Refugees In Central America
The refugees desperately seek safe haven, fleeing from horrors so awful that they prefer to leave their family and the few possessions they have. They try to find, at great risk, some corner somewhere where there is at least a minimum of security.
Refugees. Those desperately seeking refuge, fleeing from horror so great that it is preferable to leave one’s family, one’s few possessions and, at tremendous risk, try to find a haven, a corner somewhere, where there is at least a little safety. Unfortunately in Central America today, that refuge often turns out to be itself a scene of fear and persecution, and sometimes death. The growing number of refugees is one of the factors that link the Central American countries.
Rough estimates of the number of Salvadoran refugees list 70–150,000 in Mexico, 7,000 in Belice, 1,000 in Panama, 27,000 in Honduras, 10,000 in Costa Rica and 20,000 in Nicaragua. Guatemalan refugees are located mostly in Honduras and Mexico, and their numbers are growing as the violence in that country increases. Here in Nicaragua there are roughly 100 Guatemalans. All of these are living among the Nicaraguan people, and none are officially listed with the Ministry of Social Welfare, although the Ministry is making plans to be able to serve them.
In this article we would like to look at the situation of the refugees here in Nicaragua, and by extension, examine the situation in the neighboring countries from the perspective of these refugees. We will look at the pastoral work of CONIP; we will examine life within a Nicaraguan refugee camp; we will look at the cases of some specific refugees; we will hear a comparison of the political and economic realities of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua; and we will take a special look at the critical situation in Honduras.
Nicaragua is one of the few countries in the area which has signed the UN refugee agreements. Only a small fraction of the refugees are in the camps set up for them by the government. The others are dispersed throughout the country. The Ministry of Social Welfare attends to the needs of approximately 4,000 of these refugees, both in and out of the camps. The funds for this assistance come principally from UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, with other donations coming from religious and solidarity groups around the world, including OXFAM/AMERICA, and the United Church of Canada. When we asked the refugee office at the Ministry about reported help from USAID (United States Agency for International Development) funds, we were told that there are no funds from AID being used for the refugees for several reasons. First, the offer from AID was not to give new assistance, but rather to authorize that a portion of assistance previously given to Nicaragua be transferred to the refugee program. The Ministry felt that it was not correct to take help away from the Nicaraguans, who have serious problems of their own, to convert it to the refugee program. There were also objections from representatives of the refugees themselves who felt it would be an incomprehensible irony that the United States would finance the genocide in El Salvador on the one hand, and give assistance to those fleeing from that genocide on the other.
There are extensive programs in all of the refugee camps in Nicaragua. These include literacy programs, education for the school age children, medical and social attention, cooperatives, and communal kitchens under the supervision of dieticians to insure an adequate nutritional program. The refugees who wish to are encouraged to participate in the coffee harvest, in progress now, and in the cotton and other harvests during the year. In this way they not only benefit themselves financially but also begin to integrate into the Nicaraguan society.
A CONVERSATION WITH CONIP:The Salvadoran people, like those in Nicaragua, are deeply religious. Their faith is an integral part of their lives. Often their commitment to their country’s struggle for justice has come out of their conscientization in Christian Base Communities. The religious needs of the Salvadoran refugees are attended here in Nicaragua in part, by the organization CONIP, the National Coordinating Committee of the Popular Church. As we mentioned in a previous envío, the term “popular church” is not used by any Nicaraguan group to describe itself, but that is not true in El Salvador and CONIP is made up of Salvadoran people. It is primarily a group of lay people, with some religious, seminarians and priests. The group developed out of the Comunidades de Base in El Salvador and many of those working with the refugees here were catechists, Delegates of the Word, or Eucharistic Ministers in El Salvador. According to José, the Director of CONIP here in Managua, their work consists in forming Ecclesial Comunidades de Base, evangelizing the refugees, creating reflection groups, promoting the conscientization of the people so that “in the moment in which they can return to their country, they will go with a clear vision of what it is to build a new society based on justice, community, liberty and equality”. There is also work that deals with people’s personal problems, which are extensive.
José stressed that CONIP is not a political party and therefore is only affiliated with the FDR as an observer rather than as a participating member. However, he added that many of the individual members of CONIP are active in other mass organizations, and as such, are participants in the FDR (the political wing of the opposition); some have also chosen to participate actively in the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí for National Liberation), which, he said, has the support of the majority of campesinos, workers and professionals such as teachers in El Salvador. He said if it were not for this widespread support, the FMLN would have been exterminated long ago through the massive effort of the Junta and the United States. We asked him if he saw the proposed elections as a possible solution to the problems in his country. He said that besides the fact that not even the U.S. and the government officials who are proposing the elections believe in them, the people also have no faith in this answer. They have been deceived too many times, especially in 1972 and 1977. He added that, “the same people who today are calling for elections, especially Colonel Abdul Gutiérrez and Colonel García, were the ones who planned and directed the electoral fraud of 1977”.
We asked José about the emotional well-being of the refugees here and he said that in spite of the tremendous trauma that these people have undergone, losing loved ones in the violence in their country and having to abandon the little that they had in order to flee, they are generally optimistic. They are working toward the day that they will be able to return to their country and participate in the construction of that “new society”.
A VISIT TO A REFUGEE CAMP:The Camp Itself. San Ramón is a tiny cluster of buildings two kilometers outside of the city of Estelí. It consists of a modern parish center used by the diocese of Estelí for retreats and workshops and, behind that, the buildings of a former tobacco farm bought by the church a number of years ago. It is these latter building which serve as a home for 85 Salvadoran refugees.
The conditions in the camp, which is operating at about full capacity, are fairly good by any Central American standard. The refugees live in three large brick buildings which are 35 to 40 feet high as they were formerly used for drying tobacco. These large buildings are divided in rooms measuring about 20’ by 30’. Individual families, extended families and clusters of families of from eight to twenty persons occupy these rooms. Each room has one or two hammocks as well as several tijeras (collapsible wood and canvas cots), made in the refugee carpentry cooperative in Estelí. With funds supplied by the Ministry of Social Welfare, the refugees have been putting in cement floors. Water is obtained from a nearby tank where it has been pumped from a well. There is electricity in all of the buildings.
A fourth brick building has been divided into a large dining hall-meeting room, a kitchen, a storage room, and a small classroom. The food is supplied by ACNUR through the Ministry of Social Welfare. It is both substantial and appetizing and is prepared communally by the Salvadoran women. The diet includes adequate amounts of eggs, milk, beans, corn for tortillas, vegetables, and some meat.
A doctor comes to the camp once a week. The refugees as a whole are quite healthy at San Ramón. The camp is situated in the northern mountains, and the nights are much cooler than those to which the refugees are accustomed so there was concern for adequate clothing. This has been resolved with donations from church and solidarity groups in the United States and Cuba.
Approximately 250 more refugees live in barrios in Estelí itself. Those in the camps are among the poorest who have arrived. They are people who either were unable to leave with any money or possessions, or they are families in which the man was killed or stayed behind. Hence, of the 85 refugees in the camp, only six are men, along with 48 children and 31 women. Almost all of the refugees here are from the Department of Morazán; word has filtered back there that this is a place where they can find help.
HOW AND WHY THEY CAME:The refugees have arrived here in different ways. Many came on the Nicaragua–El Salvador ferry which stopped running eight months ago due to the tense political relations between the two countries, which have no common border. A few came by plane. Some have come by land through Honduras. The vast majority left El Salvador either illegally or under false authorization. Those who are here in Nicaragua would not have been permitted to leave if they had stated Nicaragua as their destination. Many left with eight-day visas to visit friends or family in Costa Rica or Panama. And many families have come, one or two at a time, to finally be reunited here.
Listening to the refugees’ stories, four major reasons emerge for their leaving their homes. First, they worked with the Church in El Salvador. One is a catechist who was arrested and tortured. Both he and his family managed to get out, although at different times. Then there is a bent old woman of 75 and her extended family. Her grandson was a priest who “was trying to open the eyes of the people”. He was killed. Her son was killed simply for being a relative of the priest. The rest of the family knew they had to flee or they would also be killed. The two priests who do pastoral work among the refugees in the camp and in Estelí are themselves refugees. After numerous death threats and two attempts on their lives, they left El Salvador three months ago at the urging of their parishioners. Such stories of persecution for having worked with the church are repeated over and over by refugees throughout the country.
A second group are friends or relatives of those who were killed for no apparent reason. Security forces sweep through a village asking people if they have helped or seen the guerrillas. Of course the response is no. out of frustration, they begin killing at random. Or perhaps an “oreja” (informer) has informed the authorities that a particular person I “suspect” or has “sympathies” and the person is killed. There are countless stories of indiscriminate killing, including of women and children.
A third group are families of those fighting with the guerrillas. A 22-year old woman is here with her three young children. She was sent by her 36 year old husband who joined the guerrillas. Many others are here whose brothers, fathers, or children are fighting.
The fourth group are those who participate in any type of mass organization, whether it be religious, economic, political, labor union, or educational. One woman had helped in forming a “conscientización” group in her village in which the people came together to analyze their experience and situation. This, along with her active Catholicism, brought her death threats. The village, because it was organized, was the site of killings and aerial bombings. There are numerous reports among the refugee of napalm and toxic gases being dropped on the villages. One man had been active in trying to form an independent union in the factory in which he worked. The existing union was government sponsored and was believed to be tied to the CIA. He also was threatened with death.
ORGANIZED EFFORTS: The formation of cooperatives among the refugees is a new development in the camps. The women form groups of five which rotate, doing the various community tasks such as cooking and caring for the pre-school children. There are also literacy classes in the camps being conducted by other refugees. The men work together during the day preparing a plot of land for cultivating beans. They hope to be able to acquire more land. The young men, under the direction of an older man, are putting in the cement floors. When this is finished they will begin making hammocks to sell with materials supplied by the government. In Estelí, the government has helped to open carpentry and clothing cooperatives. Through these cooperative the problems of lack of money, idle time and boredom are being resolved.
The refugees have organized a coordinating committee among themselves which facilitates transportation of the refugees from the camp to the town as well as overseeing community functions and resolving community difficulties. These organizational activities which are encouraged here are the very kinds of activities which made them targets for the security forces in their own country.
COMMUNITY:The most moving insight into the life of the refugees in Nicaragua came at a gathering held one evening while we were visiting the camp at San Ramón. A musician who wrote the music for the Misa Salvadoreña while working with Monsignor Romero arrived at San Ramón after having visited other refugee camps in Nicaragua. All of the people in he camp, the wrinkled old women, babies, children, and the few men, gathered together in the converted barn. It was a night of singing, by the visiting musician and by the refugees, as well as of much discussion. The songs and discussion were not ones of diversion, something to pass the time and escape reality. They were instead from the heart of the refugee experience: their many martyrs, their lives in El Salvador and here in Nicaragua, and their hopes for a new El Salvador to which they all long to return. We realize that these refugees are not refugees filled with despair but rather filled with hope. They are intimately involved with what is happening in their country, and each morning they gather around the radios to listen to “Radio Venceremos”, the clandestine radio station operated by the FMLN. They have created, with the help of others and the God which is so present to them, a home as a people. This community is expressed in their songs, their work, and in a special way in their warm welcome to visiting strangers, even if those strangers come from the United States.
IIAdela is a Salvadoran teacher in her mid-thirties. She is dynamic, articulate, and very involved with helping attend to the needs of other refugees here, especially children. The Guatemalans with whom we spoke were Carlos O., a laborer who speaks forcefully of the worker’s situation in Guatemala; Salvador R., a tall, slender, reserved young teacher; and Augusto S., a mechanic, about 40, whose intensity and seriousness are immediately apparent. He has survived two attempts on his life, and still walks around with fragments of the bullets in his body. All of these people belonged to unions and political parties and fled to Nicaragua after having received various death threats from right-wing paramilitary organizations. As Augusto can testify, it is well-known that in El Salvador and Guatemala these threats are carried out.
INTERVIEW WITH SOME REFUGEES REGARDING GUATEMALA, EL SALVADOR AND NICARAGUA
We visited them one evening to listen to them discuss and compare the societies in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua; to compare some aspects of their political, economic and social circumstances. These are ordinary people; not political or scientific leaders but spontaneous voices of some members of the Guatemalan and Salvadoran community. The discussions here are not meant to be exhaustive, nor in depth.
We discussed the following topics: the make-up of the distinctive societies; the development of the situation during the last five years; the political situation; the growth and development of the Guatemalan struggle; the influence of the international situation on the struggles of the Central American people. Because of space limitations we only present excerpts of the discussion.
INTERVIEW: Q. Could you explain to us a little about your society, the most important classes and social sectors?
Carlos: In the last 20 years in Guatemala the economic development has come somewhat changed the social classes. The Guatemalan upper class is comprised of more or less 2% of the population and divided in various sectors, one of which is the agro-export sector, which is the key sector that has governed our country for some time. In the last ten years part of the army has moved into the upper class, not as a separate entity but as an integral part of that class. There is also the middle class which includes the professionals and service workers and then the majority – our people. The working class is opposed to the upper class, although it does not have a large massive organization. The greater part of the population lives in the rural areas. The campesinos also have their variations because there are poor campesinos and those who own lands. There is also the plantation tenant farmer.
Compared to Nicaragua, the Guatemalan upper class has had a unified structure for over 20 years. This is not seen in Nicaragua because the upper class grew under the wing of the Somocista dynasty.
Adela: In El Salvador, the economic aspect is a determinant factor… There is a Creole financial upper class and, at the same time, the agro-exporter and the wealthy landowning oligarchy. This is a very significant characteristic: the same persons are the landowners, bankers, industrialists and they also dominate exports. This is a small group and it is directly allied to North American Imperialism. It is not an independent class. It is 100% dependent.
The working class is the opposition class because the two classes have completely different interests, are very polarized. The wage-earner forms the smaller part of this class and the campesino the majority. The rural population in El Salvador is approximately 60%. There we have the poor campesino, he who is dispossessed of all means of production and who has to work as a day laborer to maintain his family. There is also the middle class campesino and the rich campesino.
In the city, there is the worker, appropriately called the proletariat or the industrialized worker. We also have a middle class formed by students, teachers and intellectuals. But the middle class, in general, is a class that vacillates when it comes to making specific decisions.
The difference in the formation of the upper class in Nicaragua was that there was not a wealthy class that had formed itself but rather it was a fraction dependent on the power of Somoza. This meant that at the moment of the revolution, part of the upper class allied itself with the revolutionary process and the revolutionary organization, something that you do not see and it’s not expected that you will see in El Salvador. There are 14 families that form the upper class. These families own 2/3 of El Salvador and they completely exploit all of the working population.
In relation to the working class, in El Salvador there is a higher standard of living or at least more industrialization than there is in Nicaragua. In El Salvador the working class constitutes a higher percentage of the population due to the industrialization process.
Q. And the ethnic composition?
Augusto: In Guatemala there is also another characteristic; the campesinos are 95% indigenous, divided into their various groups.
Adela: In El Salvador there is a percentage of indigenous, but it is a small number. It forms a part, more than anything, of the working class, the organized class.
Q. In regard to the economic situation of Central America, we know there are serious crises in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras. How are the economies of Guatemala and El Salvador?
Carlos: In the last ten years there has been a stagnation due principally to the political characteristics that have arisen in the area. The economic situation of the area, especially Guatemala, is based on two divisions; the agricultural area and the industrial or manufacturing… From the beginning of the century, a rather large agricultural development was initiated… The rise in economic development since the 60’s has the following factors; the impulse that the interventionist policies of the U. S. gave through the Alliance for Progress with investments in the Central American area at the level of the common market; the diversification in the agricultural sector through the addition of such products as sugar cane. Since 1970 the Central American countries (one of those most benefited by the Central American Common Market has been Guatemala, and also El Salvador) began a rise in their economic development. There were ups and downs but the overall increase was due to the injection of investments principally from the U.S. through North American firms that appeared as entities and institutions and factories with Latin names but in reality their origin was the United States.
In 1976, there was the earthquake. Many feel that investments came to a standstill at that moment because of the emergency situation that Guatemala was in. Nevertheless some economists have expressed that it was a momentary halt because in the construction sector, due to the investments and the foreign aid, the activity was intensified bringing increases in the levels of the Gross Internal Product each year until 1978 when there was a new standstill, chiefly due to the political situation. Since 1978, there has been a decline. This has been affected also by the situation in the area, by the Sandinista Revolution that definitely left a bitter taste within the upper class because they realized that the situation was not as good as they had predicted for the future. This situation of the decrease in the GDP has been getting worse since 1980. For 1981 another decrease is expected which could come down to a level of zero in real terms. The economic boom that the country has had in former years is due primarily to the tremendous exploitation of the workers in the country and in industry. We know that 82% of the cultivable land is in the hands of 15% of the landowners.
Something very important, like Nicaragua earlier with the question of gold, Guatemala is a strategic geographic zone which has priority for North American imperialism because of the existence of large oil reserves, the existence of large quantities of nickel, copper and other metals which are very important for the industrialized economies. Therefore we believe that the U.S. is going to try by whatever means to not allow the revolution to succeed in these countries, because any revolution that is conscientious will defend the best interest of the country.
Adela: El Salvador is an exporting country. Generally its economic base is founded on the cultivation of coffee. After the 60’s cotton cultivation was initiated. This cultivation did not conform to the needs of the country but rather took into account the development that imperialism needed at the international level. The United States was obliged to begin the cultivation of some of these crops in the Central American countries because it was no longer trading with Cuba. All of this meant that there would be the cultivation of sugar cane, cotton and coffee. Coffee was no longer the only major product.
There was also industrial development. After 1975, the economy of the country was maintained, but from ’75 until ’80 there was a slowdown. In 1980 there was a great standstill, and now there is not only a standstill but a virtual decline which has meant a deficit in foreign exchange of $600 million. And there is no hope that the economy will pick up; on the contrary, imperialism is trying to maintain it at the point where it is but each day it is dropping more because the revolutionary movement making gains daily. It is hitting the industrial sector which is what most affects the economic growth.
If we compare the external debt, we see that the debt of Nicaragua is much higher but there is a logical reason. In the moment of the victory, the national treasury was completely empty, and that forced the country to borrow and become indebted to a greater extent to be able to initiate or reinitiate the movement of the economy.
Q. The government of El Salvador and Guatemala are intending to have elections next year. How has the political crisis come about in Guatemala?
Carlos: Guatemala has been a patient people, a people who have believed that legality exists, even though it was dominated by upper class legality. Before the Guatemalan people considered that they could win power through elections…
Salvador: In 1974, the electoral fraud was evident; from then on, in each new election, the percentage of voters has decreased to such an extent that in the municipal elections last year, the percentage of voters was 9% of the population. In these new elections of 1982 the percentage is expected to fall to less than 5% of the population that could vote.
Carlos: The army and the upper class parties already have their candidate. That means the next president of Guatemala has been elected… There is another party, the Christian Democrat. In this moment in Guatemala they have not decided on a candidate, but from all the declarations that have been given, it seems that they intend to participate in the elections. There are also two other parties that constitute the legal opposition in Guatemala, one legally registered and the other now decidedly cut off by the governmental regime. They are not giving any type of political space to the Social Democrat Party and so that party has integrated itself into the struggle of the Guatemalan people and they have vigorously denounced the electoral farce that is going on.
Q. In Guatemala a high percentage of the population is integrated in parties, unions, armed movements, etc. In spite of the tremendous repression of the military government, how have these mass organizations emerged?
Salvador: After there was a strike with the Coca Cola union, a committee of solidarity was formed in support of the struggle of the bottling plant workers. This was formed March 30, 1976, and was called the National Committee of Trade Union Unity, and from that time on it began to direct all the political and social issues and struggles of the workers of the country. In 1978 the Committee of United Campesinos (CUC) appeared which was integrated into the National Committee of Trade Union Unity and, through that, the alliance of the workers in the city with the campesinos was achieved. In 1979, the Democratic Front Against Repression was formed which was then going to bind not only the workers but also other sectors, for example at the university, as much at the level of professors as of students, and also the progressive political parties such as the PSD… In 1981 the January 31 Popular Front also appeared and they are all members through their organizations, of the Democratic Front against Repression, to which the committed Christians are joined with the revolutionary process of Guatemala.
Carlos: The struggle against repression as an objective of the Democratic Front has ceased to have validity in the present circumstance. That is why the popular organizations together have decided to form a more ample political front to struggle, not in relation to repression, but politically against the government of Romero Lucas García. In these very moments in Guatemala, through the popular organizations, there is an attempt going on to form national unity to confront the government. There are four political-military organizations acting in conformity with the national unity. Of the 22 departments these organizations now have intense activity in 19 departments. It is hoped that by the end of this year they will be active in the whole Republic.
The four armed organizations are making a tremendous effort to achieve complete unity. This signifies having one leadership, a situation that still hasn’t existed in other revolutions with the exception of the Frente Sandinista for National Liberation which had as its only direction the National Directorate of the Frente.
Q. As a final question, we would like to know something about the consequences of the present international situation for Guatemala and, above all, for El Salvador.
Augusto: A very strong current has surged against North American Imperialism, led in these moments by the Socialist International. The recent triumph of Mitterand in the French government has destabilized the existing imperialist plan for the coming years. The actual Salvadoran situation has been seen as very much improved by the valiant and conscientious declarations of the Mexican and French governments. And that influences the actual situation of Guatemala and Nicaragua. What is clear is that imperialism now is not in total power, nor will it be in total power again because there are currents running against its interests, as is shown by the Socialist International.
Adela: In the United Nations through Comandante Daniel Ortega, the FDR-FMLN presented a proposal to avoid greater bloodshed in our country. It was rejected by the Military Christian-Democrat Junta and North American imperialism. The Junta rejected it when it rejected the proposal of Panama as a host country for mediation; imperialism rejected it through one of the U.N. representatives. If someone doesn’t accept a political proposal this means that they fear that answer, because they know that it is not one sector of the Salvadoran people that is fighting for their liberation but it is the whole people who have risen up in arms. We see that the Reagan administration is still losing support even within its own country. The North American people have become conscientious and are becoming more so every day. It is very admirable how they are struggling against the enemy that they have internally and for the benefit of other people. It is between people and people that there is no disunity: between peoples there are no borders.
We take advantage of this opportunity to ask each one of the people of the world and the governments that they give us their solidarity so that within a short time we can see this people that is suffering be freed of exploitation.
IIIDiana, 11 years old, and Carlos, 12 years old, have lived in Nicaragua for the last six months. Both were born in the department of Chalatenango in El Salvador. Their parents are teachers who belonged to ANDES, The National Education Association in El Salvador. On April 23 of this year their mother and a baby brother went to Guatemala on a trip. The mother was captured, along with the baby, in Guatemala. When the father learned what had happened, he arranged for a friend to bring the children to Nicaragua and himself went underground. It is well known that in the last two years hundreds of teachers have been killed in El Salvador. In spite of numerous appeals to the Guatemalan government, Diana and Carlos have heard nothing about their mother and brother since the 23rd of April.
TESTIMONY OF SOME REFUGEE CHILDREN FROM EL SALVADOR
We are including here excerpts from our interview with them. When we began, the children were a little shy, even though we were alone with them. But later, we were startled by their maturity and the depth of their answers, an evident result of the sobering experiences that they have had in their short lives. Through this interview we can see one of the undeniable effects of a war on children, that is, making them adults far too quickly.
INTERVIEW: Q. What kind of work did your mother do in El Salvador?
Diana: My mother was a teacher and belonged to ANDES. In El Salvador they are assassinating lots of teachers. Our mother worked in Chalatenango in a village called Chapas. Afterwards she transferred to Concepción. Then, after we moved to San Salvador, they transferred her again and she worked in a school in a small village near San Salvador. Our mother was working with ANDES when the crisis became more dangerous so she went to see what conditions were like in Guatemala. Now we can see how things are coordinated between the governments and how the Guatemalan government knew to capture my mother by that coordination. Just like the government in El Salvador is assassinating teachers, so is the government of Guatemala.
Q. Do you think that just the work that your mother did as a teacher was enough to cause her to be captured?
Carlos: No. In El Salvador now they don’t care if someone is a teacher or what, if they work in the organizations or not. It’s all the same. But just being a teacher can get you killed.
Q. But your mother entered Guatemala without problems and then was captured in that same country?
Carlos: She entered legally, but they are capturing professors and massacring them. She entered legally and was going around looking at the situation there. So just that she was a teacher and that she was Salvadoran was enough. But sometimes a person who isn’t a teacher but is just Salvadoran is captured… We could also see that in the customs checks, they have files and controls on who goes through and we know that the government then keeps track of the Salvadorans and follows them, they know if someone is in Honduras, Guatemala, or any other country because they have to pass through customs.
Q. Can you tell us a little about what is happening now in El Salvador, what type of repression they are suffering and what the daily life of the people is like?
Diana: Well, in El Salvador there is no tranquility, there is no peace, nothing like that, just repression. For example the news. There, in the news the things that are happening in the rural areas or in other places of El Salvador are not published in the capital or the bigger cities. The people are completely ignorant of the things that are happening in their own country. Like, in El Salvador it is bad to play or sing a protest song because one can be captured and then disappear.
Carlos: There are many things happening in my country now. For example, today they capture twenty, tomorrow they turn up beheaded, tortured and only by their heads can anyone know who they are. They are killing fifty a day like that.
Diana: In El Salvador the repression has gone so far that they are decapitating the people in the slaughterhouses and then throwing the bodies along the highway. They know they weren’t killed there because there is no blood.
Q. What do you think your friends there are doing now? Can they go to school?
Carlos: They are all in danger. Some have gone to the United States or Mexico because they can see that they can’t study now. So they go to Mexico or Guatemala or to the camps here or in Honduras because now to be studying is something like wasting their life because life is a treasure, a mind is for something else than to be killed.
Diana: To be studying now is to deny what is happening in El Salvador.
Q. How does Nicaragua seem to you? Are you in school here or what is your life like?
Carlos: It’s very good because we are going to classes, Social Welfare is helping us, we have a lot of help. So we are fine in Nicaragua.
Diana: What Nicaragua has now, the way things are better, that is what we would like also. We want to be free like Nicaragua and not suffer more repression and misery. Nicaragua is what we want to be, what Nicaragua has is what we want to have. We are anxious for the victory, because now the victory is going to come soon, and then we will be able to do what they are doing here – go to school, visit the schools without problems, and the teachers too. Even to be able to go out in the street after dark without anything happening because it is a free country.
Q. Isn’t it possible to go out in the evening in El Salvador?
Carlos: Whoever goes out at seven at night or at nine is dead.
Q. You don’t live in a refugee center here in Nicaragua, you live in the city. Have you visited the refugee centers here and what do you think of them?
Diana: Yes, the centers here are much better than those in Honduras or in other countries that are not free. Because the Nicaragua people and the Frente Sandinista have given a lot of help to the Salvadoran refugees, giving them food, housing and many things that you don’t see in other countries.
Carlos: We have visited the refugee centers in León and in Chinandega and we see that there they don’t just eat beans and rice but also meat and eggs, and milk. It’s not bad. We’re grateful to the Frente Sandinista and the people of Nicaragua.
Q. You have talked about the intervention in your country. Can you talk a little about the opinion of the people in El Salvador about the role of the U.S. in your country?
Carlos: We can see that the upper classes think that they are going to stop the guerrillas. What we know is that the people are going to win because the people feel the repression, the misery, so they take up arms for the Salvadoran victory. I hope that it comes soon, this day when we’ll see El Salvador liberated.
Diana: The U.S. can stick its hands in, even if it sticks them in completely in El Salvador, but we will pull them out and the day will come when imperialism will lose for the second time like it did in Vietnam.
Q. Have you seen American soldiers in El Salvador or U.S. equipment? How have you experienced this intervention that your feel so strongly about?
Carlos: We can see that all the arms that are there have been given by the U.S. The tanks and the machine guns and the planes. And those planes that hold like twenty-five soldiers and attack the villages and do away with all the villages and the poor people in the mountains.
Diana: Like he said, all the arms are from there, but there are also people who are witnesses that many green berets are landing from the U.S. to intervene in the country. Also, the U.S. sends all the equipment for the Junta but they still aren’t able to defeat a people that rise up against an oppressive government. The Salvadoran people ask for world solidarity so that imperialism gets out of El Salvador, and once it is out of El Salvador it will be easy to defeat the Junta that is left alone. It wouldn’t be able to last by itself for even three days.
IVThe seriousness of the refugee situation in Honduras merits a special examination. The poorest of the Central American countries, Honduras has also had the biggest influx of fleeing Salvadorans. Some 27,000 are estimate to be in that country; 18,000 are registered with UNHCR. According to a 1981 United Nations report, 40% of these refugees are women, 40% children and 20% are men.
Capuchin priest Earl Gallagher says the common denominator of this huge group is fear and the biggest medical problem among them is tension and related problems.
The Honduran government has never ratified the UN agreements on refugees; thus they have no legal status or protection. They arrive traumatized by the horrors and exhausted after long, arduous and furtive journeys to get to “the other side”. Once there, they discover that the situation continues to be precarious. They are subject to continuous harassment and threats from the Honduran military; frequently, especially in the case of young men, they are turned over to Salvadoran troops and are killed or “disappear”. There is frequent troop movement back and forth across the border by both armies.
The camps are administered under UNHCR by people from CEDEN, CARITAS and World Vision. Many complaints have been received from the refugees about the latter group for its heavy-handed tactics with the refugees and its alleged close association with the Honduran military. On the other hand, there are documented cases of CARITAS and CEDEN people being detained and beaten; in August, five CEDEN people were expelled from the country.
The situation in the camps is marginal at best. La Virtud has 2,400 refugees in the camps alone and over 11,000 in the area. There are serious health hazards from animal waste, inadequate latrines, a river contaminated by animal waste and detergents used to wash clothes, lack of potable water, excessive heat in the tents, lack of an awareness of personal hygiene among the people who are unused to living in such close proximity to others, and serious psychological problems as a result of the traumas they have lived through. Common diseases include malaria, dysentery and gastro-intestinal disorders, anemia, malnutrition, hepatitis, conjunctivitis and respiratory infections. Between April and May of 1981, 75 children died of causes related to malnutrition and there are an average of 22 deaths each month in the camp, according to a report by the El Salvador Human Rights Committee in England.
In Colomoncagua, the physical situation is somewhat better and the climate is cooler than in La Virtud. But there the refugees are virtual prisoners who must have written permission to move from one camp to another. They are forbidden to go more than 50 meters from the camp. Both the river where the woman wash clothes and the latrines are beyond this limit. People cannot leave the camp after six p.m. in pairs, an extremely frightening prospect under the circumstances. Firing into the air by Honduran soldiers is heard near the camp all during the night, which seems to be done to maintain the level of fear.
Since October 26 there has been a curfew and state of siege at La Virtud. In July of 1981 an estimated 1,200 Salvadoran National Guard troops arrived near the refugee area and set up camp.
In July there were charges by Honduran officials and backed by US Ambassador Jack Binns that 50% of the refugee food was going to the guerrillas. This was strongly refuted by UN officials. It apparently was a charge made to set the stage for an announced plan to move all the refugees away from the border areas and at least 50 kilometers further into the interior into areas which would be under the direct control of the Honduran military commanders. The reason given was “for delicate reasons of security and control”.
When this was first proposed, the UNHCR people protested and said that they disapproved of the plan, and in addition, had no money to finance such a move. Recently this position has changed and UNHCR has now said it will finance the move. The Honduran officials allege agreement by the refugees.
There have been extensive reports of strong opposition by the refugees to the move. This is so strong that many have left the camps to return to El Salvador and risk almost certain death rather than be moved. There are many reasons for the fear and the refusal by the people to move. They do not want to be in military-controlled camps, at the mercy of the Honduran army. There are strong fears that once away from international observation, there will be mass killings of the refugees. There is a strong conviction by the people that the real reason for the move is to prevent observation of the troop movements back and forth across the border and the people feel very strongly that they want to be where they can denounce the atrocities performed in that area by the Honduran and Salvadoran troops with their U. S. “advisors”.
The needs of the refugees in Honduras are massive. They need financial help and even more they need solidarity in the exterior and pressure applied to prevent the proposed move. They also need strong protest in the U.S. against the increased military aid, not only to El Salvador, but also to Honduras. As Father Gallagher says, “the solution is not military aid. The problem in Central America is lack of food, justice, dignity. The U. S. military aid could be used instead to find peaceful solutions to these problems”.
The material for the entire article on refugees was obtained from the following sources:
Statistics on numbers of refugees – UNHCR.
Visits to refugee camps in Nicaragua.
Interviews with representatives from the Nicaraguan Ministry of Social Welfare. CONIP, the El Salvador Human Rights Commission in Nicaragua, Catholic Relief Service, many refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador, people from church and relief organizations who have visited the camps in Honduras.
A report by the El Salvador Committee for Human Rights from England.