Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (Refugee voices from exile) - Return to Guatemala

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1997

After returning to Guatemalam Gregoria Sushite is determined women will have a bigger say in running the country.

Interview by James Lattimer

It was the time of the army's scorched earth policy. Guatemalan troops swept through the Usumacinta River region in 1981 accusing entire villages of being guerrilla sympathizers and randomly massacring suspected families. Gregoria GarcĀ”a Sushite escaped one step ahead of the rampaging soldiers. She fled on foot from her village along with other women, some of whom lost their babies in the panic, and eventually paddling down the Usumacinta River in a dugout canoe towards the ruins of Yaxilan in Mexico and safety.

At first, recalls Gregoria, everything went well. Guatemalan troops were encamped on the other side of the river, eyeballing the refugees who set about trying to patch their lives together again. They were provided with emergency food, a place to live and eventually land to farm. "I went to work at a health centre and in a home as a domestic servant," she said. "Our situation was improving", and the exiles even began organizing self-help committees.

But the uneasy peace could not last indefinitely. When the Guatemalan troops crossed the river to attack refugee encampments in 1986, one soldier was killed in the melee and the other civilians were forced to move to other areas of Mexico to seek sanctuary.

By the time Gregoria had settled into Quetzal Edzna camp in Campeche she was expecting her second child. The refugees received UNHCR aid and began to establish schools but the Guatemalan mother came up against another sad fact of life: even in refugee camps women are treated as inferiors. "I wanted to teach at school but I couldn't because I was a woman," she said. "I sometimes thought it was unfair to be stuck at home."

As she couldn't teach, she found other outlets for her drive and energies, working with the Catholic church to establish a women's study group, setting up a knitting class and attending leadership workshops. Her big chance came when she moved to another camp in Quintana Roo after a massive hurricane, Alberto, had struck the region and there she became a teacher. "My first experience was with the second grade," Mrs. Sushite said, and she later taught first grade and pre-school kids. She worked with the Center for the Development of Central America and received other training in community development.

Her grit and training stood her in good stead when, after years of frustration, repatriation began in earnest. "Gradually," Gregoria said, "we began to understand the importance of going home and decided to face up to the challenge. We realized that ultimately we were all fighting for land. I took part in the negotiations for the land at La Quetzal. But going back was not easy. We returned under pressure. There was still a war going on, but we decided to go back anyway."

Gregoria's troubled exile and her personal battle to overcome sexual prejudice has convinced her of one thing: Guatemalan women deserve a better deal. "More women must become involved, more assemblies must be organized, we must take on new tasks. We have to coordinate with other institutions to promote women."

She added, "I still worry about the lack of salaries for women who are working full time in social projects, making many sacrifices. The work we do is fair but the way we are treated isn't. I hope that with the signing of a peace agreement women will have more opportunities. And even if we don't enjoy a good life, our struggle is for our children, so they may reap the benefits."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (1997)