The howling went on for hours as the dogs died from the poison. No one is certain who set it, but many residents of this little village at the center of the Salvadoran war think they know. The Guardia , or National Guard. And they think they know why. So the dogs would not be around to bark when the death squads move through the night shadows of the town.
It has been a few days since then and as you sit at noon in the deceptively quiet central square, canine survivors sleep in the spotty shade. The people do not come out so far into the open anymore. They stay behind their doors and, as Sister Judith Chavez, a Costa Rican nun who works here, said, "Everybody keeps his mouth shut."
In other times this might have been a very prosperous village. A native son, Jose Napoleon Duarte, is now president of El Salvador. But Duarte does not come back here, Chavez said, despite trips she has made to the capital to talk to him, to beg him to come back and see how his people are living -- and dying.
"He never seems to have the time," she said.
When Chavez came here four years ago this was a placid, easygoing little country town. Now, she said, it is full of refugees -- at least 1,000 added to the normal population of 3,000 -- and many of the refugees, dying of hunger, have become thieves. Now there are the death squads. Now there are the guerrillas, some of whom have become as brutal as the Guardia , Chavez said. Now there is the silencing terror of both sides.
To live here near the town of Chalatenango, in an area where some of the heaviest fighting in the Salvadoran civil war goes on, is to wake up almost every morning hearing explosion and shooting. This is not a war of pitched battles but of "confrontations," hit-and-run attacks that caused one government officer in Chalatenango to complain: "We wish they [the guerrillas] would come at us in force so we could confront them and finish them off."
But that is not how the guerrillas operate. Much of the killing is reduced to murder for vengeance and murder for suspicion. Assassinaton takes the place of fighting.
Sometimes peasants are shot down as they work the fields, other times they are dragged out of their houses in the night by men that many suspect are Guardsmen in disguise.
Bodies are ofen discovered on the banks of the nearby river, sometimes brutally mutilated. Recently, six gutted torsos were found. The heads were nearby in a plastic bag.
Over the last year scores of bodies have been found in the area, but at least 68 of them have never been identified, according to Chavez. She said that apparently, the people who disappear from this area are taken to other parts of the country to be dumped, while those from other regions are brought here.
There is another problem with identification.
"There are mothers who come to see the body of their son. They know him," said Chavez, "they are destroyed by what they see, desperate, but they don't want to say anything for the fear."
For awhile the people felt some reassurance in the presence of a National Guard headquarters just outside the village. Then on the Wednesday of Holy Week all that changed.
The local major came into town on a truck equipped with loudspeakers. More than 100 of his troops fanned out through the village and pulled all the people they could find out of their houses to stand in the central square. For hours the major harangued them, villagers recall.
"I want you to feel the terror," they remember him saying again and again. The Guardia was going to bring order to the village no matter what.
Apparently to make an example, the major arrested three men, one for drinking too much, one old man who was supposedly a rapist, one who was supposedly a thief, and announced that they would be executed at eight that evening.
At that, Sister Judith intervened and warned the major that he was committing a crime against the laws of the country and of God. Perhaps the major had only meant the promised execution as a threat, perhaps he backed down. The men returned to the village later in the night.
"They still tremble," said the sister. They are not the same. Nothing is the same."
It is the suffering that appalls her and and that she seeks to alleviate, and she says now that it comes from all sides.
"Some of the muchachos -- the boys, as the guerrillas are called -- "have come to be very aggressive, bad," she said. "They now see fighting as the only way out. The have given up other alternatives."
Some of the worst suffering is among the refugees. They live in pitiful shacks crammed into the littered backyards of other shacks belonging to relatives or friends. They receive small amounts of food every few weeks from the Catholic relief agency Caritas, but it is barely enough to go around.
Mena, a battered, toothless woman of 42, sleeps on the floor in a 6-by-7 foot hovel made of sticks, discarded polyethylene and cardboard with her husband and six children and another family of five. Her youngest son is naked, his face covered with infected chicken-pox sores. The disease, along with scarlet fever and malnutrition, is rampant among the refugee babies.
Mena comes from a little settlement about 10 miles to the north. There is no one there anymore. Some of those who have gone back to retrieve belongings have never been seen again.
Mena and her family came here four months ago, she said. "They came" -- it is always the unidentified "they" -- "and killed my mother and three of my brothers."
She cries on the nun's shoulder and within a few minutes the sister cajoles her into smiling, even laughing again. A puppy wanders by.
There used to be three other nuns here, but the two younger ones have been pulled out by the church because of fear for their lives. Chavez and another older sister stayed here in El Paraiso, which means paradise.
Heavy rains were starting. A truck full of Guardias passed, blaring announcements through a loudspeaker.
"I will die here with the people if I have to," she said.
Chavez shook her head. "The people say this is the will of God. But this is not the will of God.
"Please," she said to a reporter, "if you talk to President Duarte, tell him to come here. Tell him to come see what has happened to his people."