Guatemala refugees to go home soon Fears still fresh after lengthy exile

January 15, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau Contributing writer Caitlin Franke contributed to this article.

MEXICO CITY -- After 10 years of living in camps of tin-and-stick huts across the Mexican border, some 40,000 Guatemalans may still have to wait days before they can finally return to their war-torn country.

Organizers of the return program announced that logistical differences with the Guatemalan government had been resolved but that the first returnees could not be processed for several days, perhaps as long as two weeks.

Though there has been much joy, it's still not the jubilant return they had hoped for.

Only a few weeks ago, it was reported, the Guatemalan military )) attacked villages near the northern Guatemala site where most of the refugees are to resettle. The villages, say military officials, are guerrilla strongholds.

Defense Minister Garcia Samayoa has made proclamations that any refugees suspected of collaboration with the guerrillas would be arrested as soon as they cross the border. Other officials have said the return is part of a plan by the guerrillas to take control of the country.

Any trust built between the refugees and the government has fTC been shattered. And human rights workers monitoring the refugee return say that the military's recent actions show that despite the good intentions proclaimed by Guatemala's civilian president, Jorge Serrano Elias, the military retains substantial control and uses its power for intimidation and violence.

For 30 years, the country of 10 million has been ravaged by a

cruel civil war -- Central America's longest -- in which about 120,000 people were killed and about 40,000 have disappeared.

The military controlled the government until 1985 and defended its ruthless campaigns of terror as part of the ugly reality of war. But even though Mr. Serrano, a civilian, now sits in the president's office, Western diplomats say his control over the military is tenuous at best.

"The army tells us, 'We are in the midst of armed conflict, so forgive us for assassinations. Forgive us for illegal arrests. Its all a part of war,' " says Amilcar Mendez, founder the Council of Ethnic Communities (CERJ), the first human rights group in Guatemala working to defend villagers who refuse to serve in the military's civilian patrols. Since the formation of CERJ in 1988, about 19 volunteers have been assassinated.

Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans fled into Mexico during the early 1980s, the height of the military's scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaigns in which hundreds of villages were burned to the ground and bodies were commonly found strewn along roads and riverbeds.

More than 40,000 refugees have lived in camps in Mexico's southern states of Chiapas, Campeche and Quintana Roo.

Recent negotiations have failed to produce a peace agreement between the government and guerrilla groups. But on Oct. 8, government officials and leaders of refugee groups signed an unprecedented agreement that guaranteed the refugees safe passage home and rights to the land they abandoned. The agreement also gave the refugees the power to determine how, when and by what route they would return.

To ensure their safety and to make a powerful political statement, the refugees demanded that they be allowed to return in large groups. Their goal was to send more than 5,000 people back in the first trip across the border.

But last week the government suddenly announced that to assure the refugees' safety, it could only allow 500 refugees to enter the country every four days.

Furthermore, the government appeared to renege on its agreement to allow the refugees to return on one of the country's main highways. The Pan American Highway would have taken the refugees on a 500-mile loop through several major towns, including the country's capital, where they had hoped to stage a large rally.

"The government has certainly violated the intent, if not the letter of the agreement," said Curt Wands, of the National Coordinating Office on Refugees and the Displaced of Guatemala.

The government's had proposed a 65-mile route straight across the Mexican border to the refugees' destination in the northern region of Ixcan.

"Many of the refugees are very young and the trip is going to be difficult," said Michele Marsicovetere, of the government's Special Commission for Attention to the Repatriates. "We want to make it as easy as possible. Our concerns are strictly humanitarian."

Refugees leaders called the last-minute demands the result of military pressure. Army officers suspect that most of the refugees are linked to the guerrillas. And the military fears the refugees could come back and inspire more popular opposition, says Alfonso Bauer Pais, an attorney for the refugees.

"The [government's] route avoids any contact with other Guatemalan villages and so the military is better able to maintain its propaganda that the refugees are linked with the guerrillas," Mr. Wands said. "The refugees want to be seen because they want to be able to tell the people that, 'We're all farmers and we are all working for the same thing.' "

After a week of negotiations -- attended by Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan who won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, as well as church and United Nations representatives -- the government gave into the refugees' demands about the numbers and the route.

The United Nations will provide logistical support, including food, buses and lodging. And U.N. representatives will be assigned to report any attacks on the refugees or violations of their freedom of speech.

Others have less grandiose dreams.

"We are afraid about going back because we know there are still many dangers," said Miguel Andres, 33. "But we are Guatemalans and we want our children to grow up in their own country."

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