Guatemalans Prepare to Go Home

Mexico's move to end aid to large refugee camps prompts preparation for broad repatriation

THERE is a palpable stir in the Guatemalan refugee camps. It roils even the heat-induced languor of midday. After a decade on the Mexican side of the border, the 44,000 refugees are abuzz about finally going home.

"The first round will be a big return, maybe 1,000, maybe 2,000 families at once," refugee Miguel Velazquez effusively predicts. "We're grateful to the Mexicans but the truth is the land here is lousy. Only one crop per year - and that's with fertilizer and pesticides."

Apart from agricultural deficiencies, speculation of an imminent repatriation is being fed by several factors. Mexican officials say they will eliminate most aid by the end of the year to four large refugee camps in the states of Campeche and Quintana Roo that have become "self-sufficient" communities. Some residents say the cutoff is coming too soon, and as aid dries up, many refugees are reevaluating whether to stay.

Hope for an end to the 30-year civil war, which sparked the exodus, is being fed by the slow but ongoing peace talks begun last year between leftist guerrillas and Guate-mala's government.

But the prime catalyst is an agreement reached last month between Mexican and Guatemalan officials and refugee re-presentatives on all but two demands by refugees for a safe return.

"The outlook is positive," says Alfredo Witschi Cestari, regional representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "But we can't say when or how many will be repatriated yet."

The UNHCR has international aid donors lined up and plans ready to return some 10,000 refugees this year. But it is waiting for a green light. The next round of refugee negotiations are scheduled for early May. The remaining "delicate and complicated" obstacles, notes Mr. Witschi, include where the refugees will be resettled in Guatemala and assurances for security.

"If we don't go back as a unified group we will have no leverage to hold the government to its promises. And the Army will pick us off one by one, like a tiger fishing in a stream," says Jacinto Tino Tomas, a member of the Santa Domingo Keste camp's refugee negotiating commission.

Most refugees left Guatemala in the early 1980s when the Army launched a brutal counterinsurgency campaign, destroying some 400 villages. About 200,000 Guatemalans fled, with about 45,000 settling in makeshift, overcrowded jungle camps on the Mexican side of the border. Life in the camps

In 1984, after an incursion by the Guatemalan Army - which considered the camps rebel hideouts - the Mexican government moved almost half of the refugees away from the border to camps in Campeche and Quintana Roo.

In these two rural states, refugees appear to have a quality of life nearly on par with their low-income Mexican neighbors. Each family has a 1.5 hectare plot to grow corn and beans, and a wood slat house with a tar paper roof and cement foundation. Medical clinics and schools have been built and staffed. Funds have been provided to set up small stores, a bus service, and tortilla-making machinery. Electricity and drinking water are available. Some will stay in camps

Armando Gomez Velazquez, director of the Campeche office of the Mexican Commission to Assist Refugees, says when the "program of support ends [this year] some will decide to go back." He guesses that 40 percent will opt to stay. But Juan Carlos Martinez, an ex-mayor and school teacher at the Santa Domingo Keste camp, estimates that up to 90 percent in his camp may remain.

"Many families are like mine: Our children were born here," says Mr. Martinez, sitting in a hammock with his one-year-old son asleep in his lap. "The future of my children in Guatemala is too uncertain, no matter what the government signs. I can't guarantee their safety there."

Martinez fled his home after his father and uncle failed to come back from the market one day in March 1980. Neighbors told him they were shot by the Guatemalan Army. Glancing at several large sacks of corn in the corner, he adds, "The truth is we live better here." New towns planned

But in Chiapas, where land is scarcer and living conditions much harsher, the majority are expected to choose repatriation. At an international meeting on Central American refugees last week in San Salvador, the Mexican government unveiled plans to build three communities for the estimated 25 percent of the Chiapas refugees that may not choose to return home in the next two years.

Sergio Mollinedo, head of Guatemala's National Commission for Attending Repatriates, Refugees, and the Displaced, recently announced plans for five development projects for returning refugees. He put project costs at $66 million and hopes foreign donors will kick in $40 million.

Some refugees are not waiting for a final agreement. In the last three months, 775 have returned to Guatemala - more than twice the 1991 rate of return.

"They're trying to get the jump on the others," says Dr. Pablo Farias, a psychiatrist who works in the Chiapas camps. "They're worried that if they wait too long, someone else will settle on their family land."

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