Looking for the safe road home. Guatemala's civilian government has invited thousands of Indian refugees to return to the country. But for those holed up in Mexico for the last few years, deciding whether to go back to the scene of past and present violence isn't easy.

THOUSANDS of Guatemalan Indians fled to Mexico in the early 1980s to escape the Army's brutal repression against the civilian population that was part of its war against leftist guerrillas. As a new civilian government encouraged repatriation, the refugees tried to determine how safe it was for them to return home.

Last March, 351 refugees took the risk and crossed the border. Expectations were high in both Mexico and Guatemala that many more refugees would follow their example. But as news began to leak out that those returning were being harshly treated by local authorities, the repatriation program ground to a halt.

Although Mexico recognizes only 39,000 refugees, the Roman Catholic Church and Guatemalan officials say there are more than 150,000 in Mexico.

During the presidencies of Gen. Efra'in R'ios Montt and Gen. Oscar Mej'ia Victores the Army's ``scorched-earth policy'' left hundreds of villages destroyed, thousands dead, and according to government statistics, more than 100,000 children orphaned.

Refugees and internally displaced people account for more than 10 percent of Guatemala's population of 7.5 million.

When Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo took office in January 1986, as the second civilian president in 32 years, he announced that he would need at least six months to make Guatemala safe for the refugees to return.

Ten months later, President Cerezo's wife visited several encampments of refugees in Mexico urging them to return to Guatemala.

Following Raquel Blandon de Cerezo's visit, the refugees met to set conditions for their return. Noting that little had changed in the Guatemalan countryside during Mr. Cerezo's first six months, the refugees listed conditions for their return: an end to the civil patrols, guarantees for their safety, and the ability to return to their own land. As Juan Choc, a refugee in the Campeche camps said: ``We want to return to our country, but not just to die.''

Despite subtle warnings by senior military officers that the refugees would be wise to stay in Mexico, the government pressed for repatriation and formed the Emergency Commission to Help Repatriates (CEAR) to oversee and encourage the Guatemalan refugees' return.

CEAR requested that the Guatemalan Catholic Church carry out the support program that provides food and materials to the refugees. But the church refused because, according to one church administrator, its ``involvement would only lend credibility to a flawed program.''

Still, several groups returned. And each experienced problems. ``Some of our brothers, although they know the Army is still there, that repression is still very strong, and that there is great poverty, risk going back. Being far from their land is too painful for them,'' Mr. Choc says.

Some of those returning and the problems they faced include:

April 1986, 72 refugees returned to Xoxlac, where they went for more than six months without the food provision promised by the government. When the government finally sent the food, it was part of a food-forwork program. And the refugees had to pay the transport costs for the food.

Jan. 12, 1987, following Mrs. Cerezo's visit, 49 refugees crossed the border and received permission to return to their village of Nubil'a. Upon arrival, the village civil patrol held them at gunpoint, denouncing the men as guerrillas. The men were sent to the Army base in Huehuetenango where they were held incommunicado for 12 days before the Catholic Church, CEAR, and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) were able to intercede for their release.

Since returning to Nubli'a, the refugees, ``have been subjected to forced labor, fines, and continual threats and harassment seemingly instigated by the Military Commissioner,'' observers say.

In mid-April, UNHCR representative Gerard Fayoux was prevented from entering the village to investigate these reports. When finally allowed in, he was not permitted to speak privately with the refugees. Subsequent to his visit, all passes for the refugees to leave the village were cancelled.

Feb. 2, 1987, 26 families returned to the Nent'on area. The Army did not allow 21 families to return to their original village, Ojo de Agau, located in the Nent'on area. Instead, they were placed for several months in the model village of Chacaj and denied travel permits. (These villages were destroyed by the Army then rebuilt under its counterinsurgency plan as a form of controlling the population.)

March 19, 1987, the largest repatriation occurred as 351 refugees crossed the border accompanied by the international press, UNHCR officials, and functionaries from Mexico and Guatemala. Most of the refugees wanted to return to their villages in the Ixcan area, an area hard-hit in the 1980s by Army counterinsurgency sweeps. In the last few years, the Army has repopulated the area with landless peasants from other areas of Guatemala who are, sources in the region say, more sympathetic to the Army. The government has handed out thousands of land titles once held by the refugees.

The bishop of Huehuetenango had earlier warned Ixcan would be the ``one most difficult area for the refugees to return to due to the land problem.'' Though not allowed to return to their original villages, 120 refugees still chose to return to the area. The Army settled them on vacant land along an Army-constructed road.

The new village has become what a foreign observer called, ``the clearest example of the Army being actively involved in refugee resettlement: deciding where they will live, distributing their food, and making the refugees completely dependent on the military base. He adds that on one visit, ``when the Army arrived with food, the soldiers jumped out of the trucks and surrounded the village as though it were a military target. The refugees were terrified.''

The Guatemalan opposition press has reported that Jorge Archila, the head of the Guatemalan Congress's human-right commission, said the Army told him that it ``would be responsible for the execution of the repatriation program ... [with] the vice-minister of defense, directly responsible for these activities.''

Though this could not be confirmed, it appears that the Army has moved to take control of repatriation. Defense Minister H'ector Arturo Gramajo has said the government has ``no appropriate infrastructure to accommodate the refugees,'' and stressed the ``unsuitablility'' of their return because they have been ``infiltrated by the guerrillas.''

Jorge Santiesteban, a UNHCR representative in Mexico, denies this. He says ``the Guatemalan camps in Mexico are centers of peace and work, not of guerrillas.''

The cases of Nubil'a and the Ixcan refugees, a development worker said, ``have made everyone come to their senses and put repatriation on hold.''

Refugees interviewed in the Mexican camps say it will be the same military they fled who will decide their fate should they return.

Guatemalan Archbishop Prospero Penados del Barrio has asked the government to take a stand on the refugee issue, and advised the refugees not to return ``until the government agrees to respond to [their] petitions.''

The government remains reticent, with the specific affairs minister proposing a formal moratorium on repatriation, since ``there is no infrastructure [here], no work, no money ... there isn't anything.''

The Guatemalan press recently announced a $120 million aid package from the UNHCR and the European Community for development projects in areas of refugee repatriations.

Despite this aid, political analysts say, the repatriation cannot begin again until the Army disinvolves itself from the repatriation process as stipulated in the Central American peace plan.

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