Guatemalan Homecoming Rests On Fragile Peace
As 36-year civil war ends, Indian returnees pin hopes on government promises of land and a better life
LA ESMERALDA, GUATEMALA
Through the large gap in the walls of her unfinished house of wood, plastic, tin, and thatch, Evangelina Rodriguez can see the nearby jungle, a giant wall of trees poised as if to reclaim the open land.Skip to next paragraph
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Her husband, Hilberto Herrera, is clearing away underbrush to plant beans. Several other men and two teenage boys are sawing planks from a freshly cut tree to build a school.
Chickens run through the open-sided house where Mrs. Rodriguez sits on a wooden chair, taking a break from her dawn-to-dusk chores. Her young son, Hilberto, peers shyly at the visitors from a handmade hammock. Teenage daughter Angelica is preparing to head off to meet other teenagers.
Descendants of a people nearly destroyed by the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, and survivors of a genocidal civil war in the 1980s, Rodriguez and others in this settlement in northern Guatemala are "starting afresh," she says.
They are among some 150,000 Mayans, indigenous Guatemalan Indians, who fled the country for Mexico in the early 1980s. During that part of a 36-year war, the Army destroyed more than 400 villages and killed at least 100,000 people in a scorched-earth response to a leftist guerrilla movement whose main recruits were Indians.
But many who left have returned as the civil conflict has wound down - some under an agreement with the Guatemalan government, others on their own. While their motives for coming back vary, all the returnees share one concern: They are staking their lives on continued peace in Guatemala.
On Dec. 29, 1996, the government of Guatemala and leaders of the guerrilla movement signed the final of several peace pacts, ending a war that killed at least 150,000 over 3-1/2 decades - mostly civilians, mostly Indians. This pact ended the last of Central America's civil wars involving leftist guerrilla insurgencies.
Whether the former refugees find peace and get land titles and basic services will be a test of the sincerity - and capability - of the government to live up to its promises.
"The peace pact is only paper," Rodriguez says. "What we want is a life of dignity - including schools, roads, land, clinics, things like this."
Of the Guatemalans who fled to Mexico, 46,000 landed in UN camps. The circumstances of their return have given them hope that some of these goals may be realized.
In 1992, in an unprecedented move, those refugees signed an agreement with the government of Guatemala that set terms for their return.
The agreement came about in part because the Guatemalan government was under pressure from its neighbors and the United States to resettle refugees. Even the Army wanted the issue settled: "They couldn't prove the war was over if people wouldn't come home," says Curt Wands, national director of the Chicago-based, nonprofit National Coordinating Office on the Refugees and Displaced of Guatemala (NCOORD).
"This was the first time in history - all over the world - that refugees negotiated conditions for their return," says Juan Carlos Murillo, protection officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Guatemala. "It's a good precedent." The agreement included access to land, basic services such as roads and clinics, and exemption from military service for three years. The refugees also spelled out when and where they would return.
Since 1993, Rodriguez and some 30,000 others have returned to Guatemala from the camps in organized groups to their old villages, or to new settlements such as La Esmeralda in cases where others have taken over their old lands.
What happens to the former refugees - and the rest of the majority Indian population - may also determine whether Guatemala remains at peace.
"Land and security issues are the two major causes of what brought about the war in Guatemala," says Mr. Wands of NCOORD.
The government has promised returning refugees land, or money to buy it, but the recent peace pacts make no such promise for the rest of the population. Land ownership remains concentrated in the hands of a few elites.