We went looking for the war today and got a little too close. We didn't listen to the local people and, as a result, Ross Baughman has a shattered knee and James Nachtwey has a shrapnel wound in his leg. We were lucky.
As we do every day, four journalists piled into a pickup truck and headed out to find firsthand witnesses to learn the truth about a battle that has so far been elusive--the struggle for the guerrilla stronghold on the side of the dormant Guazapa Volcano. What we found was a mined path and a bunch of Salvadoran soldiers who made a stretcher out of their own shirts for the crazy Americans. The Salvadoran Air Force brought in a helicopter, and the two wounded men were in a hospital within an hour after the land mine went off.
We had decided to try our luck in the area east of Suchitoto, the north-central city that had been Salvadoran Army headquarters for the attack on the volcano during the past eight days. We were Baughman, founder of the photography agency Visions in New York; Nachtwey and Richard Sandza, both reporters for Newsweek, and I.
The idea was to talk to local troops and try to make ourselves available to any guerrillas who might have fled their volcano base in this direction. The Army has claimed mixed results at Guazapa, one of the first set-piece battles of the year. But clandestine guerrilla radio said the assault on the mountain was a failure, that the guerrillas all had slipped away.
Jouncing over rock-pile roads, two of us standing in the back of the truck, we got to Cinquera without seeing anyone but peasants and a small garrison near the blasted town of Tejutepeque. The church there is a hollow shell, its outdoor cross slumped to one side and the houses blackened hulks. Tiny Cinquera was lively by contrast, with dozens of barefoot children directing us to the one general store where we bought some colas and chatted with the owner.
"No, you can't get to the lake," she said. "The road is mined. Very dangerous." She said there were deep ditches across the road and that "the boys," meaning guerrillas, were out there. "Oooh, yes, lots of shooting last night," she said. We were happy because that meant escaping guerrillas had traded potshots with the local garrison and might still be in the area.
Children clinging to the truck bed, we drove around the little town square and down the road that led to the lake. We had not gone 100 yards when the road petered out into a narrow, weedy footpath overhung with branches. "Don't go," the kids said. "It's mined." But they were laughing, the way kids do, and we were after a story. We didn't even argue about whether to continue.
Baughman took a long stick and led the way on foot. We went about 50 yards and I made a decision. "I'm chickening out," I said. "I'll wait in the truck." Baughman gave me the keys and the three men went on.
I had barely returned to the truck when there was an explosion, but I couldn't tell where it had been. The kids said it had been down the path. They weren't laughing.
After waiting a few minutes, I started down the path. The garrison was right behind me. They were worried that they might get shot, but they came ahead. I met Sandza coming back. Baughman and Nachtwey were sitting in the path, white as sheets. The soldiers quickly brought two long bamboo poles and three men stripped off their khaki shirts, putting the poles through the sleeves to make a stretcher. I took off my scarf and made a tourniquet for Nachtwey. Sandza and the soldiers carried Baughman on the stretcher back to the truck.
Baughman was very calm although in considerable pain, especially when I clumsily bumped his twisted foot. He said he had tripped the mine when he hit a thin fishing line stretched across the path. "I missed it," he said. The concussion from the blast snapped his leg, he said, and a piece of shrapnel hit Nachtwey in the right lower leg.
The soldiers radioed for help and it came in about 20 minutes, a two-passenger helicopter with no sides. We propped Baughman in the small space behind the seats, wedged ourselves in beside him, legs dangling, and flew back to the military hospital. We left the truck in Cinquera, and I guess we'll go back to get it tomorrow.
One soldier at the garrison was clearly contemptuous of all the fuss. "That's nothing," he said, looking at Baughman's leg. "Lots of my friends are dead."