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Refugees Stranded at El Salvador’s Border Released and Cross Frontier

August 15, 1988

EL POY, El Salvador (AP) _ More than 1,200 Salvadoran refugees returned from Honduras to their homeland Sunday after being delayed at the border in a dispute over U.S. church people accompanying them, a radio report said.

Roberto Rodriguez of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said by telephone that the refugees and more than 150 vehicles were allowed to enter El Salvador at 5:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. EDT) after the 15 church workers agreed to stay in Honduras.

Salvadoran government officials say many refugees sympathize with leftist guerrillas, and have accused church workers of similar leanings.

Rodriguez said the refugees were on their way to hometowns in northern Chalatenango province.

There was no immediate comment from the Salvadoran government. Members of the U.S. church organization that had aided the refugees could not be reached for comment.

Late Saturday, the convoy of 36 buses and 116 trucks carrying the refugees and their belongings were halted in Honduras about 500 yards from the border.

They had left the Mesa Grande refugee camp 30 miles to the north under an accord worked out among the refugees, the Salvadoran government and the U.N. organization, which is overseeing the repatriation.

Some of the Salvadorans spent up to eight years in the Mesa Grande camp.

Jose Maria Mendiluce, the U.N. agency’s Central American director, said the presence of the U.S. church workers - members of the Going Home organization - was not contemplated in the accord.

Earlier Sunday, Interior Minister Edgar Belloso Funes told reporters at the border that his government ″welcomes with open arms″ the Salvadoran refugees.

″But the so-called internationalists among them are using our brothers for strictly political ends. They (the foreigners) are coming here to break our laws, and I have orders from the highest level that they not be permitted entry,″ he said.

Amadeo Lopez, a returning refugee, had said the group was insisting the U.S. church workers be allowed to enter. He said the refugees were determined to wait in their mile-long convoy until their demand was met.

But the 1,230 refugees, including hundreds of infants and children, had little food and appeared unprepared to spend days waiting on the road. Two pregnant women among the refugees were expected to give birth in coming days.

Louis Vitale, a Roman Catholic priest from Oakland, Calif., and spokesman for the Going Home delegation, blamed the Salvadoran government for the dispute.

″This is part of the Salvadoran government’s continuing efforts to obstruct the refugees’ return,″ he said, adding that all members of his delegation had visas for El Salvador.

Going Home is an interfaith organization supporting Salvadoran refugees. It participated last October in the first big repatriation of Salvadoran refugees from Honduras.

The return of refugees is a highly charged issue in this small Central American country torn by nearly nine years of civil war.

The armed forces consider the three Salvadoran refugee camps in Honduras part of the rear guard of leftist guerrillas fighting the U.S.-supported government. About 4,300 refugees returned last year and about 15,000 Salvadoran refugees remain in the camps.

The Salvadoran government is concerned about their political sympathies and the burden they may place on an economy devastated by war, and so it is reluctant to collaborate with that project.

But a regional peace accord signed last August underscored the right of refugees to return home, and the government eventually cooperated with the return.

″The terrorists use Mesa Grande as a refuge, to recover from wounds and to rest. The people there generally sympathize with the subversives. Their return could be detrimental to us militarily,″ army Col. Ciro Lopez Roque told The Associated Press at the border Saturday. He is commander of the 4th Brigade in charge of the northern frontier province of Chalatenango.

But he also said that ″as a Salvadoran, I recognize that every Salvadoran has a right to be in his country, and should be here.″

The refugees intend to return to three towns in Chalatenango from which they fled in the early 1980s.

Sofia Enriquez, who left her town of Los Ranchos in 1982, stood beside a bus and held her infant daughter while another daughter clutched her skirt. Both girls were born in Mesa Grande.

Asked why she left, she said: ″We were persecuted. They were killing people just for the fun of it.″

Most of the 65,000 people killed in the war have been civilians.

Human rights groups blame security forces and rightist death squads for most of the tens of thousands of political murders in the early 1980s. Such killings dropped off dramatically after 1983.

Ms. Enriquez, 25, said she hoped for a better life in her own country. But asked how she planned to manage as a single mother with two children, no home and no job, she said: ″Who knows.″

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