In El Salvador, female ex-guerrillas find everything and nothing has changed

April 04, 1993|By Fiona Neill | Fiona Neill,Contributing Writer

SAN JOSE LAS FLORES, El Salvador -- For 11 years, An Ayala was a guerrilla fighter for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) during this country's civil war.

Now, the war has been over for nearly a year. She has exchanged her M16 for a cooking pot and the other trappings of a housewife in the Latin American mode.

And like many of the other women who risked their lives with the FMLN, she has rediscovered a more intransigent enemy.

"I'm bored of living in the same place all the time without being with lots of people," says the 28-year-old Mrs. Ayala. "I feel isolated. I'm bored of doing the same thing every day, of cooking and looking after children."

The women who left their families and homes to join the guerrillas in the early 1980s are not the same as those who now return. But the society to which they return has changed little.

Rebecca Palacios, 38, who spent 21 years in the FMLN, runs the Melida Anaya Women's Movement, which deals with female former combatants. She says they are being "politically annihilated."

Thirty percent of the FMLN guerrillas who demobilized under the peace accords signed early last year were women. In defiance of their traditional role as mothers and wives, many Salvadoran women like Mrs. Ayala took up arms to become combatants, radio operators, nurses and cooks during the civil war. FMLN snipers were often women, and many urban commandoes were led by women, who were less likely to arouse suspicion and were more easily disguised than men were.

"No one was worth any more or any less than anyone else," says Mrs. Ayala, who, as a nurse, performed some amputations with a Swiss army knife and carried a rucksack with 50 pounds of medicine.

From 1988 on, she was one of a few female members of the "special forces," a crack rebel brigade responsible for intelligence work. Her job was to identify land that had been mined and to infiltrate military barracks to report back on the number of soldiers and the location of weapons. Many of the operations were high-risk missions from which she thought she would not return.

"They were suicide missions," she says, "It's a miracle that I'm still alive."

Today, Mrs. Ayala spends her days cooking and caring for her 8-month-old baby and 2-year-old daughter in the tiny two-room house she shares with her husband in this village in northern El Salvador.

Training programs are available for demobilized troops, but few women want to become farmers, and the sewing and cooking courses have little appeal.

Ms. Palacios' reintegration into civilian life has been helped by the positive attitude of her family, which were delighted to welcome her back down from the mountains. Other female former combatants have been rejected by their families, or have lost all their close relatives in the war. Many grew up in the ranks of the FMLN and know of no other life. In Chalatenango, a village north of San Salvador, the average age of demobilized troops is 20.

Mrs. Ayala says that peace has given her time to reflect on the friends and family she lost in the war. Her mother, and 7-year-old sister were murdered by members of the Salvadoran armed forces in a massacre in the eastern area of San Vicente in 1982.

Her first husband, with whom she joined the guerrillas, was killed in combat in 1984.

"I feel nostalgia because I lost all my family," she says. "In civilian life, you need to have family around. I think about all the people I will never see again, although you accept this because they were the ones who sacrificed their lives to get where we are now."

Not that Mrs. Ayala is any stranger to sacrifice. Her only rest from battle was three months' maternity leave after the birth of her first child in 1983. She fought until she was eight months pregnant, and she did not see her daughter for 6 years. She still doesn't see much of that daughter, who lives with her first husband's parents.

Many women in the FMLN put off having children during the war, although Mrs. Ayala says male combatants often pressured their girlfriends to get pregnant so there would be someone to follow them if they were killed. According to Mrs. Ayala, after a town was taken, priority was given to raiding the local pharmacy to stock up on supplies of condoms and birth control pills. "After annihilating the enemy, we went to the pharmacy," she says.

Even life in the FMLN was no egalitarian utopia for women, who were encouraged to be cooks and nurses rather than fighters.

Ms. Palacios spent seven of her 21 years in the FMLN as an urban commando and was one of few women who rose to become a military commander in the organization. She says, however, that women had to prove themselves more than men did to be promoted.

From 1981 to 1985, she led 1,400 troops in the eastern region of San Vicente, where she won fame for introducing new ambushing techniques and concealing land mines inside the bodies of dead animals, tactics she said she learned from reading about the Vietnam War.

The uneven male-female ratio in guerrilla camps of 40-50 combatants often led to sexual jealousy. But love-struck male fighters were not removed, Ms. Palacios says; women were expelled from the unit, charged with "prostituting the atmosphere."

Through their participation in the FMLN, however, women were given a taste of equality and empowerment previously denied them.

This is little consolation for Mrs. Ayala, who complains that her husband, who used to wash his own clothes and cook, now leaves all domestic chores to her. Once her baby is older, she TC hopes to find a job.

"I do not want to be a housewife," she says.

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