The recent forced military evacuation of more than 600 refugees from a campsite to confinement in a prison 30 miles from here marks a substantial change in government policy toward the hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans displaced by this country's civil war.
The ruling junta believes that some camps are concentration points of sympathy for leftist guerrillas seeking to overthrow it, and apparently has decided to treat the refugees as a military problem, moving them to sites where it can have greater control over them.
Ten days ago, without notice and with no opportunity to plan for harvest of the crops they had just planted outside the camp, refugees at the camp at La Bermuda, about 20 miles north of here, were transferred to the sweltering penal facility in Suchitoto, where they now are crowded into cells under military guard. La Bermuda later was burned to the ground.
The La Bermuda camp was established in January by the Salvadoran Green Cross for peasants, primarily women and children, fleeing fighting around the nearby guerrilla strong-hold at the Guazapa volcano. In a military sweep of the camp last April, the refugees said, 16 persons were taken away by the military, and 28 more were taken in mid May. No explanation was given and none of those taken away was heard from again, the refugees said.
The National Commission for Displaced Persons reports a total of 139,145 domestic refugees in camps supervised by either the government or the Red Cross and El Salvador's Green Cross. Caritas, a Roman Catholic agency that administers church aid for another 12 camps, says 3,000 refugees are in its care. An additional 25,000 are estimated to have sought shelter from the civil war in neighboring Honduras. Nicaragua and Costa Rica report an additional 33,000 within their borders, with 10,000 each in Belize and Guatemala. The Mexican government estimates 40,000, for a total refugee population that amounts to 5 percent of El Salvador's 5 million people.
Most of the refugees are peasants.Some flee what they call systematic government persecution, particularly of the so-called "Christian grassroots communities" in which the Catholic Church has established social activism programs. A smaller number seeks shelter from what they describe as severe harassment by the guerrillas.
Set in the coffee-covered hills and ravines of the south, about 50 miles from the capital, the city of Berlin holds four refugee camps of 23 to 37 cardboard and tin shacks each. The refugees, many of whom are men, say they have worked within the armed forces in the past and declare themselves to be promilitary.
The Berlin refugees said they fear the leftists and they complained of having their crops burned or stolen. They said their teen-aged sons and daughters were often forced into the guerrillas' ranks.
But in sharp contrast to the refugees suspected of sympathies with the left, or of nonsupport for the government, the refugees in Berlin are free to come and go, mostly to look for work on the surrounding coffee plantations. Complaining of the scarcity of work in an area not touched by land reforms, they said local landowners had cut down drastically on coffee production. The refugees in Berlin said they receive assistance from the government and international relief agencies.
In nothern El Salvador, where the guerrillas are most active, the situation for the refugees is different. The Army sees the radicalized "Christian communities" there as part of the guerrillas' support structure, and regularly carries out missions against them.
The strife in El Salvador has polarized even the emergency organizations working with the refugees. The International Red Cross conducts a radio and print campaign stressing its neutrality. The local Salvadoran Red Cross is viewed with suspicion by the left as an Army collaborator and guerrillas recently attacked one of is convoys.
The local Green Cross, an all volunteer organization that has few resources and no international connections or support, on the other hand, has been accused in the press of collaborating with the left, and the fact that it administered the camp in La Bermuda is believed to have contributed to the decision to shift the camp's refugees. The Green Cross' camp director was questioned by the military for several hours on the day of the transfer, reportedly about the peasants' connections to guerrillas.
Early on July 4, according to Green Cross volunteers, Suchitoto's combined security forces surrounded the camp, mounted a 90mm recoilless rifle on a fence and pointed it into the compound and, after some discussion with the camp director, ordered the refugees to get into trucks.
"From a military point of view it makes sense," Col. Adolfo Cotto, spokesman for the armed forces, said of the decision to move the refugees to the Suchitoto prision, six miles away, "so we can have control over these people day and night. I know both places, the camp and ther prison, and they're better off in the prison."
The refugees did not appear to agree. Crowded into cells, spilling over into narrow corridors and looking dazed and frightened, they walked frequently to the prison gates and stood in silence, gazing out. Military police stood guard on the prison watchtowers while the new residents arranged their meager belongings around them.
The people expressed feelings of sadness and loss. They said they had hoped to grow corn and tomatoes, radishes and beans on he newly planted fields they had collectively cleared at La Bermuda. Many expressed sorrow over the small possessions -- a hammock, a photograph, a water jug -- they had left behind in the hurried evacuation.
What weighed most heavily on them, a number of refugees said, was the loss of freedom.
"We are workers, we don't like to be idle," said one man, anxiously picking at his fingers. "We worked the fields with love, for the benefit of the children here with us who have no parents, for the windows. Now we are like prisoners here, as if we had committed a great crime, and we ask God to send someone to come and free us."
The commander of the National Guard in Suchitoto, who supervised the transfer, said he had acted on orders from the Ministry of Defense.
"We give them support and medical attention and show them movies to orient them and we supervise their activity constantly," the commander said. "There are people in that camp who have been very closely connected to the guerrillas, and the Suchitoto community is afraid they might try something funny."
"It's for their protection as well," the commander said. "Someone might try to plant a bomb in there."
The decision to view refugees with possible leftist sympathies as a military problem has had international consequences. In what Defense Minister Guillermo Garcia has called "a diplomatic triumph," Honduras has agreed to shift the approximately 25,000 refugees just within its borders to campsites several miles inland from El Salvador.
The refugees in Honduras have been flowing in steadily since last September, and they have been welcomed by the equally impoverished Honduran peasants. There have been frequent charges, supported by officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, that the Honduran Army looks the other way when the Salvadoran Army crosses the border looking for guerrillas.
The Honduran military has countered that the refuges frequently collaborate with the guerrillas.