Guatemalans plan defiant return

MEXICO CITY - More than 10 years after they fled their homes and lands in the face of the Guatemalan army's 'scorched-earth' policy against left-wing guerrillas and sympathisers, a first batch of thousands of Guatemalan refugees plan a defiant and dramatic return home today from United Nations camps in Mexico.

One who fled with them and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize last year, Rigoberta Menchu, will be at the Mexican- Guatemalan border to accompany them. A Mayan Indian like most of the refugees, the Nobel laureate hopes her presence will discourage any Guatemalan army action against those returning and ensure them of the worldwide publicity the Guatemalan government had sought to avoid.

Almost 4,000 of the 45,000 Guatemalan refugees in southern Mexico plan to defy their government by cruising down the main Pan-American highway that runs all the way from the United States through Mexico and Central America to Panama.

They will be in 100 buses with 240 lorries to carry the cattle and other livestock that helped feed them in the camps. The rest plan to follow on later dates. Their return was agreed with the Guatemalan government last October but the latter insisted they come back quietly in small groups via a more direct route, some of it through thick jungle.

'The government had no right to tell them which way to return,' Ms Menchu said yesterday. 'Any Guatemalan who crosses the frontier must have the right to transit by whichever route.'

Some of the refugees, mostly Mayan peasants, fled the civil war that began in Guatemala more than three decades ago and is the only one in Central America that still, sporadically, continues. But most crossed the border between 1979 and 1982 when Israeli-trained special army units launched their ruthless 'scorched-earth' policy, burning down homes and crops to drive out the guerrillas and their sympathisers, which meant almost everyone in the northern Quiche region.

Ms Menchu, whose parents and brother were among at least 50,000 people killed during that purge, fled at the time and returned only after winning the Nobel prize. The refugees have lived in the camps set up by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), protected by the Mexican government and aided by the Catholic Church in the southern Mexican regions of Campeche, Quintana Roo and Chiapas.

The cross-country route proposed by the Guatemalan government would have taken the refugees only three hours. No doubt prodded by Ms Menchu's fast- growing understanding of the publicity process, they opted for the high-profile Pan-American highway and a detour of 450 miles that will take them two and a half days.

Their route from the Mexican border crossing at La Mesilla is likely to ensure them a rousing welcome from sympathisers along the way. However, the Mexican government and the UNHCR have both expressed fears that the Guatemalan army may block their progress.

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