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Lull in Contra War Brings Hope of Return to Homes for Many Honduran Refugees

January 24, 1988|ROBERT COLLIER | United Press International

LAS TROJES, Honduras — The coffee grower propped his lanky frame in the doorway of his one-room cinder-block house, squinted into the sun and described the day he became a refugee within his own country.

"I left my farm on Jan. 10, 1984, because on that day, 14 mortar shells exploded on the farm," he said. "I don't know who it was, whether it was the Sandinistas or the Contras. We just packed up and ran."

He said the constant fighting between the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, Sandinista troops and the Honduran army had kept him from going back to his eight-acre farm.

"We just want them to go to their own country and fight there. I want nothing to do with it." He shook his head slowly, saying, "I don't understand the life of other countries."

The coffee grower--who, like many other displaced people, asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals by "I don't know who"--is one of some 13,000 Hondurans displaced from their homes by war in a triangular region of southern Honduras called the Salient, which juts down into fiercely contested northern Nicaragua.

The Salient has been the scene of frequent battles involving Sandinista troops, Contras and the Honduran military over the past five years.

The last serious fighting occurred in December, 1986, when Sandinista troops crossed the border in pursuit of Contras based in Honduras and ran into Honduran soldiers.

The Honduran Coffee Growers Assn., the most vocal critic of the Contra presence inside Honduras, says that from 1983 to 1986, damages amounted to $12 million, while 22 Honduran civilians were killed--mostly peasants who stepped on land mines.

But now the war appears to have gone away, and many displaced people now hope to return home.

Since a $100-million U.S. aid package to the Contras started to flow early in 1987, most of the 15,000 rebels have moved out of Honduran bases into Nicaragua. They have carried the battlefront with them, which suits residents of the Salient just fine.

"I want to take my family back to the farm, since everything is quiet," said the coffee grower. "But the army still won't let me."

Several thousand people have returned to their homes thanks to the newly peaceful conditions, said Santos Cristobal Canadas, president of the coffee growers group.

But the fighting is still as near as three miles from the border, and firing between Nicaraguan government and rebel troops often can be heard, Canadas said.

With continued U.S. funding for the Contras in doubt, Honduran authorities are leery about repopulating an area that may become a refuge for hungry Contras once again.

Also, Canadas said, many homes and farms are now in ruins after years of abandonment, and people cannot afford to move back until they receive some kind of external aid.

Last spring the U.S. government gave $30,000 to Apaguis, a savings cooperative in Danli, 40 miles to the west, to help with the problem.

"But we have seen almost none of that money," Canadas said. "A few little drops here and there, that's all."

Diplomats in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, say the government has done nothing to help displaced people because to do so would force the admission of the government's longstanding policy of aiding and giving refuge to the Contras, which the army has always denied.

So for the time being, the coffee growers and other peasants of this remote region, only 80 miles east of the capital, are on their own.

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