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Refugee News                       August 1997
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Guatemalan refugees returning home
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In the first days of July 500 Guatemalan refugees, who had escaped to Mexico more than ten years ago, were on their way back to their homeland. They had been forced to escape because of the civil war in Guatemala and have, all this time, lived in camps in the southern Mexican states of Chiapas and Quitana Roo. Up to 40,000 Guatemalan refugees remain in Mexico even though 33,360 have gone back in the last decade. The Mexican authorities are willing to let a few of them settle in the country permanently. 

On arriving back to Guatemala, the refugees will be staying in a camp in Huehuetenango, which is 90 miles to the west of Guatemala city. They will then proceed to a settlement on land purchased for the purpose by the government north of the city. Here they will have free housing, food, clothing and medical service for a few months. The United Nations agency for refugees, UNHCR, will provide them with tools, seeds and fertilizer. 

Returning refugees are not always welcome! Eleven people who had just returned to Mexico were massacred by the army in Xaman in October 1995. Another 30 were injured. Receptions of this sort, the small amount of land which has to be divided between many people and antagonism between different groups of returnees are among the factors working against a faster pace of repatriation. 

Most refugees are farmers of Indian origin as is more than half of Guatemala's population of nine million. The country has always, however, been governed by the minority Ladinos who speak Spanish but are of mixed Indian and European origin. Their treatment of Indians as second class citizens was one of the main causes of the civil war. 

The civil war in Guatemala, which went on for 30 years, came to an end officially in December 1996 with a peace accord between the government and the left wing rebel. The signing was preceded by an accord on the Indians rights. This included a commitment by the government side to provide education in the many Mayan languages. Most Indians do not understand Spanish. 

During the war 140,000 people were killed, mostly civilians. Forty thousand 'disappeared'. The worst time was in the early 80's when in some villages no one survived the army's onslaught. During 1982-3 440 Indian villages were razed to the ground to make sure the rebels had nowhere to hide. During that year 20,000 Indians were killed. This catastrophe led to thousands of farmers escaping. Hundreds of thousands crossed into neighbouring countries. A million people became internally displaced in Guatemala itself. 

As agreed in the peace accord, a 'Historical Clarification Commission' was set up to investigate these massacres and other atrocities committed during the civil war. However, its director, Christian Tomuschat, has recently complained about lack of funds. 

In a report issued in April 1997, Amnesty International, has stated that the human rights situation in Guatemala remains very bad. Every day there are reports of death threats, intimidation, illegal searches, 'disappearances' and the elimination of 'bad elements' like street children and common criminals. Amnesty believes that the army and police are behind these acts. 

Peace in Guatemala does not seem to be firmly established. The thousands of rebels who spent years fighting the army will have to become used to a civilian way of life. They will also have to find work, just like the thousands of soldiers who were demobilised after the peace accord. Widespread unemployment can push the country to civil strife again. The government has to keep full control of the army, especially those officers who are not too happy with the peace agreement. It will also have to start some form of agrarian reform as 80% of farmers do not own any land. 

The international community is helping Guatemala with $ 2 billion in aid and loans. Organizations like Amnesty International often send their volunteers to observe the implementation of the peace process. Some of these accompany returning refugees to make sure that soldiers and police do not overstep their limits.

Guatemala, refugees: Safe conduct on the journey home 

UNHCR - information on: 

Guatemala's search for truth delayed 

Guatemala sees corpses of '80s 

U.N. official in Guatemala draws fire 

Speaking the languages of peace in Guatemala 

To rebuild a nation: 

Guatemala: 10 Steps to End Impunity and Human Rights Violations: 

UN intervention needed to stop torture of street children 

Policemen jailed for murder of street child: 

Guatemalan street children survey reveals drugs and sex work endemic: 

Amnesty International: Americas Regional Summary 

Human Rights Watch Reports on Guatemala 

Refugee News: More on Guatemala