Man found hiding from war after 32 years
BY DIEGO MENDEZ
SAN JOSE LAS FLORES, El Salvador -- There had long been rumors
of a strange figure haunting the swampy jungles where René Sonabo
hunted. He and friends
decided to investigate.
What they found was a gaunt, pallid figure in ragged clothes who claimed he had spent 32 years hiding from soldiers after fleeing a war that lasted barely 100 hours.
Now 72-year-old Salomón Vides is home, apparently adjusting to the simple skills of civilization: how to wear shoes, how to open a flip-top soda pop can.
As he tells the story, Vides was a migrant worker on farms near Honduras's northern coast when El Salvador, his own country, invaded Honduras in 1969.
The war lasted about 100 hours before the Organization of American States intervened to halt it.
But Vides says he never got word of the settlement.
He says he fled from the farm to escape Honduran paramilitaries who were taking vengeance on Salvadorans and crossed into neighboring Guatemala.
``I thought they were chasing me. I was afraid,'' he said in soft, halting speech.
Vides said Guatemalan soldiers had arrested him as he crossed the border and then took him to a barracks at Puerto Barrios on the Caribbean coast. He says he soon slipped away.
``I escaped as I could. I swam in the sea and left into the jungle,
walking and walking until I fell,'' he recalled. ``When I awoke, I heard
shots. I thought the war was
continuing, and I kept running.''
Vides said he survived on wild greens, roots, fruit, small turtles and fish he caught on deserted beaches.
It has been impossible for journalists to verify all of Vides'
account. However, he apparently was missing for all those years, and residents
had heard rumors of his
presence in the jungle. His halting speech, hollow cheeks and difficulty opening a modern soda can seem to support his story.
The area where Vides was found is popular with hunters, and Vides said their shots had alarmed him, driving him back to a series of jungle hideouts, which he has since showed to reporters.
Sonabo, a taxi driver and amateur radio operator from Puerto Barrios, said he had heard of ``a man who lived on the mountain'' in the jungles where he hunted.
Twice he caught glimpses of Vides, who slipped away into the jungle. ``We found his tracks, found some little places like nests where he had passed by,'' Sonabo said.
Finally, in mid-August, Sonabo, his son and a friend came upon Vides while the hermit was eating. He raised his hands in surrender.
``He thought we were militiamen who had come to capture him. He said, `If you are going to kill me, kill me,' '' Sonabo said.
``There was nothing I could do but give up,'' Vides said. ``But they convinced me that nobody was chasing me. That made me happy.''
Sonabo contacted ham radio operators in El Salvador, and they passed word to Vides' stunned relatives.
``We had all given him up for dead and had even prayed for his soul to rest in peace,'' said his brother Fidel, 58.
On Sept. 15, Fidel arrived in Puerto Barrios and headed for the jungle. With the aid of hunters and rescue workers, he persuaded his brother to come home.
Last week, Vides came back to his native village of San José Las Flores to renew his identity papers and visit other relatives.
Fidel said they were also trying to locate Vides' wife and three children.