"I have nightmares about El Salvador. On the way to school we would see dead people in a lot of blood," recalled 17-year-old Iris Merlos.

"I lived near the police station. Once, when I came from school, the station was being attacked. There was a helicopter shooting. Our bus driver kept going. Everybody was on the floor. The driver stopped about four blocks from the station and we had to get out. I went to a friend's house to wait.

"In El Salvador you were always afraid someone would shoot you," she said. "Almost every night when we were trying to sleep we would hear shooting. You always remember these things."

Today, Iris is one of the hundreds of Salvadoran children of war in the District's public school system. It is still unclear what effect her war experiences will have on her, but many of her peers are already feeling psychological and emotional effects from years spent in the midst of a war. And the city offers them little help with their problems.

"There are children who need counseling and are not getting it," said Marcelo Fernandez, director of the schools' Division of Bilingual Education. "In the area of counselors, we are weak. We're bringing people from a war situation to a place of peace, but mentally they are still at war.

"The regular school counselor is not a person trained in some of the areas we're facing with this new population, problems like alienation, the mental anguish of separation, a sense of loss, many of the things that are a consequence of a war situation," said Fernandez. "School counselors are trained to help children find more options for careers or to cope with certain problems. We need counselors trained to help this population."

The mental and physical scars of many of these children are increased by their separation from a mother or father, lack of formal education, little knowledge of English, and health problems. The children face the cultural shock of moving from a familiar rural village in the midst of plush greenery to a city of asphalt and concrete, with no mango trees to climb, no fields to roam.

At least a third of the children have emotional or mental problems related to the horror of living in a war-torn country, according to official estimates.

These children may be extremely nervous, fight often, not pay attention in class or have mental blocks that impair their learning, according to experts.

"Some of these children scream and get very scared if a teacher talks loud in class," said Juana Puentes, a counselor at Andromeda Hispanic Mental Health Center in Adams-Morgan.

"Most of these children are really scared there is going to be a war here."

Andromeda, the only agency in the city offering mental health services specifically for Hispanics, recently asked for more federal and city funds because of its growing clientele.

The number of Hispanic children in District prekindergarten through 12th grade classes tripled between 1980 and last year, from 1,212 to 3,683. Most are from El Salvador.

"We have had a very difficult time predicting the number of incoming Hispanic students . . . ," said Hugo C. Galindo, executive assistant of the Division of Bilingual Education.

"Last year, we predicted 800 such students would register this year. Already we know the predictions are short, because we are getting 25 to 30 a week, with 80 percent of them being Salvadorans."

Often these children speak of atrocities in matter-of-fact tones.

"I saw a man and a woman dead in the street. The man's head was cut off and it was put on the woman's stomach," said Freddie, a 12-year-old Ross Elementary School pupil.

"I saw the body of a man in an alley. He was cut up like mincemeat," said Jose, a classmate. The boys agreed to be interviewed only if their full names were not used.

"These children are too young; the trauma has not set in," said Erasmo Garza, assistant principal at Ross in Adams-Morgan. "That's why we need counseling now -- in the elementary schools. We need to reach them while they are still young."

But he added, "We have three bilingual psychologists" for 184 schools.

In the older children, the horrible memories sometimes are manifested in aggressive behavior or an inability to pay attention in school, counselors said.

"They have seen everything, and they forget very little," said Fernandez, director of the Division of Bilingual Education.

Counselor Puentes said the children show symptoms similar to those found in Vietnam veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder: nightmares, flashbacks, guilty feelings and difficulties getting along with others.

"Right now, the little kids have a lot of nightmares and the older ones try to suppress violence, and it comes out in school problems," said Eugenio Cid, Andromeda coordinator for mental health services. "This is an explosive problem that came so suddenly that the schools were not ready to cope."

Galindo added, "There is a great need to increase the mental health services in this city. Andromeda is receiving referrals from schools and from social service agencies. One agency can't do it all."

Some of the children have had no schooling and have left behind family members, further complicating their adjustment.

"Some of these kids have never been to school," said Garza. "We have to teach them what that means. They don't know how to sit still, to write. They don't know what it is to study. Homework has no meaning to them."

Even success has an adverse effect on some of the children. Excelling in English may mean placement in classes with mostly American pupils -- away from the relative security of bilingual programs with their peers, counselors said. Children who speak English well may have to miss school to translate for their Spanish-speaking parents.

Since 1975, the number of bilingual teachers in the schools has increased from 14 to 100.

The school system has not collected data on the dropout rate among Hispanics, but registration figures for the past few years indicate a loss of students in high school, Galindo said.

Some children must adjust to a new family, counselors said.

"The father may have come here earlier, and he finds a lady he likes and they set up household," said Ricardo Galbis, executive director of Andromeda. "Then he imports his other children. He may end up with two sets of children: his original children and a new family. The original children resent it and may rebel."

Puentes added, "It is sometimes very difficult because of long separations from the family. A child may be separated six to 10 years if the mother comes here first. When they see each other again, they are strangers, each with their own expectations."

When Iris Merlos, her mother and two sisters left El Salvador two years ago, her father, a soldier in the Army, decided to stay and fight.

"I think about my father and get homesick," she said. "He tried to prepare us. He told us to forget everything about our country. I am happy here, but it is a different kind of happy."

Faced with the mounting influx of these children of war, the school system is working on a comprehensive plan to help them, said Garza, adding, "It takes time, there are many components, and it requires a lot of money and personnel."

The city may have to consider changing its law requiring city employes to live in the District to get additional teachers, counselors and administrators who are experienced in working with refugee problems.

"The city's rule of hiring only residents may have to change," Garza said.

"I think it's going to be necessary to hire people from outside the city. The city doesn't have affordable housing, so the qualified people often live in the suburbs."

Garza said the professionals needed are more likely to live in Alexandria or Fairfax County, where Vietnamese refugees have settled, or in Prince George's County, where the fastest-growing groups are Indochinese, Afghans and Ethiopians.

"We are looking at previous studies of other immigrants, but we are in a unique situation," Garza said.

"In the Southwest, Hispanics are easily integrated into the large Mexican poulation. In Florida, most of the Cuban immigrants were middle-class families, and the Puerto Ricans in New York have never been through a war."

He added, "We are doing a lot of testing and work that will give us information on how to best help these children. Hopefully, by the end of the year we'll have a new direction."