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Salvador Refugees Yearn for Home : Honduras: The recent guerrilla offensive has caused the suspension of plans for repatriation.


COLOMONCAGUA, Honduras — After nine years, Jose Hernandez and other Salvadoran refugees say they have had enough.

Enough of fences, military guards and the stifling confines of a camp situated alongside this hamlet near the El Salvadoran border. Enough of what they view as fruitless expectation of improvements in the land of their birth, split by bloody civil war for a decade. Enough of allegations that they are actively collaborating with the insurgents there.

"Here, there is constant suffering," said the lanky Hernandez, 62, who cares for a communal herd of goats penned atop a craggy plateau amid the refugee camp here. "We have food, but we're like birds in a cage. Even a cage of gold is still a cage. . . . If we're going to die, we'd rather die in our own land, with honor."

At a time when warfare and terror have gripped their native land, the more than 7,000 Salvadoran refugees crammed here have made their decision: They want to go home. Thousands of their fellow citizens may be seeking to flee the conflict, as more than 1 million--perhaps a fifth of the entire population--have already done in the last 10 years of violence. But those encamped here seek to go back.

The renewed warfare of recent weeks, however, has interrupted their planned return after what has been almost a decade in exile.

The refugees here were scheduled to be repatriated in November, a prospect that prompted them to disassemble their extensive infrastructure--including wood-frame homes, warehouses, schools, kitchens and several dozen workshops producing everything from clothing to shoes to cooking ware to hammocks.

They had planned to take it all back with them to rural El Salvador, where they have Utopian plans to create a "new society" complete with communal factories and fields, along with hexagonal-shaped model villages boasting free clinics, day-care centers and schools.

But it was not to be. A delicate agreement worked out between the governments of El Salvador and Honduras and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees--which runs this and other refugee camps--fell apart after the guerrilla offensive broke out in El Salvador more than a month ago.

Authorities in San Salvador, expressing suspicions about links between the camps and the guerrillas, suspended a long-planned repatriation, leaving the refugees in a predicament they describe as critical.

Having won admiration worldwide for their industriousness in exile, they now find themselves with nothing to do--and, they say, lacking in foodstuffs and other basics. They have cleared their crops, slaughtered many livestock and basically shut down operations.

Citing their plight, they are threatening to repatriate themselves without international agreements, as more than 1,200 refugees from Colomoncagua did last Nov. 18, walking the two miles to the Salvadoran border.

United Nations officials have issued dire warnings against another unsanctioned mass exodus, particularly against the current backdrop of violence in El Salvador. Such a move, one U.N. official said, could result in a massacre.

The refugees, bitter about the delays, hold U.N. authorities responsible for not providing them with the needed transportation and other promised support--food and other basic necessities for two months, along with $50 payments for each adult and $25 per child--that they say is essential for an orderly move and transition.

'We want to do what we can for these people, but sending them back without an agreement with El Salvador is impossible," said Francois Fouinat, a Frenchman who is the U.N. refugee agency representative in Honduras. "You can imagine the repercussions if something went wrong."

In explaining their decision to put off the repatriation, Salvadoran officials have renewed charges that the camp here, like other refugee camps in Honduras, is a rest and supply stop for combatants of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Salvadoran and Honduran authorities have long maintained that the camp is run with an iron hand by totalitarian leftist committees with close ties to the guerrillas.

The refugees and their supporters respond that the ruling committees are independent and vital to the camp structure and are elected democratically every two years.

"Of course, we welcome these people back to their land, but only if they agree to work for peace," said Salvador Jose Trigueros Hidalgo, the Salvadoran ambassador to Honduras, who has been a key figure in negotiating the refugees' return.

To the well-organized refugees and their supporters, such comments smack of hypocrisy. Bombed and burned out of their rural villages in the early 1980s, the exiled Salvadorans here say their government has little standing to claim the moral high ground.

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