On the morning of Oct. 15, 1979, a relatively unknown colonel in the Salvadoran Army telephoned President Carlos Humberto Romero. Rebel officers had taken over four key military installations, the colonel told Romero; the chief executive had until 3 p.m. to leave the country.

Nearly a decade has passed since three Salvadoran officers overthrew the government of Latin America's smallest country, ostensibly to fend off communism. Since then, El Salvador has been beset by strife. The economy -- agriculture and manufacturing -- has declined drastically. A vicious civil war has killed an estimated 61,000 civilians, while an additional 450,000 have fled their homes for other parts of the country to avoid the war.

And an estimated 750,000 people have left the country -- most of them northward. Young, undereducated, underskilled, illegal and often traumatized by the war, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans have come to the United States.

An estimated 80,000 Salvadorans now live in the city of Washington alone, mostly in Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant. Up to 100,000 more reside in the surrounding suburbs, in Takoma Park, Langley Park, Hyattsville, Wheaton, Silver Spring and Northern Virginia.

In fact, the metropolitan area now has the second-largest Salvadoran community in the United States, exceeded only by Los Angeles.

The stories they tell, of what they left behind, of how they came here and why, and of the problems they confront, are strikingly similar. All but one of those interviewed asked that their full names not be used because they are here illegally. All were interviewed in the presence of a teacher, counselor or social worker.

Raul is from a small village in the heart of the civil war. The son of a corn farmer, he remembers skipping school to avoid the soldiers who stood outside his classrooms to draft young boys. He also remembers the skirmishes. "When the bombs fell," he said, "you could see some kind of glow."

At age 15, and without his family, he entered the United States. He spoke no English, but said that was only part of his discomfort. "It's not only the language. You don't know the place, the people. It's like starting all over again. You feel uncomfortable. It's not your place."

He enrolled in the District's Multicultural Intern Center Program, an alternative high school for foreign students. He worked hard at school and this year was valedictorian. "When I missed my mom the most was graduation day," he said.

Raul won a summer internship at a Howard University laboratory and a $1,000 scholarship for college. But when he went to register at the University of the District of Columbia, he said, a school official asked him for a Social Security card to back up the number he had written on his application.

He left without registering. Returning to his high school, he got the courage he needed to face the university's bureaucracy one more time. "They said 'No, you're not going to stay out of school. You're going to try again. You can't just stay home,' " he recalled.

He returned, managed to enroll and will begin a major in computer information in January. "I feel much better," he said.

Mario Vilches, 22, said he, too, still hears the gunfire that drove him out of El Salvador. "They {the Salvadoran Army} took over the place I used to live," he said. "They killed five of my friends."

After serving in that army for four years, Vilches said he could stand the killing no longer. He deserted the army and fled to the United States last year, crossing the Mexican border in a pickup truck and flying to Washington, "where I heard there were lots of jobs."

Soon after his arrival, he developed kidney trouble, but felt that if he sought medical help, he might be turned over to immigration officials. So he did nothing. One day in April, he collapsed, awaking in a ward of D.C. General Hospital, where he remained through two operations over two months.

After he recovered, he found a temporary job and earned $83, but the check stayed in the pocket of his jeans for weeks, because he had no identification with which to cash it. Eventually, a priest endorsed the check so he could cash it.

Now he eats with friends at soup kitchens and sleeps at La Morada, the bilingual homeless shelter on Irving Street NW.

"When I tell my American friends the things that I've seen in El Salvador," said Efrain, "they don't believe me." Efrain described how two friends of his were beheaded by death squads for being "communists." Others were rounded up and forced into the army.

"They {the soldiers} go on the streets in trucks and jeeps and if they see an 18-year-old they capture him. If you run, they shoot."

"It was hard to leave," he said. "You don't know what you're going to find here." But, he said, "if I go back, I have two choices: I join the Army or the guerrillas . . . . Either way I have to fight."

Maria is a shy 20-year-old who came here from the Salvadoran province of La Union.

"There's possibilities here that don't exist in El Salvador," she said, explaining her decision to come to the United States, leaving her 2-year-old daughter behind with relatives.

"I met the coyote {smuggler} in San Salvador and traveled with 38 others," she said of her odyssey, for which she paid $1,900. For 20 days she traveled. "We walked. We ran, we drove." After 20 days of travel, she arrived here in October 1986, shoeless, tired and sick.

Quickly, as others had told her she would, she found work as a domestic. Two weeks' work: $170 pay. Two weeks' work: $180 pay. For three months Maria toiled, and then, for reasons Maria could not comprehend, her employer stopped paying her. Unsure of what to do, unsure of the customs of this country, Maria turned to social service caseworker Ana Portillo for help. The money never came. But with Portillo's help, Maria found work elsewhere.

Maria had intended to leave her daughter Jessica with an aunt for only a short while, until she had money to send for her. "I don't have any money," she said. "It all goes to rent. For the past three months I haven't been able to send money to my daughter."

"I like here, but I miss my daughter."

Most of the new arrivals, such as Maria, are young. One study done for the Department of Health and Human Services in June 1985 indicates that most of the immigrants from El Salvador since 1980 have been between 16 and 22.

Most are or have been separated from their families for some period of time. Child psychologist Vilma Iraheta, who works here with Salvadoran youth, estimates that the average period that parents are separated from their children is six years.

And more than 67 percent of the Salvadorans here come from areas of heavy conflict in El Salvador's civil war, such as San Miguel, La Union, Morazon, Chalatenango and Usulutan.

In many ways, Salvadorans are a people traumatized by a cruel past and fearful of an uncertain future. The Marti uprising in 1932 is considered a turning point in Salvadoran history. Farabundo Marti, one of Central America's first communists (and the person for whom the modern-day guerrilla force Marti National Liberation Front is named), was to lead the country's peasants in an uprising against a military-controlled government.

The uprising failed. The result: La Matanza -- the massacre. Within weeks 30,000 peasants, 4 percent of the population, were killed. In its wake emerged the longest-running military rule in Latin America.

There also emerged a tradition of Salvadoran emigration. One of the oldest Salvadoran communities in the country, in San Francisco, can be traced to the 1930s. Salvadoran migration to the Washington area can be traced to the post-World War II era, said Dr. Lucy Cohen, a medical anthropology professor at Catholic University.

Many diplomats -- both Central American and those from the United States -- are believed to have brought domestic help from El Salvador to Washington. These domestics, though relatively few, would act as the seeds of a growing network of friends and relatives who eventually came to Washington beginning in 1979.

The trickle that made it to Washington in those times was following another Latin American tradition, said Olivia Cadaval, a doctoral student at George Washington University who is studying the history of Adams-Morgan. "In Latin America, if anything happens anywhere it's in the capital," she said.

"It was a necessary connection because of the embassy and because of the diplomatic ties," said Roberto Alfaro, president-elect of CARNET, the Central American Refugee Network, an umbrella organization for 38 local agencies that provides support for Central American refugees nationwide.

Iraheta, the child psychologist, said Salvadoran families, generally close-knit, often endure two types of traumas after arriving here: that of being separated and that of being reunited.

Six years may very well pass before Maria will see her Jessica again, six of the most influential years of Jessica's life. "They {the children} don't know their parents when they are reunited," Iraheta said. And often the reunions are under adverse circumstances. "The kids are never consulted on whether they want to come, they're just brought here. They suddenly lose everything familiar to them: their family and their friends."

"Their hope is for the war to end," said Sylvia Rosales, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center in Washington. "That's the general life philosophy of Salvadorans. They just say, 'I'm passing through.' They all agree that they're better off here. But they're not happy."Staff writers Dana Priest and Mary Jordan contributed to this report.