Sarah, Katy, Alice: the bodyguards: They left the wine-bar crowd to help refugees in Guatemala. Catherine Matheson heard why

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The new in-place for the in-crowd is the Hangar restaurant, where the fruit salad is simply divine. Only last month I saw there the daughter of Peter Jay, the BBC's economics and business editor, with the daughter of author Robert and novelist Cynthia Kee and that up-and-coming young barrister Katy Armstrong.

If you haven't heard about the Hangar yet, that is because it's on the edge of a rainforest in the Central American republic of Guatemala. You can get there by helicopter from Guatemala City, the capital, if you have the cash and don't mind being searched by the military, which owns the airstrip. Or, like Alice Jay, Sarah Kee and Katy Armstrong, you can endure nine gruelling hours bouncing on non-existent springs in a four- wheel-drive truck, wishing your backside belonged to someone else.

For these three women the Hangar, with its stained tables and over- friendly dog salivating at your elbow, represents the height of luxury. Their normal diet is a combination of rice, tortillas, eggs and vegetables. They wash their clothes, and themselves, in the river, and sleep in hammocks in a windowless hut in Victoria refugee settlement, in north-western Quiche province. They are attacked by parasites the size of your little finger and stride through the jungle in wellington boots.

So what makes a successful barrister and two daughters of London's great and good wave goodbye to the wine bars of Covent Garden, and go to live in a Guatemalan backwater?

Alice, Sarah and Katy are bodyguards. The bodies they are guarding belong to thousands of Guatemalans - mainly Maya Indians - who are returning from exile in Mexico after 12 years as refugees.

In the early Eighties the army razed an estimated 440 villages and massacred thousands, suspecting them of providing support for left-wing guerrillas. At least 100,000 people fled north to Mexico and thousands more took to the jungle, hiding in the mountains from the troops. Although the 32- year-old civil war is far from over, many villagers have decided to come back.

In January 1993 the first group of 2,500 decided to go home, hoping that a mass, organised return would force the government to lend them money for land and guarantee their safety. Shortage of land for peasants to grow food is at the heart of the conflict. Alice, Sarah and Katy went with them, and international aid agencies such as Christian Aid and Cafod provided support. Guatemalans under threat from the army feel that the presence of foreigners will stop the army killing them, or at least discourage them.

'For the first five months, there was bombing every night,' recalls Alice. 'We're surrounded by people who've seen their relatives killed and they're so brave. We're there as their protectors, so the army will think twice about doing anything.'

When a group of returning refugees found their farm buildings occupied by the military last December, a number of foreigners, including Katy Armstrong, accompanied them on a march to demand its withdrawal. A few weeks later, when the army came within 200 yards of a refugee settlement, an emergency call went out for international 'accompaniers'. Alice, Katy and Sarah rushed to be there. And when the military bombed a number of jungle villages, forcing their inhabitants to flee across the border to Mexico last year, Alice Jay went with a Guatemalan bishop to investigate.

Their daily grind includes interviewing, compiling notes and attending meetings. Back at the computer in Guatemala City, they punch in reports and send them around the world.

The three met in Guatemala through their work, although each had arrived in the country at different times and by separate paths, looking to find out what to do with their lives. Their professional involvement began with an intense late-night discussion fuelled by bottles of wine in 1992, sitting around Alice's kitchen table in the small Guatemalan town where she was then working. They decided to set up a group to collect information on the returning refugees and write reports to send around the world. They called it the Investigative Team, and it is now an arm of the Centre for Human Rights Legal Action, a group based in Washington.

'We spent the first year just trying to survive economically,' says Sarah. They wrote to Land Rover, asking them to donate a vehicle, but the company declined. Instead, they continue to endure 13-hour journeys in a pick-up truck, being touched up by drunken Guatemalan soldiers.

Their travails have made them close, sharing their suffering along with their cigarettes. But what attracted them to Guatemala in the first place? Sarah Kee, now 28, was heading in 1989 for the inspiration of Nicaragua's socialist revolution when she was diverted to Guatemala. 'I had just finished college (Sussex University) and I wanted to see what was out there,' she says.

She had gone to school in London and lived there all her life. Hardly speaking a word of Spanish, she knocked on the door of the most prominent human rights group in Guatemala, the Group of Mutual Support, which helps the relatives of people killed or 'disappeared' by the army. A bomb had exploded in the group's office the week before Sarah arrived.

Sarah remembers thinking: 'This is really on the edge.' And it was. Her first task was to tour the mortuaries in Guatemala City, looking for the body of someone who had 'disappeared'. She then spent six months occupying a glass factory with a group of striking workers.

After that, death threats forced her to take shelter in neighbouring El Salvador for a while. Her mother flew out to see her there, and has since been to Guatemala as well. Inspired by what her daughter has told her, she is one of the prime movers of the London-based Association of Artists for Guatemala.

Alice Jay, at 25 the youngest of the three, first heard of the troubles in Guatemala while volunteering for the human-rights group Americas Watch in Washington, where she had lived when her father was British ambassador. She eventually arrived in Guatemala in 1990 to work with the Council for Ethnic Communities, which tries to educate indigenous peasant communities about their legal rights.

In a country where organising and protest is seen as subversive, this was dangerous work. 'We were getting threats all the time, and seven people were killed while I was there. We were giving human rights courses and helping set up income- generating projects for the families of those who had been murdered.'

Baroness Jay, her mother, who is Lord Callaghan's daughter, has been to Guatemala several times. In contrast, her father has never visited the country and is terrified about what might happen to her.

Alice misses her friends and family, as well as Ireland, where she spent much of her childhood. But according to Sarah, the three women do not think of England much. 'It's impossible to bring the two lives together, it's like walking through a wall.'

Katy Armstrong, 29, left her mother weeping at the airport when she flew to Central America two years ago. Already a practising barrister, she took a six-month sabbatical to attend a legal conference in El Salvador. 'I had no idea if I would end up going by horse to Argentina or what. I loved my work in London, but I wanted to work on campaigning.' Her parents, from Puddletown in Dorset, have been to Guatemala and 'loved it'.

Many young Westerners take off to see the world, as these three have done; some try to save it. But few choose such a risky and gruelling location as Guatemala. There are easier ways of escaping privileged origins and gaining street cred than being bombed, harassed by soldiers and preyed on by parasites.

Alice, Sarah and Katy are fired up by what they have seen. Their next-door neighbour, Tomas Baltasar Francisco, is a former refugee with five daughters who saw his father killed by the army 12 years ago, yet has come back to confront the guns. He makes it impossible for his English neighbours to say, as Alan Clark has done about East Timor, 'I don't really fill my mind much about what one set of foreigners is doing to another.'

Sarah says: 'What keeps us going is our relations with the people here. A lot of them are our friends. We're committed to what's going on here, and that's the furnace that keeps us going. As long as there's a voice inside you telling you you're doing the right thing.'

Alice adds: 'I've been incredibly lucky to have stumbled across something which gives me an idea of a kind of movement and a struggle for real democracy. But it's also the extraordinary warmth and loving generosity of these people. I've been humanised here.'

To make donations to the work of Sarah, Katy and Alice make cheques payable to CIIR for CHRLA and send to Catholic Institute for International Relations, Unit 3 Canonbury Yard, 190a New North Road, London N1 7BJ. Catherine Matheson is a journalist for Christian Aid, specialising in Latin America.

(Photograph omitted)

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