Thursday, February 21, 2013

Memories of Guatemalan refugees

by Jim Flynn*

I was moved by the photo of the bus with Guatemalan refugees returning from exile in Mexico on the back page of the latest issue of SOLIDARIDAD. That photo reminded me that I was one of about 50 Witness for Peace volunteers accompanying those refugees, which I think was in 1994. They wanted international accompaniers with them on their buses as they returned to Guatemala. Their memories of horrors committed by the Guatemalan military made them fearful of what could happen as they returned.

That bus in the photo was one of about 100 buses filled with returnees in what they called the “first organized” return. Eventually many other refugees would return in a similar way.

Most of the returnees had fled the violence and massacres in the earlier ‘80s, and had lived in exile in Mexico for 12 years or so under the protection of Mexican civil and religious authorities. But the fears of returning refugees were understandable.

But with WFP and other accompaniers boarding in pairs to accompany those buses, the convoy departed Comitan, Chiapas, early one morning. All went peacefully all the way to the border with Guatemala. I enjoyed chatting with some of the people on my bus, and learned that all of them were from San Miguel Acatan, in the department of Huehuetanango.

The caravan stopped on the Mexican side of the border, checked papers, etc., etc., and began moving ever so slowly into Guatemala. Just on the other side of the border the roadsides were jammed with thousands of Guatemalans loudly cheering, waving the Guatemalan flag. (Even as I write this I choke with tears that flowed abundantly that day on the Guatemalan side of the border.)

It was such a heartfelt and warm homecoming. As the 100 bus caravan snaked through the mountains, all along the way hundreds of people lined the road sides.

Jim Flynn during one of his many trips to Latin America.

All went well for the one hour trip from the border to the city of Huehuetenango where caravanistas would spend the night in tents erected by the government. But the returnees who were assigned to military type tents refused to use them – too many raw memories – demanding that they be dismantled and more civilian tents be brought in.

Not only that, but as medical help was provided by the Guatemalan government, the refugees discovered that some of the doctors and nurses were military people, suspected of being infiltrators. The leadership of the returnees demanded that those military personnel leave, and with international observers present like WFP the military eventually left.

I remember it so well because my bus companions from San Miguel Acatan and I were left without a tent, leaving the possibility of trying to sleep in the chilly night air. Fortunately, we were provided sort of lean-to plastic covers braced against a wall with open ends. It was very chilly, and my sleeping bag was almost inadequate.

The following day, the 100 bus caravan began its continuing journey toward Guatemala City – a long drive. And again the roadsides were filled with the cheers and shouts of Guatemalans welcoming refugees home. For me, the tears continued as I sat on our bus filled with Mayans from San Miguel Acatan.

The caravan finally reached Guatemala City, and the returnees assembled in the plaza in front of the Cathedral.

Thousands of cheering people shouted their chants. I’ll never forget the musicians singing BASTA YA (enough!) to massacres, fleeing refugees, living in exile.    

The day after the arrival in Guatemala City, the refugees I was accompanying then began another piece of their return, a five hour ride to Coban, Alta Verpaz, and to their final destinations in the Ixcan.

The folks on my bus went on to locations where land was made available to them in the Ixcan (a northern part of Alta Verpaz). My part of the accompaniment was over, though frankly I have to admit that I was just too weary to go any further – considering as well the rains and mud on the roads.

So, thanks for that picture in SOLIARIDAD that brought back so many wonderful memories of my time with WFP as an accompanier with Guatemalan Mayans eager to return to their native soil. May all Guatemalans, especially Mayans, live in peace and harmony.

* Editor's note: Jim Flynn has been a key part of Witness for Peace's work for many years. As he describes in this article, served as an accompanier with Witness for Peace in Latin America. He also served on WFP's board of directors for many years and led numerous WFP delegations to Latin America. In fact, the WFP delegation scholarship fund is named after Jim.

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