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After 10 years, a long, hard journey home.

Refugees hope peace awaits them back in Guatemala

HUEHUETENANGO, Guatemala -- Welcomed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, Cruz Felipe Ramirez, a 34-year-old mother of five, joyfully reentered Guatemala after a 10-year exile in Mexico--one of 2,482 Guatemalan refugees who returned late last month from camps in Mexico.

The long-anticipated return followed last-minute agreements between the government and the refugees. After two years of tense negotiations, some 45,000 refugees have begun their journey home.

Representatives of the Catholic church, the United Nations, the Guatemalan and Mexican governments and nongovernmental organizations greeted refugees at the border.

During the early 1980s, a brutal military government counterinsurgency campaign caused thousands in the Guatemalan highlands, mainly Mayan Indians, to flee for their lives to Mexico. Cruz was among them.

One Sunday in June 1982, she warned her father to stay away from the church and to hide because the army was coming. "No, they can't kill me, I will be in God's house," he replied. The army entered the town of Sistuacan, Ixcan, and slaughtered all 300 residents as they prayed at church. Cruz and her sister hid in the town, then escape across mountains into Mexico.

For the last 10 years, she and thousands like her have lived in refugee camps in Mexico. They worked as sharecroppers and survived off the aid of the Catholic church, the Mexican government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Negotiations with the Guatemalan government for the refugees' return began two years ago and were mired in controversy. Much of the debate centered on the return route. While the refugees wanted to come home on the main highway, the government demanded they take a more direct, yet less visible, route.

The refugees say they fear for their safety because the army has routinely accused them of being guerrillas and the defense minister, Jose Garcia Samayoa, declared that the return was part of a subversive plan to take over the country.

But now a caravan of 76 buses and 100 international vehicles will escort the refugees along their chosen route on a 10-day journey to Poligano 14, Ixcan.

At the Mexico-Guatemalan border, Menchu warned that the difficult journey had just begun.

"They don't have a house waiting for them or cultivated land. Sadly, the negotiations should have produced more, so the people could return with dignity. People will have to immediately put up huts. It is practically like another refugee camp."

But the return of the refugees symbolizes a crucial step toward reaching peace in Guatemala, Central America's longest-running war.

Bishop Jorge Avila, president of the mediating commission between the refugees and the government, said, "I hope that after the example of Nicaragua and El Salvador, after this symbolic cry for peace in Guatemala, the government and the guerrillas reach an agreement that signifies not only a stop to the guns but also an overall transformation to destroy those situations and social injustices that produced the problem."
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Title Annotation:Guatemalan refugees leave Mexico
Author:Francke, Caitlin
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 5, 1993
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