El Salvador

Like refugees from any other war, tens of thousands of city residents here fled yesterday from their capital city homes, jammed into rattletrap buses taxis as well as shiny private sedans.

In a long, snaking column, they moved three abreast down El Salvador's two-lane CA4 South, inching through verdant hills stemming under a tropical sun until they could move no farther, stopping finally in a stationary traffic jam that backed up through the countryside for seven miles.

It was, as Salvadorans trapped in the traffic kept muttering, the biggest population exodus they could remember in their unhappy land of violence and death.

For once, however, Salvadoran refugees were not fleeing the sort of destructive flames and murderous bullets that have transformed their city and nation into an ugly bastion of fear. San salvador was tranquil. Death and it practioners seemed to have taken a holiday this weeked to honor the resurrection of Christ, the savior, El Salvador's namesake.

The refugee column that got stuck south of the capital yesterday was merely seeking to reach sunny southern beaches for a few days of respite from the horrors that have rained across the land for the last 16 months.

FROM ALL INDICATIONS, antagonists from both the county's extreme left and extreme right appeared to have joined the rest of the nation to take advantage of the Easter holidays. Government officials, generals, diplomats, as well as the city's professional middle class and the working poor were more often than not unreachable in their offices or homes. Although no estimates could be made of the exact number that left the capial, its streets were deserted and reports from the coast indicated that in all perhaps several hundred thousand had arrived for the weekend.

"Look at this: this is El Salvador fo the guerrillas," said a paunchy pharmacist who stood on the highway in a bathing suit swigging beer beside a steamy van jammed with children and beach chairs. "Never, not even in times of peace, have we had anything like this. It looks like the whole country is trying to get to the shore."

About 20 miles from the capital was as far as the pharmacist, and thousands of others, could get yesterday. Puerto la Libertad, whose neighboring beaches the crowds aimed for, had apparently filled up with cars early in the morning, virtually sealing off the city and its beaches and the road to it from the capital.

Families caught in the giant traffic snarl were reduced to stringing hammocks in banana groves by the highway while their children scampered up trees to shake down mangoes for lunch. Roadside watermelon vendors in thatched lean-tos were sold out by noon as were countless soft-drink and beer stands along the highway.

Instead of spending their time by the sea, the trapped motorists along CA4 were reduced to listening to national radio, Voice of Revolution, which instead of its customary litany of the day's assassination victims had turned over its airways to reports by correspondents on the beaches. In excited voices, the correspondents reported on the hourly sea rescues and occasional drownigns among those who reached the beaches and tormented those who didn't with reports of how refreshing the Pacific waters were.

By midday, the radio was reporting that about 20 persons had died by drowning since the holiday began Friday morning -- two or three under the average daily death toll from assassinations during the rest of the year. But a de facto truce seems to have developed during the Easter holidays, and the level of political violence, at least in the urban areas, has dropped in the past couple of days to realative insignificance.

IN THE CAPITOL, there have been no bombings or gunfights of any significance since midweek. Since the holiday began, there has ony been one killing immediately attributable to the civil war. Reports from the countryside indicate a similar diminution of violence in this nation where about 16,000 deaths, give or take a thousand, have occured since Oct. 15, 1979, when a repressive military dictatorship was overthrown.

The magnitude of the national horror that has followed the overthrow clearly accounted for the massive urgency with which San Salvador's residents flocked to the sea this weekend.

"We are only trying to forget, at least for a bit, what has become of our country," said a middle aged office worker, whose battered pickup truck sagged under the weight of 20 relatives and friends. "We know that when the holiday is over the deaths will begin again."