YABTECLUM, Mexico — Almost four years after 45 peasants were massacred by paramilitary gunmen, hundreds of Mexican Indians returned to their homes in the southern state of Chiapas on Tuesday, still demanding that all the killers be brought to justice.
The 333 Tzotzil Indians set out at dawn from the refugee camp, where they spent the past four years, and trekked about 11 miles along rough mountain roads to their abandoned homes in hamlets around the village of Acteal, the scene of the massacre that drew international outrage.
They carried candles, flowers, wooden crosses, a giant Mexican flag, protest banners and statues and portraits of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron and its central religious figure.
The group included 117 children, some of them orphaned or injured in the vicious attack in Acteal on Dec. 22, 1997.
About 1,200 Tzotzil Indians fled their homes and sought refuge in Acteal in late 1997 amid clashes between pro-government armed bands and supporters of the Zapatista rebel group that took up arms in 1994 to push for Indian rights.
Paramilitary gunmen, led by members of Mexico's former ruling party, then attacked the peasants gathered in Acteal and killed 45 of them.
Most of the others fled the area, moving to temporary camps in villages sympathetic to the Zapatista cause.
In 1999, dozens of Indians were found guilty and sentenced to long prison terms for taking part in the massacre, but survivors and state government officials say many more remain free.
The 62 families who began their journey home Tuesday were the first to move back as a large group. Hundreds of others are still in camps, too nervous to return because their political rivals still live in their home region.
"There are fears about returning because the paramilitaries still live there, the weapons are still there," said Antonio Vasquez, a community leader who headed Tuesday's return to the small hamlets of Puebla, Yaxjemel, Chainatic and Chuchtic.
The returnees specifically asked that they not be given an escort by the army or police, but were accompanied by dozens of government officials, doctors, aid workers and foreign activists.
State officials helped negotiate an agreement between the Tzotzils and supporters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, in which both sides promised they would not carry out reprisal attacks.
Upon arriving in Yaxjemel, they lighted candles and copal incense, and looked over the ruined homes they had left four years before.
"Today, a new dawn begins for us," Vasquez said.