In October 1978 a reporter scrambled across a rocky creek and up a muddy raving in the pouring rain to reach a town hidden in the green mountains 40 miles north of the capital.Cinquera, population 5,000, had become probably the first town occupied by the Salvadoran Army in a full-scale antiguerrilla operation.

In a dirt-floored mud house on the outskirts of the town, which was then surrounded by Army troops, the reporter sat in on a secret meeting of radicalized peasants. Lookouts kept watch for the military and the peasant members of ORDEN, an Army-run vigilante group.

Nearly three years later, a return trip to Cinquera in the aftermath of another major military operation provided a microcosmic view of El Salvador's civil war, a tiny theater where some of the most representative and searing scenes of the conflict have been played out.

The war in Cinquera starts in Tejutepeque, a quiet town five miles away, where the National Guard commander sits in a faded uniform several sizes too small for his plump girth and says reassuringly that there is "absolutely no activity by the vandals or subversives in the region."

But when he is asked if it is possible to travel down the dirt road to Cinquera, his face clouds. "Who knows? We sent out two bulldozers this morning to try to clear the road of barricades and trenches."

The ride to Cinquera is tense and unsettling. In this densely populated region of the country, every mudwattle peasant home has been abandoned.The doorways where women used to stand grinding corn are silent black holes. Even the scrawny village dogs are gone, and the only sounds come from chattering parrots and cooing doves overhead. A brown rabbit bounds away as the car rattles over the muddy gutted road.

IT WAS IN one of these abandoned houses that the returning reporter listened long ago to interminable accounts of suffering and violence. "We are organizing to get more pay for our work in the coffee harvest; that is why we are persecuted. We work only three months a year. We make $2.75 a day. We do not have a plot of land to grow our own corn on. We are hungry. We are sick."

The speakers belonged to what was then known as the Salvadoran Christian Peasants' Federation (FECCAS is its Spanish acryonym) organized initially by the church in the early 1970s. By 1975 it had become the largest group within the leftist Peoples' Revolutionary Bloc, and it grew uninterruptedly from that time on.

Soon FECCAS was singled out as a principal target by the rural security forces. The National Guard, which supervised local chapters of ORDEN (an acronym that spells the Spanish word for "order") gave orders to attack FECCAS members, who at that time were unarmed.

In the secret meeting at Cinquera two things were most starling: the savagery with which the FECCAS peasants were persecuted and the relative intimacy in which they lived with ORDEN.

"Who are the members of ORDEN?" the reporter recalled asking after a woman told of finding her husband "chopped to little bits" in the field. "They are the other people who live here," came the reply. "There goes one," the peasants said as they pointed through the doorway at an equally poor, machete-carrying farm worker making his way down the road.

By 1978, the FECCAS group believed its membership outnumbered that of ORDEN in the area. ORDEN promised its members "a better chance at work on the plantations during the harvest season and the possibility of carrying a weapon," said the peasants.FECCAS promised "liberation."

Although the FECCAS peasants expressed wholehearted support for the guerrillas of the Popular Liberation Front, one of five groups then operating individually, who have since joined to form the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, they seemed at that time unable to imagine themselves taking up arms.

JUST OUTSIDE Cinquera, a National Guardsman stopped the car behind a yellow bulldozer, piled high with soldiers and civilians, that was smoothing over a deep ditch. He explained that the road to the town was being opened for the first time in seven months.

An operation conducted by several units of the Army's U.S.-trained Atlacatl Brigade had temporarily cleared the surrounding hills of guerrillas. Helicopter bombings of the most prominent peak guaranteed safe transit. "We will station troops all along the road and try to keep it open for at least two days," a young trooper said.

When the bulldozer finally lumbered into Cinquera it was greeted cheerfully by the hundred or so peasants standing around the central square. They identified themselves as refugees.

A wiry brown man in work clothes identified himself as a member of ORDEN, although the organization, which had become a national symbol of paramilitary repression, was officially disbanded a year and a half ago when a 46-year string of Army governments was broken by a coup and replaced with the current military-civilian coalition.

"The National Guard protects us, and we sleep in the church at night or in the empty houses," a woman said."Almost all the houses have been abandoned. There are only about 300 of us here and we are all refugees."

All of Cinquera's original 5,000 residents were gone, the peasants said. "They're in the hills fighting," one man shrugged. "They're all 'FECCAS.'"

The desolation of the pretty little mountain town became apparent when an outsider asked for the nearest Coca-Cola stand, something that is found in even the smallest, most isolated villages. "There's no such thing here," laughed a man. "Since the guerrillas came and frightened us on Jan. 12 no buses have come this way. There's no electricity. There's no food but the corn, rice and beans [that] the Army helicopters in.

"There's a landing pad in the playing field, but most of the time the helicopter can't land because the FECCAS people shoot at it from the [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]

An ORDEN man spoke of his determination to fight FECCAS to the death and regin his land, but two members of the National Guard were less enthusiastic. "By the end of the year I want to join my brothers in Los Angeles," one said. The other said that what he wanted most in life was to travel to the United States to perfect his English. "Then I could really get ahead."

The bitter divisions that have set that peasant population of this backward province of Cabanas against each other have not been eased by the government's program of land reform, of which the peasants here have seen little. Nor have the issues been resolved in the fighting.

Asking to comment on the current Army operations in Cinquera, the head of the Armed Forces Press Commission in San Salvador said he had very little information on the number of casualties or on how long the operation would last. "But I imagine it will not be brief," he said. "It is a very complicated issue. As you know, the area of Cinquera is one where the subversives are most ideologically strong."