Guatemalan Refugees Plan Massive Return Home

GUATEMALA'S war refugees are planning to throw a huge home-coming parade for themselves.

On Jan. 13 about 5,000 of the 45,000 refugees living in Mexico will cram into buses and head for home. The caravan will snake down from the mountainous border to Guatemala City, where a rally will be held. Then they will retrace their tracks and set up a temporary camp near the Mexican border.

Guatemalan, Mexican, and international aid officials worry that the massive return will be a logistical mess.

"For humanitarian reasons, they need to do it on a smaller scale," says Michele Mariscovetere, assistant director of Guatemala's National Commission for the Attention of Repatriates, Refugees, and Displaced. "We'd prefer no more than 500 people at a time. And there's nothing in the [Oct. 8 refugee return] accords that permits a temporary site," he notes.

For traffic and immigration control, Mexico's government also would prefer a smaller-scale exodus.

"We completely support their return. But a spaced return of 500 a day would be wiser, better for the well-being of the people," says Dr. Erasmo Saenz Carrete, director of the Mexican Commission to Assist Refugees.

But refugee leaders insist that a mass return makes an important political statement, reinforcing the conditions of the Oct. 8 accords.

In the early 1980s, an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans fled when the military launched a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that destroyed some 400 villages. About 45,000 refugees settled in makeshift, overcrowded camps just across the Mexican border.

"We want the people of Guatemala to know we are back," says Ricardo Curtz of the Permanent Commission, the refugee leadership organization.

The refugee leaders also want to keep their organizational structure intact to maintain their political clout. If they return in small groups and are settled in different locations, they are concerned that their ability to enforce violations of the return agreement will be diminished.

"A highly visible, highly political return may help the Permanent Commission get what it wants," one diplomat here notes. "But it may backfire. By creating this awareness, land prices could shoot up."

There is a widespread belief among aid and government officials here that the rebel Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) is hoping that the large-scale return will flop.

"The URNG was surprised the government agreed to the refugee conditions. They stole the URNG's thunder," says Carlos Ochoa Garcia of the Institute of International Relations and Peace Research. "The refugees were an important negotiating point for the URNG in the peace talks."

If the return results in a political and logistical quagmire, the rest of the refugees may decide to stay in Mexico, keeping the issue alive at the peace talks.

Both refugee leaders and the URNG deny this rumor. "We support the return. It prevents the government from hiding the problem. But we do think the refugee situation should be integrated with all victims of repression, including those displaced within Guatemala by the war," says Dr. Luis Bekker of the URNG.

Talks on the details of the return are ongoing. Meanwhile, the Guatemalan government claims to have enough public and private land to sell to the 30,000 or so refugees expected to return in the next year. It calculates that about 40 percent will return to their own abandoned property. Others will receive low-cost loans to buy land.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees will provide enough money for food for one year. Refugees will be given materials to build basic housing as well as tools and seeds for subsistence farming. All refugees will be granted a three-year exemption from military service.

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