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'We're Sick of the Camps' : Salvador Peasants Return From Honduran Refuge to War-Torn Homeland

October 11, 1987|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

EL POY, El Salvador — "Name?"

"Maria Santos."

"Identity card?"


"Can you read and write?"


"Do you have land?"


"Why did you leave the country?"

Santos, 47, hesitated in front of the young immigration official filling out the questionnaire.

"Fear," she replied, looking down into her apron.

Santos was one of the first of nearly 4,500 peasants to begin their return to El Salvador on Saturday after living nearly seven years as refugees in Honduras.

They arrived in 100 buses and trucks at a wind-swept border crossing wearing scared expressions and the bright cotton clothes they were given before leaving the Mesa Grande refugee camp.

Many of the women and elderly men had fled El Salvador in March, 1981, during an army attack that they said left dozens of civilians dead. Many of their children were born in the refugee camp.

"We want to teach our children to work because they don't know how," said Benjamin Hidalgo, 49. "We're sick of the refugee camps."

But life does not promise to be easier for the refugees back home. They have chosen to return to their villages in areas that still see frequent combat between the army and the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

The army views the peasants as guerrilla sympathizers and sees their massive return as a plan by the rebels to increase their logistical support inside this country. Two army colonels watching the peasants as they passed through immigration issued a general warning.

"If they come to work, if they don't create problems, they won't have problems with us," said Col. Benjamin Canjura, whose troops operate in Chalatenango province, where many of the peasants plan to live.

He noted the relative absence of young men in the crowd of refugees. "If they begin to take part (help the rebels), they will be subject to laws. If the terrorists enter their villages, we will go in after them," Canjura said.

Difficult for Government

The massive repatriation already has proven to be a difficult situation for the government, which viewed it as a provocation. But the government could not stop Salvadorans from returning to their own country--particularly not since officials have preached and boasted about the country's achievements leading toward democracy and of progress against the guerrillas in the war.

The government tried to restrict the locations in this country where the returned peasants would live, but in negotiations with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees late Friday night, President Jose Napoleon Duarte gave in to the refugees' demands to be able to return to five villages in provinces of Chalatenango, Cabanas and Cuzcatlan--all areas with a large guerrilla presence.

The repatriation ran into another snag at the border when the refugees, led by organizers from the National Repopulation Committee, suddenly demanded to be taken to the capital of San Salvador for a Mass in the Metropolitan Cathedral there and held up border-crossing traffic for more than an hour.

U.N. and church officials argued that it was too late to drive the 100 trucks and buses to the capital. Military officials said the refugees had asked to go home and insisted that they should go home.

First 20 Buses Leave

Late in the day, U.N. officials ushered the first 20 buses off to Cabanas province, apparently resolving the situation.

The government has tried to orient repopulation efforts toward army-controlled areas of the country under a counterinsurgency assistance plan called United to Reconstruct. The National Repopulation Committee has spearheaded the repopulation of three other towns in areas where the guerrillas are prevalent.

The U.N. refugee office has agreed to provide food for the refugees returning from Mesa Grande for two weeks, and then the Roman Catholic Church will take over their support until the peasants can plant and harvest crops next year, U.N. official Jose Maria Mendiluce said.

Going Home, a U.S. coalition of church groups, has provided about $40,000 in aid for the refugees. The Salvadoran government accused Going Home of encouraging the massive return and refused to admit into the country about 20 American priests, lawyers and church activists who were accompanying the refugees.

Asked for Guarantees

U.N. and church workers said the refugees decided to return on their own after failing to come to a repatriation agreement with the government for almost a year. The refugees had asked for guarantees that the army would not use armed aircraft near their villages or forcibly recruit their sons into the military. They also said they would not form civilian defense units with the army.

At the border, the repatriation proceeded slowly late Saturday, and all of the nearly 4,500 refugees were not expected to be back in the country before late today.

Like Maria Santos, most of the peasants carried no documents and were uncertain of their birth dates. They carried hemp bags and cardboard boxes with their meager belongings and toted crying children.

Few knew how to sign their names and, instead, put their thumbprints at the bottom of the questionnaires.

"Do you accept returning home, even under conditions of subversive violence?" the immigration official asked Maria Santos.

"Yes," Santos said.

"What do you recommend to end the violence in El Salvador?" he asked.

"Peace," she said.

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