Since early this year, some 7,600 Surinamians, fearing government massacres in an ongoing civil war, have trekked through jungle and paddled across the Maroni River to refuge in French Guiana. The world is largely unaware of their tribulations. But these ``bush negroes'' and Galibi Indians have fled a war that rages in the northeastern region of their country. The civil war pits the leader of Suriname's military left-leaning regime, Lt. Col. Desi Bouterse, against a few hundred ``bush negro'' guerrilla fighters led by Ronny Brunswijk, Colonel Bouterse's former bodyguard.
So far, 1,400 Galibi or Arawak Indians have been absorbed into French Guinanese coastal villages that are populated by members of the same Indian groups. The 6,200 remaining refugees are ``bush negroes,'' a tribal people made up of descendants of runaway slaves who fled to the jungle more than a century age. (Their name is translated from the Dutch word Bosneger.) They have been housed in villages and three refugee camps situated close to the riverside town of Saint Laurent du Maroni.
In the camp near Saint Laurent's airport, children play hide-and-seek in between the khaki tents, But the adults, deeply shaken by the loss of loved ones, remain somber.
``I am from Suriname,'' one refugee says, as if to remind himself of the world he left just months ago. As the man talks, he deftly finishes making a wooden plank with an axe. ``I lived in Meongo, 50 miles from her. We had some troubles in Suriname. Bouterse killed everybody. Women, and child, and everybody was killed.
``You see my wife.'' he asks.
There's not a woman in sight. One imagines that this is his way of speaking English: After all, his native tongue is Taki-Taki, a pidgin form of Anglo-Dutch spoken by Suriname's bosnegers.
``You see my little boy,'' he continues, driving home his point. ``And big one? They killed everyone. And you have to leave the country. If you stay there, you're dead.''
The worst massacres took place in December, when the government Army recaptured the mining city of Moengo, a key mining town. Alcoa, a US corporation that mined bauxite there, closed down its Moengo operations on Jan. 21.
Since then, the flow of refugees to French Guiana has abated.
Jacques Delpey, the sub-prefect or chief civil authority in Saint Laurent, describes the plight of the refugees: ``Clearly, the refugees have been the victims of the civil war that is raging in their country. They have often arrived here, in a state of considerable psychological and physical distress, after walking day after day through the forest. So we have welcomed them in the villages and the camps.''
Despite that welcome - which according to officials costs France $50 million French francs per month - the situation remains uncertain for the refugees. Their presence is a considerable strain on French Guiana, a French department that has an official population of only 85,000.
``As far as we are concerned,''says Mr. Delpey, ``this is a provisional situation. We will welcome them as long as necessary, but no longer. We forsee they will return home eventually.''
Talks are under way between French officials and members of the Bouterse government to speed up their return.
But the refugees, for their part, pray they will not be sent back home before their personal safety is assured.