"About 20 people were being led away up the hill, the men with their thumbs tied behind them, the women scrambling behind. They were whimpering, mournful," said magazine editor James Gittings, still shaken by the "terrible sight" he had seen at a border refugee camp.
The scene, an unexpected drama during the visit of five foreigners to the refugee settlement at La Virtud, was similar to hundreds of others recounted by witnesses to kidnapings by security forces and right-wing death squads inside El Salvador. This time was different both because it was witnessed by foreigners and because it occurred inside Honduras, about four miles from the Salvadoran border.
The men were dragged away by "perhaps seven men dressed in shabby civilian clothes and about seven more men in red T-shirts and all with green trousers tucked into their boots. One of the civilian-dressed men carried a transmitter on his back. They were all armed with M16 rifles," said James Stephens, a consultant to the relief organization Oxfam.
The incident Monday at La Virtud also ended differently than many such kidnapings. Often the victims are killed.
Socialite Bianca Jagger, also in the party of foreign visitors, said, "We ran up after the people, shouting at the men to let the refugees go. Then one of the men with a red T-shirt said, 'These sons of bitches are going to report us.' The men disappeared over the top of the hill walking in the direction of the border. The refugees hestiated for a moment, then ran toward us."
About 10,000 refugees from El Salvador's civil war have been settled around the hot, desolate town of La Virtud in a valley among the perilous mountain peaks of the border area. Many of the refugees and relief workers have complained about harassment by both Honduran and Salvadoran armed forces.
On Monday, a relief organization's airplane that was scheduled to bring in a party of journalists to cover the visitors' fact-finding trip was set on fire at La Virtud, apparently by a rightist paramilitary group that also painted graffiti on relief groups' offices there.
The refugees and the visitors at the camp said they are convinced that the intruders, as well as a group of men in military uniforms who arrived later and tried to take away more refugees, are Salvadoran troops and members of ORDEN, a rightist paramilitary organization that informs on left-wing sympathizers in Salvadoran villages.
The second group of men scuffled with Russell Davenport of Oxfam's Washington office. Also on the trip was Robert Brauer, an aide to Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.).
The incident at La Virtud ended uneventfully, but a simultaneous operation by uniformed men at Guajiniquil and La Cuesta, where there are smaller refugee centers, were more typically tragic: Seven people, including two adolescent girls, were taken away and not heard from again.
Relief workers say they are particularly upset about the apparent cooperation of the Honduran military with the armed groups harassing and kidnaping refugees.
"When the armed men were taking the refugees away," Brauer said, "a group of us went to the Honduran Army command post. We explained what was going on. No response. We asked for the commanding officer. They said he wasn't around and they couldn't get him. We asked one of them to come down and see what was happening. No way."
On the same morning as the incident witnessed by the foreigners, the commanding officer of the post, Capt. Flores Mejia, was seen arresting Elpidio Cruz, a Honduran who coordinated Caritas' food program at La Virtud. Other Caritas workers later saw Cruz being taken away from the barracks in an olive-green jeep. His bullet-ridden body was found yesterday in a field.
Field workers for Caritas and other relief organizations are often accused of sympathizing with the guerrillas fighting to overthrow El Salvador's Christian Democratic-military junta.
The refugees say this is the prinicipal reason for the relocation of their camps recently announced by the Honduran government. They do not want to move.
"They feel they are close to their homes here, they feel more comfortable," says the coordinator for Honduras for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Charles-Henri Bazoche, who visited La Virtud briefly yesterday.
Nevertheless, he strongly supports the move. "They will be much safer farther away from the border," he said.
Brauer disagrees. "We saw lots of things here that indicated cooperation between the Honduran and Salvadoran military. That cooperation would only increase, I feel, if the refugees were taken out of this area. The point is that an illegal intrusion of what I and the other visitors are convinced were Salvadoran troops and paramilitary was callously disregarded by the local Honduran military."