Then, uniformed but paunchy, he marched up a muddy alley, made a left onto a cobblestone street and ascended a bandstand in the middle of the town square. There, with a brace of salutes and a speech, he inaugurated a brand new Green Beret-trained battalion--a ceremony with a message: Los Muchachos, the guerrillas, were gone. The army had the town now. The troops, including four Green Berets, applauded. The newly liberated townspeople did not.

All around the square, the villagers looked on. The children were dressed in their Sunday best. A band lined up on the east side of the square and the new battalion, broken into three companies, stood to the north, facing the bandstand. It had paraded into the square to the tune of the Colonel Bogey march, its impressive formation broken only by a cab, hired in San Salvador by the correspondent of Soldier of Fortune magazine, that was parked in the square.

There were, of course, other journalists present--a television crew from Japan, a reporter from Italy and lots of Americans. The last part of the journey, we had been convoyed by the army. Even so, there was a point where the convoy stopped for no apparent reason and everyone held his breath. Then, for the same reason the convoy had stopped, it started.

This uncertainty is what a journalist has in common with the average Salvadoran. There are times when you fear the right with the Death Squads, the police, the military in all its various permutations and traditions, and there are times it is the left that is feared. What you get is the sense of always being caught in the middle. It is the plight of the average Salvadoran and, in some ways, it is the plight of the country itself. It can not even have its own civil war without it being a matter of East-West rivalry.

When Vides Casanova was ready, the band played the Salvadoran national anthem. Its beginning is reminiscent of the William Tell Overture but it goes on endlessly. The soldiers sang the words, but aside from the town's crazy lady (who saluted everyone with her left hand), no one else did. Whether this was from a lack of patriotism or ignorance of the words, I do not know. I only know that no one sang and that a man crossed the square on a burro, dismounted and went to sleep on a bench.

But facts are facts. Until recently it was not safe to drive into this area. The guerrillas controlled it and they were in this town as recently as April 30. The Boys, as the guerrillas are called, held a meeting in the very square where Vides Casanova spoke, and then left--but not without sacking city hall, destroying records the government needs to hold elections or, more importantly, issue identification cards.

The story is the same for two other nearby towns: Santa Clara and San Lorenzo. Both were held by the guerrillas. Both have been partly destroyed. Large numbers of homes are now vacant, the weeds growing up through the windows. Some of the homes have no ceiling and most of them are pockmarked from bullets. In the San Lorenzo mayor's office, Christmas cards cover the bullet holes in the walls.

In both towns, the army has returned. There seems to be some relief at that, but no enmity towards the guerrillas. By all accounts, they molested no one, paid for what they took and even returned alive 10 soldiers whom they had captured. All they took was their uniforms and their arms. Now there is some question about what the army will do. When the mayor of Santa Clara was asked if the soldiers had arrested anyone for being a collaborator, he said, "Not yet."

At the end of the ceremony, Vides Casanova retraced his route. He went up the cobblestone street, past the oxen and the man sleeping near his donkey, made a right into the muddy alley, jumped a stone wall into the weed field, turned, saluted his officers, the soldiers, the children, the chickens and the pig. Then he choppered his way back to San Salvador, leaving this town either liberated or occupied, if you think in East-West terms or, if you think like a peasant, merely occupied by someone else.