Guatemalan Exiles Languish in Mexico as Dreams of Return Home Fade : Central America: Refugees face a painful choice between safe haven abroad and uncertainty in their native land.

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From their shabby camp on this arid hillside, Guatemalan refugees can see the green hills of their homeland. For eight years their dream of returning has been nurtured like an ember.

The dream has helped them survive the precarious life of the camps and memories of the terror that drove them here. But year after year, the political violence of their homeland has eroded the dream.

They have been here so long that the Mexican government has offered them permanent settlements. That puts the refugees in a painful dilemma--whether to choose relative security in a foreign land or the uncertainty and violence of their home.

"Everyone says they are going home someday," said Pablo Farias, a psychiatrist who works with the refugees.

"But after a while, you realize it is sort of a speech. When you get past that, you start getting to the real sadness."

The people of Las Cieneguitas are among the tens of thousands who fled in the early 1980s during Guatemala's "scorched-earth" campaign to wipe out a leftist insurgency and depopulate remote northern war zones.

"We didn't want to leave our homes," said Ramiro Velazquez de Arturo, 55. "But we didn't want to die."

About 46,000 refugees ended up in U.N.-supervised camps near the border in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state.

In 1984, they were offered permanent villages in two other states--Campeche and Quintana Roo. More than half refused, despite the prospect of jobs or land, of better housing and education.

They chose to stay in miserable camps such as Las Cieneguitas, a collection of rickety shacks without water or electricity, where diseases such as typhoid are epidemic.

"Those who stayed in the camps are the ones who want to go home. They have been keeping alive the hope," said Sister Lucia Jimenez, a nun who has worked with the refugees for a decade.

"The whole meaning of who they are, of what has happened to them, is linked to being a refugee," Farias said.

The 23,000 exiles who remained in Chiapas--most of them Indians--are now dispersed in 123 camps, some with only a handful of families. Las Cieneguitas, with 1,600 people, is one of the largest.

The refugees survive on international aid and what little day labor they find. It isn't much. Chiapas is a poor state where Mexicans fight Mexicans for land.

"There is intense competition for the natural resources. We are piling up problems between the Mexican and refugee communities," warned Jorge Santistevan, regional representative of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees.

Mexican officials recently proposed creating a handful of villages with farmland and projects aimed at self-sufficiency within a few years. Permanent residence and citizenship for children born in Mexico would be part of the deal.

"It's a recognition that things aren't going to get better in Guatemala and that these people won't be going home," said Victor Osorio, spokesman for an umbrella group of 16 private refugee assistance groups in Mexico City.

Although they resisted resettlement in 1984, the refugees in Chiapas are considering the proposal.

"It is interesting," said Ricardo Kurtz, a 26-year-old Kanjobal Indian who serves on a refugee negotiating commission. "It would mean better health services and education."

The commission on which Kurtz serves was elected in 1987 to hold repatriation talks with Guatemala's government. It is a symbol of the unity and political awareness the refugees found in exile.

"They are not the same people who left Guatemala," said Santistevan, the U.N. representative. "They are far more sophisticated."

The commission has drawn up a brief list of conditions for returning to Guatemala, including guarantees of safety and restoration of land.

"For a campesino , the land is like your mother," refugee Velazquez de Arturo told a recent visitor here.

The exiles, many of whom cannot read or write, keep close track of events back home. Most camps have at least one shortwave radio, and broadcasts from Guatemala and the British Broadcasting Corp. are carefully monitored.

The news is bad.

There has been an upsurge in the kidnaping, torture and murder of peasant, student, labor and human rights activists. The army still occupies isolated areas, although the "scorched-earth" campaign has ended.

Guatemala's weak civilian government has not been able to meet the refugees' demands or gain their trust.

The exiles are also shocked by the campaign now under way to chose a successor to President Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, who took office in 1986 after decades of military rule.

Efrain Rios Montt, a brigadier general who took power after a 1982 coup, is doing well in the polls despite a legal ruling that, as a former dictator, he cannot serve as president.

"It's incredible that he would run," Velazquez de Arturo said. "It was in his times that most of the massacres took place."

Velazquez de Arturo knows. His village suffered three army massacres before the inhabitants fled en masse in 1982.

He says he cannot forget burying the mutilated bodies of friends and neighbors, the burned-out ruins of their homes. Almost everyone in the camps lives with such memories.

"We have peace here, if nothing else," he said.

Over the years, only a few thousand refugees have gone back to Guatemala. Psychiatrist Farias recalls one who committed suicide the night before he was to return.

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