JUST over nine months ago, 87 haggard and malnourished Guatemalan Indians stumbled down from the mountains of Alta Verapaz Province, ending five years of flight from the Guatemalan Army by placing themselves under the protection of the Roman Catholic Church. ``We were constantly in fear of the Army patrols who wanted to kill us,'' explains Pedro Batz, a Kekchi Indian speaking of his group's experience. ``When they would attack, we'd often be five to six weeks without food or shelter before we could rebuild in another place.''

According to the Most Rev. Gerardo Flores, bishop of the Alta Verapaz Diocese that includes Cob'an, over 100 villages in his diocese have ceased to exist since 1981. They were either destroyed by the Army's ``scorched earth'' counterinsurgency campaign or abandoned because of fighting between the Army and guerrillas.

Unable to reach the relative safety of Mexico, thousands fled into the mountains of Guatemala as ``internal refugees.'' There, they live a nomadic life in constant flight from Army patrols. Most fled their villages during the height of the violence from 1981 to 1983. ``It was Sept. 20, 1981, when we heard the soldiers march into Semuy,'' Mr. Batz recalls with a hushed voice. ``We knew they were coming, but we didn't know they were coming to kill.'' His eyes close as the memory returns.

``It was just before dawn and the village was filled with the cries of those being dragged from their huts by the soldiers. Though wounded in the leg, I was able to escape, but 32 were killed that day by the Army, their bodies left piled along the roadside. When I returned to the village, it had been destroyed, and I assumed my wife and children to be dead. I was left with nothing.''

Fleeing to the mountains in fear that the Army might return, Batz encountered other survivors from Semuy, including his wife and children. ``In a remote valley we began to plant corn again, but the Army always pursued us, burning our crops. The worst attack was May 24, 1986, when the Army destroyed all our food and possessions. While trying to rebuild elsewhere, the Army attacked again on June 19, this time severely wounding three of us, and capturing 21.'' (Of those 21, the refugees say, five were killed while imprisoned on the Army base.)

Sick, exhausted, and nearly starving, those remaining decided to send a message asking for the Catholic Church's help. On July 15, 1986, seven months into the civilian presidency of Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo, Batz and the others from Semuy left the mountains, carrying the wounded on their backs, and were taken by church and state officials to a monastery in Cob'an under church protection.

Seeing its authority challenged, ``the Army surrounded the monastery where the refugees were, demanding that the group be turned over to it,'' according to witnesses. ``But when the bishop and the governor absolutely refused, the Army backed off. The bishop's commitment to these people became very obvious.''

That same day, Army patrols were sent into the area that the refugees had left the day before. After combing the area for two weeks, they returned with 64 prisoners - part of a separate group also trying to survive in the mountains. This latter group was taken by the Army to Nuevo Acamal, a ``model village'' situated 15 miles outside of Cob'an. The church was allowed only momentary contact with this group. The model village program consists of the construction of new villages under Army guidelines and control.

Nuevo Acamal, the most regulated of the model villages, is designated by the Army as a ``political reorientation center.'' Its administrator, Julio Corsantes, says the program is aimed at ``changing the cassettes of the people.''

This is an apparent reference to the subtle brainwashing that international rights groups allege goes on at the reorientation centers, with the intent of indoctrinating the refugees in support of military programs. Supposedly a transition facility, some residents interviewed have been there for more than two years. The 64 internal refugees captured nine months ago remain confined there.

Last month, two more groups of internal refugees came out of the mountains. The church was able to meet and offer protection to one group of 109 refugees. But the second group was taken by the Army and is now being held on the Army base at Cob'an. The Army says the group of refugees they hold are guerrillas.

Bishop Flores was recently quoted by the Guatemalan press as saying that ``the Ministry of Defense has left the door open for us [the Catholic Church] to help those who wish to leave the mountains.''

A North American missionary here explained that this apparent openness was in deference to the news coverage the groups under church protection have received. But ``the Army,'' he says, ``still sees these internal refugees the same way they see the refugees in Mexico - as subversives.'' Indeed, Defense Minister H'ector Gramajo has stated that ``the subversion has infiltrated the refugees ... telling them what to do.''

Despite the Army's unwillingness to release those still held at Nuevo Acamal and the Army base, the Army has allowed the two groups under church protection to obtain land near Cob'an.

The governor of Alta Verapaz Province, Juan de Dios Mart'inez, has arranged the purchase of a 900-acre state farm called Tzacaniy'a through the Ministry of Agrarian Transformation. The refugees may soon be able to relocate there, though the church remains concerned about their safety. As long as only selected groups are able to receive the church's protection, it is clear that the situation remains dangerous whether in the mountains where aerial bombings are still reported or in Cob'an.

``Their future,'' says a local priest, ``will always be uncertain, but for now maybe the church can help.''

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