I think most people want to see some light at the end of the tunnel, some feeling that we're moving in the direction of a solution.

Rep. Clarence D. Long (D-Md.) in El Salvador, April 25, 1983.

Some people are rarely consulted about El Salvador's war. A bus driver in the working class slums of the capital. A market woman. A shopkeeper in a beseiged village. A soldier in a bullet-scarred hut on a lonely road. The people, if you will. The few times they have been asked what they thought about this conflict, they had the feeling nobody listened.

"People voted for peace in the elections," remembered the bus driver. "We got an assembly full of gunslingers."

Now the United States is saying -- with all the force of the Great Communicator up before a joint session of Congress -- that it is going to commit itself to resolving this country's problems. For Washington that comes down to a fairly simple bottom line: El Salvador will not go communist. U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton warns this is likely to be a long war, but one that can be resolved with enough determination and money. Given the patience and the resources, he said last week, "I don't view it as all that tricky."

But such tough and vague talk fails to communicate to the people of El Salvador just how the complex and relentless tragedy they are living will actually end -- or even how it could end. What they tend to say now is that they don't think it will end -- not only not soon, but maybe not ever.

"The truth is that we've lost hope," said Alejandro Cotto, sometimes called the unofficial mayor of Suchitoto, a would-be resort turned ghost town in the middle of the Salvadoran war. "We believe in God," he explained on his way to mass at the stark white church, "because in other kinds of solutions -- in the national type, in the international type -- we've lost faith. We see that way doesn't work."

On a nearby curb looking out at the town's empty square, Francisco Cubia sat fragile and ancient. His age, he said, is "five years short of 100." How will the war end?

"It doesn't have an end," he said, pausing to think and absently fingering the handle of the machete that peasants carry in the Salvadoran countryside. "It doesn't have an end. Yes. That is sure. But one wishes," Cubia explained in elaborate and cautious subjunctive, "let us say, that there were to be peace."

Cubia still works rented fields. He has never had any property of his own, and although he heard that "they are sharing land now," he knew little about the government reform program.

A pair of National Guardsmen walked through the square, the hot afternoon sun glistening on their black helmets. Cubia said he thought maybe the government soldiers were fighting for peace. Of what the guerrillas were fighting for he said "I am ignorant."

A 14-year-old girl selling delicately painted wooden souvenirs in the capital felt she knew fairly clearly the reasons for the war.

"The guerrillas are fighting for power, and the others don't want to give it to them," she said. She is bright but does not go to school anymore. Her future, it is probably fair to speculate, will always be selling things in the market even if, as now, almost no one comes to buy.

Of the war, she said, "I believe a solution is never going to be found. The thing has begun. It is never going to end."

At a little kiosk on a downtown street a judicial science student stood leafing through old books. He is part of the diaspora of students from the Autonomous National University now attending classes scattered in buildings throughout the city. The main campus, once a center of guerrilla organizing, was shut down, and at least 50 people were killed there, by government troops in the summer of 1980.

At first when asked how the war might end he said the question was difficult to analyze. Then he said suddenly, spilling the words, "It's disastrous. Every day it gets worse. It's disastrous. Every day goes by generating more difficult problems. This doesn't end."

What will he do?

"Get myself out of this social structure, out of this country, find another way to live."

The glass was gone from the windows of the bus, and the char of the guerrilla bomb blast and burning two years ago still showed inside and out. The metal floor was nearly worn through from years of use, but the seats were fairly new. Smoke and fumes poured from the gearbox. Somehow the thing still ran.

The man driving sat erect and professional behind the wheel. He said he had been driving for a living for 45 years, been driving buses for 20. The company he works for ($5 for an eight-hour day) used to have more than 40 buses in service. Now, thanks mainly to the rebels, it has fewer than six.

What is going to happen?

"Everything has its end. The First World War had an end. The Second World War. Everything has an end."

Who will win? He glanced over his shoulder. The bus wound its way through the crowded streets of Mejicanos, a working-class barrio where a lot of leftist organizing has gone on and a lot of people have been dragged from their homes by death squads in retaliation.

"We're afraid to talk here," he said, his voice barely audible above the rumble of the engine.

National police were stopping people on the crowded sidewalks, randomly checking the identification documents everyone must carry, forcing many pedestrians to shoulder by them or step into the street almost under the wheels of the bus.

"He who talks too much is disappeared," said the driver. Then finally, as he came to a stop, he whispered his answer. "Dialogue," he said. That would end the war.

But there was something that he wanted to know in return for his answer. "What is it that interests the gringos? The terrain or the people here?" He guessed it was the terrain. Otherwise, he said, someone would end "the criminality."

Have you seen the cadavers on the road? said the driver. "The dogs eat them."

Who kills them? He appeared amazed at the naivete of the question. "How can it be that someone leaves a cadaver in the middle of the city in the middle of martial law? I'd say this is a war of gangsters."

Country roads are full of men in uniform stopping and searching cars. Sometimes they are the government soldiers. Sometimes they are the guerrillas.

On the heavily contested highway between San Martin and Suchitoto there used to be army bunkers every several hundred yards. But they are mostly deserted now. They have been overrun too often. Instead the road is patrolled by more than 100 policemen dressed in army fatigues and packed into a little half-destroyed outpost at a settlement called El Aceituno.

Antonio, 21, spent two years in an airborne company before joining the police last year, because the pay is twice that of the regular army and the life was supposed to be easier. He had been up much of the night alert for an attack and looked tired as he toyed with his automatic rifle in the late afternoon.

What is he fighting for?

"For my own safety," he said immediately, then as an afterthought, "and for the security of the people, too."

Roberto, 22, who had the manner of a platoon philosopher, said vaguely but decisively, "One fights for an ideology. The terrorists fight for their ideology."

What is his ideology? His answer was not clear. He said, "More than anything, this war is imposed from the outside. This is not a struggle that we make, but one they make us fight."

The rebels tend to know exactly what they are fighting for, or at least what to say they are fighting for.

"William," a 29-year-old veteran of the Communist Popular Liberation Forces guerrilla faction manning a checkpoint on the main route north from the capital to Honduras, talked about the struggle against imperialism, the need to restructure society. He said the fighting would end sofion. The great guerrilla promise these days is peace. They hold the veto.

"We are moving the war along as fast as we can now," he said. "So the people do not have to suffer so much. We are coming to the final stage. We now have the capacity to launch a definite insurrection."

A bus full of peasants passed the checkpoint. One or two grimaced at the guerrillas behind their backs. Others shifted nervously in their seats. The rebels, intent on the interview, waved the bus through without asking for the customary "war tax."

Opinion polls are rare things in El Salvador. One social scientist explained that this was at least partly because of fears pollsters would be killed by people suspicious of someone asking so many questions.

But one survey was conducted last year by the Catholic University's political review Central American Studies. It suggests that one of the strongest divisions in this profoundly divided society has come to be the one between the soldiers -- whether guerrilla or government -- and everybody else.

The U.S.-backed army has a self-convinced notion that it has brought "democracy" to the country and that the voter turnout in last year's elections was a gesture of massive support for the armed forces.

The rebels believe they are the true voice and the "vanguard" of the people. But the one time they tried for a popular uprising, in January 1981, they found themselves fighting on their own.

What the poll shows, after sampling more than 1,200 basically middle-class residents of the capital, is that these "militarists" were seen as "violent" and "ambitious" whatever side they were on. "The majority of the (sample) population has a negative opinion of the contending groups," the study concluded drily.

In a little village often attacked by the insurgents, a 51-year-old shopkeeper has stripped his shelves to a minimum inventory. He is afraid the town will soon be overrun, and he does not want to have much on hand for the rebels to take.

Why are the two sides fighting? "Maybe only they know. Some people say the guerrillas want to impose a communist system, and on its part the government is defending democracy. We've lived democracy, they say. But it is only the appearance. It is not a true one. I think the only really democratic country is the United States."

The merchant said he voted in the last elections and in other elections before them, and he will vote in those scheduled for the end of this year. "It is a duty," he explained. But he does not expect the elections to make a difference anymore.

"With the situation the way it is, the struggle between the guerrilla and the government, it is difficult to arrive at an agreement. Only if they were to have a dialogue can they reach an agreement. If not, I believe this could go on, this war, for 10 or 20 years."

"Everything is on the road to deterioration in this country," said a middle-aged priest in the capital who is personally close to both centrist and leftist politicians. How is it going to end? "The people pass from one miracle to another miracle, hoping." But he no longer shared the hope.

"The elections offered peace. 'Your vote is the solution.' The candidates made promises. They would fix everything in two months."

Then came the pope's visit in the beginning of March. Posters all over the country proclaimed him "The Pope of Peace," and everywhere there was an air of expectation. "Today nobody talks about the pope," said the priest. "They almost don't remember he was here."

Now the miracle being hoped for is the "dialogue" whispered by the bus driver, called the only alternative by the shopkeeper, advocated by the rebels and rejected repeatedly by the government. But the priest was not encouraged.

"The guerrillas are in a fight to the finish," he said. "What are negotiations? A maneuver. For what? To gain time. For what? The war. What is the United States doing? The same thing. Except their maneuver is elections."

The only solution really sought by either side, the priest concluded, is through what he called the "blood and fire" that could go on for an eternity. He saw no light at the end of the tunnel.