The Guatemalan army was not going to let us relax. Every night we heard their boms drop. Another night they dropped leaflets on the camp, telling us that the army was acting with the authority of God.
Can a few foreign volunteers protect 2,500 Guatemalan refugees from soldiers and death squads? So far, yes. At least that is the experience of the first months of Project Accompaniment, which sent nine Canadian volunteers to escort the first wave of Guatemalans returning home from Mexico in January, 1993. Long-term success can only be measured when all those who wish to return have re-settled in their homeland in peace; this may take years.
But I am proud and grateful that I was one of the first nine volunteers from Project Accompaniment, a network set up by church, solidarity, peace and community groups to answer a call from Guatemalan refugees wishing to return home from their camps in Mexico.
They asked for Canadians because many had visited them in their camps during their ten or eleven years of exile. For two years, the refugees negotiated with the Guatemalan government and the United Nations, demanding the right to return on their own terms, and to be accompanied by international observers.
In spite of a decade of military massacres, what some call a deliberate campaign of genocide against Guatemala's indigenous people, there has been little interest by the international press. So accompaniers were there to represent the eyes of the world, and toreport to a network of concerned citizens back home, who would lobby their own governments and respond to urgent action calls. Accompaniers would also, they hoped, deter further aggression by a military that still retains the power in the Guatemalan countryside, despite a civilian government.
And that is why, with considerable fear, I found myself in a Guatemalan refugee camp near Cancun, waiting for buses that would take us more than a thousand miles, and then down to Guatemala City and up to the Ixcan jungle, the place chosen by the refugees themselves for their new home. Ixcan was their original home, the very place they had fled nearly a dozen years ago. Most of the refugees had family members killed in the Ixcan. Some still had nightmares of stumbling upon bodies burned black, hanging in tree s and of seeing babies bayoneted by soldiers.
To go back was to remember. It was also a challenge to the government, which would prefer that the refugees trickled back in family groups instead of such a provocative cavalcade. And the army persisted in claiming that all those who returned were subversives and those who were accompanying them were just as dangerous.
So it was a marvellous surprise that to us all 67 of our buses crossed the border without incident. There were shouts of hundreds of well-wishers all along the route down to Guatemala City. Of course, there were incidents along the way. Guatemalan immigration police harassed the refugees; government authorities withheld food and blankets and finally refused any help, handing over the job of providing food and shelter to the Guatemalan churches.
The road to the Ixcan camp was not repaired as promised. In fact, the mud was so thick it took three days for us to travel 150 miles in cattle trucks. The promises of shelter in the camp turned out to be two huts with tin roofs, barely large enough for ten families.
Refugees and accompaniers set about building a new town in the jungle, cutting down trees with machetes, using vines to tie beams and posts together, thatching roofs with palm leaves. Before long, the camp had a school, a medical clinic, three cooperative stores, and a new name: Victoria January 20, named after the day we re-entered Guatemala.
But the Guatemalan army was not going to let us relax. Every night at nine o'clock two helicopters throbbed overhead without lights, patrolling what it called the "conflict zone" on the other side of the river where we fished and swam and washed our clothes. Every night we heard their bombs drop. One night there were 21 explosions. Another night they dropped leaflets on the camp, telling us that the army was acting with the authority of God. And an anonymous call to Peace Brigades International warned that all those foreigners who were "interfering" would die.
Every day, we would accompany any group of refugees who left the camp, whether to shop in stores in the nearest town, to investigate land that might be bought, or to go all the way back to Guatemala City to lodge official complaints as when one refugee was hurt by a landmine close to camp. We were on duty at the bridge into camp in case the military came, though there was nothing we could do but radio out through an emergency medical radio.
By the time I left, to be replaced by other volunteers, the return remained peaceful. How far we contributed to that safety is difficult to tell. Perhaps we did deter aggression, in a political climate newly susceptible to international opinion.
Though most of us lost weight on rice and beans, and returned with tales of scorpions and tarantulas, two new groups have volunteered and four more trainings are planned so that other refugee returns can be accompanied and there can be continued presence in the new settlements.
How far can Guatemalans press for peace? The world held its breath at the end of May, when the president, Jorge Serrano Elias, dissolved the legislature and the constitution, citing an impending military coup. When Serrano was forced to resign because of protests, the army tried to install its own presidential candidate, closed all borders, censored the press and put activists under house arrest. Canadians from Project Accompaniment lay low, trusting in the people to counter the military but to do it peacefully.
Alison Acker has retired after a teaching career at Ryerson Polytechnic University.