OUTSIDE military headquarters here, an Army truck rumbles to a stop. Heavily armed Guatemalan soldiers leap down to help unload the precious cargo that may help them win the war: 40 ragged, malnourished Ixil Indians who have just come down from the mountains after eight years with the leftist guerrillas. The return of refugees like these is a cornerstone of the Army's counterinsurgency strategy. The Indians fled to the mountains north of Nebaj in 1981, after government troops burned nearly every village in this troubled area, known as the Ixil triangle.
Some 60,000 of the 82,000 Ixil Indians living in the triangle headed to refugee camps in Mexico - or to the mountainous zones controlled by the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP). Nearly 70 percent of the internal refugees returned during a 1983 amnesty program. But others stayed in the mountains, supplying the rebels, running from the Army, and surviving, they say, on little but leaves and roots.
Now the rest - disillusioned with the rebels or coerced by the military - are straggling home.
Inside the Army outpost, Lt. Col. Donald Ju'arez Echeverr'ia says the returning peasants are the key to ending a 28-year-old conflict that has cost more than 100,000 lives.
``If these people keep abandoning the mountains, the subversives will die of hunger,'' says Lt. Col. Ju'arez, explaining that only 2,000 guerrilla collaborators are left in the mountains. ``That's why, above all, we want more control over the civilian population.''
In the past year, the Army has intensified its three-phase campaign of:
Convincing and sometimes forcing refugees to return.
Funneling them through a ``reorientation'' center.
Helping civilian agencies relocate them in at least eight new, tightly controlled ``development villages.''
Over 4,100 internal refugees came back to Nebaj in 1988, compared to 1,200 in 1987 and 568 in 1986, according to Army figures.
As the pool of civilian support is drained, the guerrilla forces - who are fighting for land reform and wealth redistribution, among other things - seem to be suffering. They have dwindled from 12,000 armed men in 1981 to between 1,000 and 1,400 today, according to military analysts. North of Nebaj, where an estimated 200 guerrillas roam, there are more frequent reports of buses being stopped by hungry rebels looking for food.
But as their hunger grows, the guerrillas seem to fight harder.
Military sources say the Army sustained more than 600 casualties in its 1987 ``end-of-the-year offensive'' which stalled in the face of guerrilla tenacity. Even last month, the rebels sustained a five-hour firefight at an Army base a mile north of here.
Domingo Raymundo Ceto, a former rebel who turned himself in to the Army two months ago, vividly recalls the fighting and the fear. In the Xemamatze ``reorientation'' center, the soft-spoken father of two describes his family's journey from hope to despair.
``The guerrillas convinced us that they were going to triumph and spread the wealth,'' says Mr. Ceto, who became a bodyguard for the rebel commanders of the Ho Chi Minh Front. ``But it was a lie. What power was in the mountains? We were always running and hiding from the Army bombings. ... We had no food, no clothes, no shelter.''
Desperate for change, thousands of peasants like the Cetos were wooed by Army leaflets and loudspeakers inviting them to steaming pots of food and relatives' welcomes. ``Can you really call it `volunteerism' when the Army comes through, burns the people's crops, and invites them to Nebaj?'' asks one foreign military expert. ``These people are caught between two forces and they will choose the strongest.''
Domingo Ceto says many of his compatriots didn't want to come back because of the fear and bitterness left from the Army's earlier raids. ``Some came back captured,'' says Ceto. ``But we turned ourselves in voluntarily. We didn't see any other option.''
When Ceto first arrived in Nebaj, weary and resigned, he says, Army officers interrogated him for several days. A few weeks later, two Army troops took Ceto and seven other refugees back into the conflict zone to convince other families to come down - and to pinpoint rebel camps.
Now Ceto and 63 other refugees wait to be released from the camp, a compound of barracks-style buildings set up by the Special Commission for Attention to Refugees and Displaced Persons (CEARD). The civilian agency took nominal control over the program last May, but it yields to the local Army commander on decisions related to the peasant's recovery - and reeducation.
Aside from keeping an almost permanent presence in the camp, the Army sends a civilian affairs officer to give political ``reorientation'' talks twice a week.
``These people have the ideology of the guerrillas,'' explains CEARD staffer Pedro Ramirez, recalling an incident last February when 50 refugees got permission to go to the market but headed back to the hills to help the guerrillas. ``To change that ideology,'' he says, ``they have to be here for three full months.''
After the refugees' required 90-day stay, they often move back to the settlements they fled years ago. The Army, which destroyed 49 villages in the Ixil triangle, began rebuilding about nine ``model villages'' in 1983.
The program, designed to enhance the Army's control over the population and soften its brutal image, has accelerated with the new influx of returnees. Eight new villages were built in 1988. Six are planned for this year.
In Janlay, a settlement commanding a ridge five miles north of Nebaj, 81 families have returned in the past year and a half.
``It's much different than before,'' says Jacinto, a 25-year-old villager who ran with the rebels for three years.
The Ixil Indian explains that they now have electricity, running water, and new housing material (even though it is a flimsy, asbestos-based material called Fibrolite). He points to farms of various people killed during the war. And he looks far up the ridge, where his family used to have a house and a plot of land.
``All the houses are bunched together now, so we don't collaborate with the guerrillas,'' he explains. Like most of the other men here, Jacinto now patrols the area one day a week to protect Janlay from the very rebels he once helped.