Guatemala Peace Puts Ex-Guerrillas in Jeans, on the Stump

Leftists fighters set aside guns and jungle fatigues last month, but find civilian life in a democracy difficult

After five years of living apart, six-year-old Maria Magdalena and her mother, "Amanda," will once again live together. In 1978, Amanda (who still uses a rebel pseudonym) joined Guatemala's guerrilla movement at 16. When she gave birth to two daughters in the middle of the civil war, she had to leave them to be raised by virtual strangers. Now that the war is over, her family will remain divided: Her oldest girl wants to stay with relatives.

Amanda's story is one example of the challenges former guerrillas face. Last month, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) turned over the last of its weapons and began the transition from a clandestine military operation to a legal party.

It has not been easy to accept this ideological change. Most grew up living the life of leftist guerrillas on the run.

"We worked for the military triumph. We wanted to take power and distribute the land," URNG camp commander "Randal" explained, expressing the frustration of many.

For many, the peace accords, signed Dec. 26, fall short of addressing the country's problems. Some applaud that part of the pact in which the government recognizes the cultural and political uniqueness of indigenous groups, who are more than 60 percent of the population.

But if the guerrillas are not convinced that the peace accords are the solution, why did they agree to lay down arms? The reasons are many: a tired populace, the collapse of communist regimes worldwide, military stalemate. With the election in 1986 of the first civilian president in three decades, many guerrillas saw an alternative to war.

"We could have died as martyrs fighting to the last, but what was the point? It made sense to take the political option," says "Luis," one of six in his family to take up arms.

"Bayardo" explains, "The door has opened a crack. Now we have to get in and force it open even wider."

Most guerrillas are fervently convinced of the future political success of the URNG. What they were unable to achieve with arms will still be won through the electoral process, they say.

Commander Randal smiles confidently. "If the government doesn't do it by the year 2000, we will just have to do it," he says, referring to competing in the presidential elections to be held in three years.

The day-long political sessions in the camp allowed relatively little time for the guerrillas to prepare for their personal transitions. For some who joined the movement at ages as young as 8, being anything but a guerrilla is difficult to imagine. Marxist training has been ingrained since adolescence, making individual planning a daunting task. They lived their lives receiving and executing orders, in tightly knit communities where solidarity was the norm.

Last month, the last of the guerrillas left the camp in Tuluch, with only civilian clothes and $360 apiece. Prodding his injured leg, "Salvador," who joined the rebels in 1979, reflects on his future.

For him, one thing is clear: The struggle continues, but now in jeans instead of olive-green fatigues.

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