The skulls were scattered down the gully behind the building like broken soccer balls. Counting the one in the wood storage pit, the one with spine and ribs that one guerrilla brought over on a stick, and the three in the blasted cornfield, and guessing at the larger fragments, there were 14 skulls in all.
Trousers, shirts, dresses stained dark lay trampled in the dust yesterday in the village of El Campanario, 50 miles southeast of here.
The guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, showing the site to Western reporters, said the Salvadoran Army had come in here Jan. 23 and 25 and killed 122 people, beheading 75.
But the Salvadoran government today insisted that the bones are those of the guerrillas' own war dead, saved just to be shown to foreign journalists as part of a coordinated guerrilla effort to get U.S. aid to El Salvador cut off.
Armed Forces spokesman Col. Marco Aurelio Gonzalez noted that soldiers fighting entrenched guerrillas on the Guazapa volcano last week discovered what they said was a large mass grave of guerrilla dead. "If we hadn't found that cemetery it would have been produced later as proof of another military massacre," he said.
The U.S. Embassy said today it is investigating the charges.
The massacre allegations began last week when a woman named Amanda Parada told the Roman Catholic Church's Legal Aid office that soldiers had killed 108 people here around Jan. 19, mostly women and children. Gonzalez today showed a press release issued in February by a San Francisco, Calif., group called El Salvador Libre that said soldiers had killed 50 civilians in this area on Jan. 26. "The idea is to try to show that what they published there is true," Gonzalez said.
Like so much else in the civil war that is wracking this tiny country, these conflicting accounts are impossible to verify. The site raised more questions than a guerrilla identified as Nelson seemed able to answer, but the skulls indicate that at least 14 people died here recently. Two skulls were those of children.
"There aren't any witnesses," Nelson said. "They fled." On Jan. 23, he said, the community got word that large numbers of soldiers were surrounding the area, preparing a major sweep. Most of the 2,000 residents fled, and the guerrillas in the area slipped away.
He said about 3,000 soldiers moved into the area in force, and that one group came to San Benito near here and killed a family of 12 and stuffed the bodies down a well.
There are dried dark stains on the dirt floor of one house and on the well, and there is a nasty odor from the deep well. The bottom can be seen dimly, but only two shiny brown objects that could be skulls are visible at the bottom. It did not look like 12 bodies. However, there were troop movements in the area around that time, according to diplomatic observers.
As several women and children stood by during his account, nodding solemnly, Nelson said that on Jan. 25, a group of 35 soldiers walked to El Campanario, where they found the church full of people praying.
There is a crude blue sign with white letters in front of the building near the skulls that says, in Spanish, United Pentecostal Church, but inside are two plank beds, an overturned table and broken, dirty dishes, plus several chairs and a small table bearing Pentecostal hymnals in Spanish.a church.
Another guerrilla identified as Belisario said the soldiers pulled 30 people from this building, gathered 45 more from neighboring houses, lined them up along the gully and beheaded them with machetes.
In the next village, La Pita Puente, the soldiers killed 35 people, Nelson said, for a total in the three towns of 122.
Asked why there were not more bones, more clothes more skulls, Nelson and Belisario shrugged.
"There were a lot more but the dogs carried them off," Nelson said. "After all, it's been two months." Asked why they had waited so long to make this public, Nelson said it had been announced by guerrilla radio "a few times" but that no one had paid much attention to it.