08/06/1984 - France2- La virtud, Colomoncagua, Mesa Grande Refugee Camps in Honduras


Camps de réfugiés de La virtud, Colomoncagua, Mesa Grande au Honduras – in French


Commentary: Over 30,000 people were killed during a civil war that has left El Salvador, a republic in Central America, drenched in blood since the early 1980s. Tens of thousands of people have fled villages under attack and demolished by armed groups. The innocent victims of these attacks, uprooted from their homes, are mostly campesinos - rural people who live dotted around the countryside.
Many of the fugitives managed to reach the border and find shelter in neighbouring countries.
- A man: "It was a nightmare crossing the border. It was around 1pm. Just as we were reaching the Lempa river, we heard helicopters and planes coming our way. When we were in the water, trying to reach the opposite bank, they started to bomb us and fire at us, it was horrendous. We tried to help the women and children, everyone was crying and screaming. »

Commentary: A big refugee camp sprung up near the village of La Virtud, on the banks of the Lempa river that separates Honduras from El Salvador.
The sudden influx of Salvadorans shattered the area's tranquillity. Even the local residents' safety was threatened. After several days' walk, hiding to escape patrols and with virtually nothing to eat or drink, the refugees arrived in a state of total exhaustion. As always, it was the children who suffered the most. The worst off were transported to health centres where a team from the French association Médecins sans Frontières awaited them.
International and governmental organisations provided the camp's population with basic necessities. The camp was improved, drainage channels dug and plastic sheeting distributed to the refugees for their shelters.
As well as normal rations, special food was distributed to malnourished children. The camp settled down, life took on a semblance of normality. But both refugees and volunteer workers, caught between two armies, lived in a permanent state of insecurity. Yvonne Dilay of Caritas spent several months at la Virtud:

- Yvonne (Caritas): "When we were over there, Salvadoran helicopters appeared and machine-gunned the river and both its banks, on the Salvadoran and the Honduran side. We were crossing it at the time. Everyone ran to take cover behind rocks and trees.
- Were you scared of being hit?
- Yvonne: Yes, I thought we were all going to die. »

Right from the start of the exodus, the UN High Commissioner called for the Salvadorans to be located at a distance from the border - a usual precautionary measure. The conditions went sharply downhill so it became vital to transfer people further inland. But despite the threats hanging over their lives, the refugees were reluctant to leave La Virtud.
The camp at La Virtud is now deserted. But, further to the east, at Colomoncague, a large concentration of refugees can still be sighted from El Salvador. The protection of newly arrived refugees has become a necessity. Four HCR patrol agents, non-armed, provide an international presence over the two hundred kilometre border strip:

- HCR: "Following incidents on this side of the border that cost both refugee and volunteer workers’ lives, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to post patrol agents here. My colleagues and I are charged with patrolling the whole border and hooking up with Salvadorans trying to reach Honduras. It's a delicate task. We have Land Rovers, we can rent horses, we've got our legs. Here, we're exactly three kilometres away from the Salvadoran border. It's really easy for refugees to know that we're here, that HCR is here. There's quite a bit of communication between the two sides. As soon as we hear about their arrival, we go to the meeting point. Both sides know where it is. And we wait for them there. Our main job is to ensure that they are treated properly and human rights are respected. Once we've taken them in, we escort them to a reception centre where they're fed and given everything they need. Then we steer them inland as fast as possible so as to remove them from the dangers they're looking to escape. Here, at Colomoncagua, there's now around 6000 refugees. And they're still coming into other border areas every day. We have to stay on our toes. We have to be there when the refugees cross. We have to keep our eyes wide open and gather any information that helps us to meet up with them as soon as they've crossed over and ensure that things go as smoothly for them as possible."

A good number of refugees have been in Colomoncagua for over two years. Despite their precarious circumstances, they’re living up to their reputation as capable, hard-working people. They've cleared hills covered with trees and undergrowth. They've laboured hard and sown crops on the fertile terraces. Now they've got fresh vegetables and cereals on top of the basic rations provided by international aid.
A good part of their work is carried out with tools they make by hand. They’ve built warehouses to protect stocks from wild boar and other animals. Most of the camps' population are women and children. They're the ones who do the communal cooking, prepare the daily meals - wheat cakes and black beans. In this pottery workshop, women are making earthenware pots, plates and jars to conserve the food.
Alongside a vast literacy program set up by volunteer organisations, a refugee teacher gives daily lessons. Given the number of children, three different groups rotate through the classroom.
Yet beneath the calm appearances, fear and insecurity reign. Colomoncagua is now situated so close to the border. There's plans to transfer the refugees to the interior from here too - a new site is being prepared.
Nueva Esperanza, new hope. This is the name refugees have given to the new camp in Mesa Grande, some fifty kilometres away from the border. Now that the tensions reigning in the border camps are just a bad memory, the refugees can at last find some peace. Bit by bit a daily routine sets in. Yet the fact remains that the upkeep of over 9000 people living in such an isolated spot presents a considerable challenge. So Mesa Grande is only an intermediary step, the kindling of new hope. Indeed, on this plateau, there is only enough workable land for a few hundred families to live on. In liaison with the government, HCR is looking to buy land elsewhere for more refugees to cultivate. The sooner this happens the better. Because these people, who have lost everything, only ask for one thing: to get back to work and through their own labours, cover their needs.