Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996
It's no easy life in the jungles of Cantabal, near the Mexican border, but Field Repatriation Officer Roberto Mignone finds plenty of rewards.
By Roberto Mignone
UNHCR Field Repatriation Officer – Cantabal, Guatemala
The sun rises over Cantabal, a muddy village in the Guatemalan jungle near the Mexican border. In the first morning light, I recognize the profile of the metal-roofed huts that have sprung up like mushrooms in the rain forest. In the sleeping streets, beer cans sink in the mud, bearing witness to the crazy night spent by soldiers and prostitutes, some of the main actors in this surreal theatre played out every day in the Ixcán region of Guatemala.
Here the five members of the UNHCR Field Office live and work. As soon as the UNHCR vehicle, a grey ant in the grass, takes the road to Victoria, a returnee village one hour away, the wild vegetation retakes unspoiled possession of its territory.
We drive in front of a military base, a wooden fortress which was attacked almost daily by the leftist guerrillas until a recent temporary cease-fire.
Our driver waves goodbye in Victoria, and I continue by foot to Cuarto Pueblo, a returnee village that is celebrating the second anniversary of the repatriation. Now I reach the river I have to cross, but where is the boat? There is no choice but to cross it by foot, the water almost up to my neck. I try to resist the strong river current and not to think about the alligator we saw slightly upstream last week.
Now I walk, three hours in the deep forest, up and down steep hills. Toucans and butterflies are all about, and mysterious jungle sounds capture my attention. I am fascinated but I could enjoy it even more if I wasn't sweating under the tropical sun.
I think about Cuarto Pueblo, a tiny village where the people, Mayan Indian farmers, fled terrified in 1982 when troops entered the village on a market day, massacred more than 350 women, children and men and burned down everything. It was in the midst of a counter-insurgency war in which civilians generally paid a high price as suspected or potential collaborators of one side or the other.
After more than a decade in Mexico as refugees, they are back. Guatemala has changed in many ways as the war subsides and the population dares to claim their due rights. But isolation and institutional neglect of these areas continue, and the questionable ability of the state to prevent human rights violations or guarantee justice means that UNHCR has a vital role in monitoring basic conditions for returnee reintegration.
Finally I arrive. The village appears, like a miracle in the jungle. Joyful children in their colourful traditional dress welcome me and lead me to meet the village leaders. They are glad to see UNHCR officers, it makes them feel reassured. Although we cannot visit as often as they would like.
Our office covers 13 villages: 10,000 returnees. Only five villages are accessible by car; visits to the others require long walks of up to eight hours.
On the hill is the UNHCR tent with a radio inside: returnees can call us at any moment in an emergency. I call my colleagues back in Cantabal to reassure them I have arrived safely. We try not to speak Spanish as our frequencies are constantly monitored.
A meeting with the village leaders: no problems of "protection" as neither the army nor the guerrillas have been seen. However, they report having heard firefights at night, in the direction of Pueblo Nuevo, another one of "our" villages.
Villagers have found more undetonated explosive in the outskirts of the community. It has been isolated and nobody was injured; thanks to prevention campaigns launched here by UNHCR in 1994 and 1995.
There are no major problems with the village's UNHCR-funded projects, the leaders report; the rehabilitated airstrip, the rice dryer machine, the chickens distributed to the families, the fruit-tree project.
They ask about this year's projects and request fuel-saving stoves for every family; desks and material for the school; another processing machine for the rice; chickens for the families who have recently arrived; a honey-bee project. I reassure them: we are working on it together with our implementing partner, CECI of Canada. We are all aware, however, that their needs are immense and that UNHCR can only help meet some of them.
The meeting ends and some children invite me to play soccer with them. Why not?
I then have an informal talk with the local Catholic priest, a dynamic young Spaniard. We exchange information and views on the situation of returnees.
The sun has gone down now. Members of the returnee women's organization invite me and other guests to share a simple but delightful meal by candlelight.
And the celebration continues into the night: small children sing, dance and perform skits for the whole village. A group of older students performs a theatre-piece satirizing the army and the conflict.
Speech time now! The leaders call "El Señor ACNUR" (Mr. UNHCR) to the stage to address the whole community. I don't really like to talk in front of big audiences but here I am, congratulating the returnee community for what they have achieved so far with such a big effort, encouraging them to continue against all odds and reassuring them that UNHCR will continue at their side for as long as possible.
A miracle in the jungle again: a live band, complete with generator, amplifiers and electric guitars which they carried through the jungle. They start playing ranchera music and soon the entire village is dancing under the stars. I dance with them and think about how lucky I am to share these moments with them. Elderly Mayan women observe the scene, small children run joyfully about, while young men with their cowboy hats dance seriously with beautiful Mayan girls.
The UNHCR tent awaits me now and I am so tired that, in spite of the hungry mosquitoes, I feel like I'm at the Sheraton. The returnees dance until dawn. For one night, at least, they seem to have forgotten all their troubles.
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)