Salvadoran Air Force planes, apparently seeking guerilla enclaves, have conducted raids over the Honduran border, shooting into the hills surrounding this small frontier village where thousands of peasants have fled from fighting in El Salvador, according to the refugees.
A spokesman for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is aiding the Salvadoran peasants, confirmed the air raid reports, as well as stories of house-to-house village searches by armed men, some in civilian dress and others in Salvadoran military uniforms.
[The Honduran government, through its embassy in Washington, yesterday said that it "denies emphatically that these alleged attacks ever happened."]
Asked about the reports, a Salvadoran government spokesman said only that his government had received no official complaint from Honduras that its border had been violated.
Under terms of a cease-fire after a brief war 10 years ago between the two countries, a six-mile swath along the entire length of the approximately 250-mile border is a neutral zone under the supervision of the Organization of American States. An OAS spokesman for the peacekeeping mission said yesterday in Washington that the mission had received no recent charges of border violations from either country, nor observed any incursion.
The spokesman noted, however, that the eight-man peacekeeping force patrols the zone only by helicopter and is likely to pass over a particular zone only occasionally.
El Salvador and Honduras last month signed a treaty ending the long-dormant conflict but have requested that the OAS mission remain in place for the next six months until outstanding disagreements about several areas along the frontier are settled. After Jan. 15, however, OAS-supervised neutral zone will shrink to only those areas still disputed by the two governments.
After the treaty was announced, spokesman for El Salvador's political and guerilla oposition, as well as international sympathizers, have charged that it was hurriedly promulgated -- with the prodding of the United States -- to facilitate cooperation between the Salvadoran junta and Honduras' military government in combating leftist guerillas operating in the border zone.
This part of Honduras lies across from a part of El Salvador -- the area around the Salvadoran town of Chalatenango -- where guerrilla activity and government counterinsurgency operations have been heaviest in recent weeks.
Last May, a group of church workers aiding refugees near the Salvadoran village of Las Vueltas charged that a large group of Salvadoran refugees trying to cross a river into Honduras were fired on and many killed by Salvadoran soldiers while Honduran troops on the other side watched the massacre and tried to force back refugees reaching the other side.
Although both governments denied the report, it caused a furor throughout the region, with charges of secret collaboration among the goverments and the OAS.
A spokesman here with the U.N. High Commissioner, which, along with the Honduran Aid and Emergency Committee and other agencies, is caring for what they say are approximately 19,000 Salvadoran refugees in this remote corner of southwestern Honduras, declined to be quoted by name, saying that the relief workers feared added publicity about the conflict would hamper already difficult relief efforts. But the workers confirmed the air attacks and said that the most recent one had taken place Dec. 31.
On Nov. 13, the refugees said, a hundred Salvadoran armed men, some in civilian dress and others in uniform, conducted a house-to-house search at La Virtud, where 2,000 refugees live. There have been at least three such searches for "subversives," they said.
Many of the refugees have found shelter in the mud shacks of impoverished Honduran peasants. Others make do in improvised housing.
Others hide in the high Honduran mountains. One woman, found hiding in a cave, was asked, "Why are you here?"
"Because the [Salvadoran National] Guard is there," she said, pointing at the mountains of El Salvador , barely five miles away.
Like many, she said she feels safer there than in the village, at least until the air raids started.
From La Virtud, it takes at least three hours by jeep to cover over 40 miles to the nearest sizable town, San Marcos, which unlike the smaller village has electricity -- for 12 hours a day.
In La Virtud a small brigade from the French volunteer agency Medicine Without Frontiers has been offering medical care to both the Honduran peasants and Salvadoran refugees.
On a recent morning in a tiny hamlet high above La Virtud, a cluster of women holding babies waited for two women doctors to dispense advice and medicine. The doctors brought two of the women, one Salvadoran, the other Honduran, back with them to the field hospital in La Virtud to treat their critically ill babies.
The refugee woman's 1-year-old child, hollow eyes and bony limbs bespeaking severe malnutrition, seemed near death. All afternoon the four women, doctors and mothers, waited by the children, hoping that transfusions and shots would work a miracle.
The Salvadoran mother crouched in a corner of the improvised hospital room, speaking quietly and without apparent bitterness. "I would like to go back home, to my plot of land," she said. "But we have seen too much, too many dead. When a neighbor gave the warning that the guard was on its way, our entire village left. We brought nothing with us. The doors of our houses were left open. We stopped running when we knew we were in Honduras."
In a recent census taken by the Honduran refugee aid committee in La Virtud, 80 percent of the refugees said they are fleeing from the National Guard, and the remainder said they are running from the general violence in a country on the brink of civil war.
"And this is just the beginning," a relief worker sighed. "There are 19,000 refugees here now, and the war hasn't even begun."