Long Path Home for Guatemalan Refugees

The refugees are traveling home from Mexico while international aid is diminishing. But exile has prepared potential new leaders

By Lisa Roberts | 1996-09-01 12:00:00

The hills and pine forests of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, are indistinguishable from the highlands of Guatemala across the border. Here in 110 refugee camps, 18,000 Guatemalan refugees are just a tantalizing short distance from the home they left almost 15 years ago.

From 1981 to 1983, indigenous Mayan campesinos flooded north from the terror of scorched earth - the anti-insurgency policy of Rios Montt, then President of Guatemala, which led to the massacre of at least 100,000 and the destruction of highland villages.

Some refugees, moving quietly as individuals and families, slipped back into Guatemala during the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s. Then, on Oct. 8, 1992, the Guatemalan government signed accords with the Permanent Commission (representatives of the refugees) to allow for their collective, organized return. These historic agreements are the first ever negotiated between refugees and their home government. The provisions include land credits repayable to a community fund, international accompaniment during and after the return, freedom of association, and the exemption of young men from military service for at least three years after their return. These are monitored by an international mediating team. An arduous return process - by plane, bus, boat, and foot - has created new, often isolated communities.

So far, 17,000 have returned collectively. Yet a group of the same size remains in the camps in Chiapas, plus almost 13,000 more in Yucatan camps. Caught amid the Zapatista conflict, a stalling Guatemalan government, and a fatigued and impatient international community, the remaining refugees face a difficult future with few options.

"The main reason people are still not returning is the lack of preconditions for their own security, and for being able to acquire land," says Margie Loo. A Prince Edward Island native, Loo is southern coordinator of Project Accompaniment, a network of Canadian NGOs, church groups, and other organizations that provides accompaniers for returning refugees and lobbies on their behalf in Canada. "To obtain this credit often takes two or three years," says Loo. "So people are tired of the wait. The government
doesn't particularly want to give more land credits to the uprooted families involved with the Oct. 8 accords."

The 35-year, ongoing civil war in Guatemala has left an enormous unsettled population within that country as well. Under the Agreement on the Resettlement of the Uprooted Population, part of the peace accords currently being negotiated between the government of President Arzu and the guerrillas, the government has far less liability than under the Oct. 8 accords. They won't be giving land credits, they don't have to allow international accompaniers, and there are no international mediators to hold the government to the agreement.

"It's much vaguer, it's much weaker," comments Loo.

The government hasn't granted any new land credits in recent months, and many refugee leaders and international solidarity workers suspect that the government would prefer to sign, perhaps by the end of 1996, and then begin dealing with the refugees under this same, weaker accord.

From their base in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, Loo and her work partner take turns visiting the camps in Mexico every month. In May, Loo was in Porvenir, one of several camps on land belonging to the Archdiocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, and administered by the Comité Cristiano. The land was bought with international support in the early 1980s, and the refugees live here rent free. Elsewhere, rent is a major hardship for refugees, who have seen a drop in income and increased tension with Mexicans since the Zapatista uprising. A group of local Mexicans invaded Porvenir in early 1994 and demanded that the land be distributed to Mexicans. The Comité Cristiano negotiated an understanding that the land was for the refugees until their situation was resolved. For the residents of Porvenir, however, it was a harsh reminder that their welcome in Mexico is temporary.

Hector Arciniega Nieves is the executive secretary of the Comité Cristiano. As well as administering lands for refugee camps, the Comité is also one of an ever smaller number of organizations working exclusively with the refugees. The difficulty of the return process, the Zapatista conflict, and waning international support make their work in education, economic projects, communication, and accompaniment difficult to accomplish.

"International assistance and solidarity with refugees have decreased enormously. We're half way through the year, and our budget has still not been authorized," says Arciniega. "The refugee situation has been overwhelmed by the conflict. That's where all the attention is focused."

The large-scale mobilization of Mexican troops in southern Chiapas causes additional hardship for both Mexicans and refugees. Because campesinos are afraid to go to their fields, the past three harvests have been poor. Serious shortages have raised the price of corn. "If they don't have a successful harvest this year, 1997 will be worse yet," says Arciniega.

Ironically, the World Food Program decided to cut its food aid to the refugees in Chiapas in February. They based that decision on the drop in global food reserves and the unusually long period - 12 years - that they have supported the refugees in Chiapas.

"It's a logical macro-economic argument that falls very nicely into an annual report, but certainly is totally absurd when seen in the local context," says Michel Gabaudan. He is the regional representative of United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Now based in comfortable offices in Mexico City, Gabaudan previously sat at the negotiating table with the Guatemalan government and the refugees as they hammered out the Oct. 8 accords. After the World Food Program's decision, UNHCR stepped in with basic food aid of corn, beans, and oil (a drop from 60% to 40% of their daily diet) - but only until the end of 1996. Along with NGOs and refugee organizations, UNHCR is also suffering from donor fatigue. "We paid the food program this year out of the general program," says Gabaudan. "We didn't try to convince our donors."

The refugees in the camps are a 20-hour bus ride south of Mexico City, with no phones and undependable mail. They can't follow every move in the international dance around them, but they are aware of the diminishing international support, and are feeling the effects.

"There aren't going to be any more medicines, because the NGOs aren't going to work with refugees any longer," says Santiago Pablo Diego, a health promoter in Porvenir and eloquent spokesperson for the refugees in the camps. "I don't know how the people will live. Today a group took a list to COMAR (the Mexican refugee agency) naming families who will repatriate because of this worry and because of the land invasions."

Repatriation to Guatemala is both the easiest and the least attractive option available. Repatriated refugees return to Guatemala as individuals. They are given credit to buy land and they must repay the loan to the government. There is no international accompaniment and no network of solidarity to advocate for them.

"The government has no commitment beyond dropping them off at their land. That's it." says Sebastian Torrez-Torrez, of the Permanent Commission. "And if anything bad happens, the repatriated refugee doesn't have the strength to protest."

A third (non)option is to integrate into Mexico. Because so many of their children were born in Mexico in the past 15 years, about 50% of the refugee population holds Mexican citizenship. However, none of them meet the 18 years age requirement to buy land. Especially young people, but many of their parents as well, would like to stay in Mexico. A survey was done in the Campeche and Quintana Roo camps, where 70% and 55% of the respondents respectively said they would like to consider integration. The survey was carried out by COMAR. After raising hopes in the camps that a formal integration proposal was in the works, COMAR's director was shuffled into another post and talks of integration were indefinitely suspended. Yet again, the refugees were left confused and disheartened.

Santiago is prepared to return or repatriate with his wife Maria and their four children, but he wants to see the peace accords signed first. He was horrified at the strong showing in the 1996 elections of Rios Montt's party. Holding sleeping three-year-old Catarina in his arms, Santiago looks into the shadows beyond the candlelight.

"My parents were killed by the army," he says. "My village was scorched earth. I don't seek vengeance. The majority of us plan to go back to Guatemala, but we want to see change in the country - to see a signed peace, and the government fulfilling its agreements. Then we'll go back with pleasure. But the situation in Guatemala remains difficult. There was the massacre in Xaman. Now they won't give credit to buy land. For me, it shows a policy of not wanting the returnees."

The Xaman massacre occurred in October 1995. An army patrol entered the returned community during the one-year anniversary celebrations of their return from Mexico and killed 11 people. Loo has seen the impact of this horrific reminder of the past on the refugees still in Mexico. "Virtually every return movement since then has had a lot of people change their minds at the last minute," she says. "They just can't get on the plane or the bus. Lots of people still want to go back, but it's hard to mobilize large groups like before."

While there is little doubt that President Alvaro Arzu will strive to avoid a repeat of Xaman, Guatemala is still far from the stable, democratic country - and potential market and source of labor - which the international community wants it to be. There are about six kidnappings a day. The Civil Defence Patrols (community-based anti-guerrilla groups that have caused many human rights abuses) are still active. All six parliamentary deputies of the Democratic Front New Guatemala, a new coalition of popular and indigenous movements which participated in the 1995 elections, have received death threats since taking office. One of the Permanent Commission's offices in Guatemala City was broken into and vandalized. Moreover, the military, reacting to Arzu's attempt to curb their power, has instigated a crime wave of kidnappings for ransom, carjackings, and lynchings of delinquents. It is estimated that the military controls 75% of organized crime.

Loo argues that the refugees need continued international support. Many of them are reluctant to return to Guatemala before the peace accords are signed. However, the Guatemalan government is not even living up to its end of the Oct. 8 accords. The promised infrastructure for the new communities hasn't been provided; health and education promoters who were to be paid salaries by the government have not been recognized. The reluctance of the government to negotiate more credits has virtually stopped the return process.

"One reason why the Guatemalan refugees have received as much support as they have," says Loo, "is because they were seen as politically important for the future reconciliation in Guatemala. Therefore, those who haven't returned, and maybe aren't going to, are getting less support."

Project Accompaniment and other networks fight to keep the refugees in the international spotlight. "Their importance politically," Loo insists, "does not outweigh their importance for humanitarian reasons, as human beings."

Many refugees in the camps do show leadership traits that could contribute to the future of a peaceful Guatemala. Their distance from Guatemala has allowed freedom of political thought and expression that their compatriots at home do not yet enjoy. In the camps, they have shared and analyzed their experiences of oppression and flight. They name not only the soldiers (usually forcibly conscripted indigenous youth) as their oppressors, but also the intellectual authors of the crimes against them.

Santiago, who blames Rios Montt for the massacres of 1980-1982, wants to contribute his skills to building a new Guatemala, once he feels safe bringing his family back there.

"I want to work as an organizer in community health," he says. "Whether I return or whether I repatriate, I will continue my work. In Guatemala there were no health promoters or education promoters. Here, we realized that it is easier for a member of the community to work in education because he understands the dialect. The experience of refugees is important to share in Guatemala."

Lisa Roberts lives in Newfoundland.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1996

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1996, page 12. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Lisa Roberts here

Peace Magazine homepage