El Salvador

With a fresh coat of blue pastel wash and a brand new belfry, Our Lady of Guadeloupe Church presented a gay figure to passers-by on the Pan-American Highway winding through the center of El Salvador.

Almost 100 parishoners were gathered around for a Sunday afternoon ceremony to dedicate the new stucco tower. A band of fiddles and horns held forth on the porch, playing what sounded like 1930s swing favorites passed through a Latin filter. Father Hurquis had traveled over from the next town to preside in his splendid white cassock.

For the peasants of La Virgen, a hamlet along the highway, it was a festive occasion despite black clouds and a tropical downpour that sent girls in their white dresses running and laughing for shelter. For some foreign visitors who happened by, the simple joy around the church presented a startling contrast with the ugly realties of civil war only 10 miles down the road.

THE CORPSE LAY with his head against the bank and his feet nearly touching the center line. A black halo surrounded him where someone had poured gasoline and set him afire.

He had been a leftist guerrilla, killed the day before in a clash with Salvadoran Army troops, a woman from the nearby farm said. Neither she nor her husband knew why the body was allowed to lie there on the country's main highway -- or who had set him afire, or why. It was not their war, they said.

The two tableaux, one hard on the other, reminded a recent arrival from the Middle East once again how civil war can flourish like a poisonous weed in the midst of an apparently healthy people trying -- perhaps harder than they ordinarily would -- to live in peace.

That is the way it used to be in Beirut before the Israeli invasion escalated fighting there to the level of nations. Until last summer, the crackle of automatic-weapons fire was just as de rigueur during dinner at Jean-Pierre's as imported French wine and the catch of the day from the Mediterranean.

IN EL SALVADOR it is a different conflict and a different people. But some of the signs of civil war are the same. You can, for example, sit sipping whisky in a luxurious home while guests exchange knowledgeable cracks about the gunfire outside to a background of fine music.

"Nothing to worry about," a foreign diplomat said recently after shots rang out during one such conversation recently in San Salvador. "There was no return fire. It's when there is return fire that you have to get concerned."

In Beirut, similar cocktail talk focused on who could identify the weaponry being used in the night outside. Sharp cracks were AK47 assault rifles, hollow thuds were mortars, whirs overhead were GRAD ground-to-ground missiles. It was called "knowing the music."

In the same vein, guerrillas blowing up power lines around San Salvador caused a half hour blackout in an Italian restaurant the other night -- whereupon service continued uninterrupted to the soft light of candles fixed in five- liter chianti bottles. No one seemed to mind. But the unmistakable sign was there. Just like they used to in Beirut, the waitress had to unlock the door to let the evening's final customers out into an empty street. It had been closed discreetly earlier on.

"YOU CAN GO directly that way, but it is better to go this way." The slim Salvadoran girl pointed toward a street with several shops. "There is more light. That way, there are too many assaults."

Along with the political violence has come common crime. U.S. Ambassador Deane R. Hinton recently estimated 30,000 murders have been committed in El Salvador since 1979, in addition to combat deaths. Although many are political assassinations, some also are the result of personal feuds and the kind of street crime that has made New York and Miami notorious.

The line between such crime and political violence ordinarily seems clear enough. But in San Salvador the distinction has blurred, apparently on purpose. Most of a group of leftist and labor activists rounded up last month, for instance, were dragged off without explanation by young gunmen in civilian clothes and no credentials to show.

The families, with no uniforms to go by and no officer to speak to, had nothing to go on in the search for their loved ones' whereabouts until the Defense Ministry issued a communique more than a week after the first abduction.

The youths can be seen any day driving about San Salvador on their unknown missions. Sitting in the back of Japanese pickup trucks, they cradle their German-made G3 automatic rifles on their knees and look straight ahead while the Salvadorans around them try to look the other way.