U.N. Observers Test Expanded Role in El Salvador

LA FLORIDA, EL SALVADOR — La Florida, El Salvador. -- In this remote hilltop village men in straw hats and women nursing infants gather to ask questions. "The army says we have to patrol against the guerrillas, but we don't want to confront either side. What do we do?" asks one man.

Sitting on a bench amid the crowd, a young German woman wearing the distinctive blue vest of the United Nations Observer Mission -- known as ONUSOL for its Spanish initials -- answers in a voice that suggests comfort and authority. Nearby, other mission members interview residents one by one about stories of government or guerrilla atrocities.


The scene is typical of an unprecedented effort by the United Nations to pull one of the world's most conflict-ravaged regions out of war. Since August, some 180 enthusiastic young lawyers and educators from 24 countries have fanned out to small towns and villages like this one to verify a cornerstone human rights agreement reached last year between leftist rebels of the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the conservative government of President Alfredo Christiani.

Arriving in white jeeps with blue flags flying, the teams meet with combatants on both sides and investigate allegations of abuse. So far, according to the mission's first full published report November 30, it has received more than 1,000 reports of violations of the agreement, including torture by authorities, forced recruitment by both sides, death squad threats and attacks on civilians in small towns.


Team members present formal accounts of the charges to guerrilla commanders or to local army barracks, depending on ++ which side has been accused. Only if the case can't be resolved in this way does the mission report the charges to the Secretary General, counting on moral pressure to be decisive.

U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar authorized ONUSOL to start its human rights mission last July after requests from both sides and despite the absence of a formal cease-fire. Once a cease-fire is declared -- possibly before the end of the year -- ONUSOL's second component, armed U.N. troops called "blue helmets," will be dispatched to verify it.

Observers see the $23 million ONUSOL as the latest sign of the U.N. 's increasingly high profile political role in the Americas, a role that began in 1989 when U.N. observer teams went to Nicaragua to monitor elections for the first time in a sovereign state.

This was followed by a formal request from Central America's presidents for U.N. troops to disarm the U.S.-backed contras and to verify accords aimed at quelling insurrectionist movements. If ONUSOL's efforts work in El Salvador, the U.N. is likely to apply the model elsewhere, propelling itself into an even more powerful role in resolving civil conflicts.

Here on the ground, obstacles to that vision are apparent everywhere.

"What we need is for you to overcome your fear and tell what happens in your hamlets -- we can only investigate abuses we're told about," educator Birgit Gerstenberg tells villagers here who listen intently.

But residents say over half of this village has stayed away from the meeting out of fear of reprisals from the army. Their distrust has deep roots. Most arrived here in the late 1980s after fleeing from rebel zones being bombed by government planes. Distrust of the army increased when government troops occupied villagers' homes for three days after ONUSOL representatives met with guerrilla leaders in the hamlet in September.

"It's hard for us to understand that both sides are going to respect rights now," explains Buena Ventura de Paz, 45. "To denounce one of these crimes to authorities has always meant to dig your own grave."


Resistance from Salvadoran ultra-conservatives has also been strong. Three shadowy groups with names like the Salvadoran Anti-Communist Front have circulated fliers and paid for newspaper ads accusing ONUSOL of violating El Salvador's national sovereignty, threatening merchants who do business with ONUSOL members. Recently, San Salvador mayor Armando Calderon Sol, a national rightist political figure, publicly accused ONUSOL of showing favoritism toward the guerrillas.

"The honeymoon is over, but we knew we weren't coming into a bed of roses," says Mario Zamorano, a senior mission member who directs ONUSOL's media campaign. "We're trying to convince people they've got to shake hands after 12 years of war."

Helen Hopps, one of the few Americans working with the mission, says she left refugee work in Washington D.C. in part because of the allure of breaking new ground. "I felt a call inside that this was right."

At an army outpost in Suchitoto, a battle-torn area two hours northeast of the capital, another ONUSOL member -- Col. Jose Morales of Spain's National Civilian Police -- reassures 50 soldiers of the Panther Battalion that the United Nations has not come to displace them but to verify accords their own generals have signed.

At first suspicious, gradually the soldiers begin peppering him with questions about the mission and what they should do if their families are threatened by the guerrillas. They warn ONUSOL members not to be misled by the FMLN.

"We're going to have to accustom ourselves to the fact that this country is on a democratic path, and you don't respond to insults or to those whose ideas you don't like with superior force," the Spanish colonel advises.