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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .

Return of Guatemala's refugees
Clark Taylor

(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998)
228pp. Index. Bibl. $59.95; ISBN 1-56639-621-2. Pb.: $19.95; 1-56639-6220.

The brutal conditions inflicted upon Guatemala's overwhelmingly indigenous population during the 1980s and early 1990s, and the tenacity with which those conditions were endured, was an often neglected story in our mainstream media. In the early 1980s, hundreds of villages were razed and hundreds of thousands civilians, mostly indigenous rural people, were killed as part of the government's 'Scorched Earth' campaign to eliminate an insurgent armed resistance. More than a million people (1/10 of the total Guatemalan population) were displaced during this period, and approximately 200,000 people fled to Mexico.

By the mid 1990s, more than 30,000 refugees had returned to Guatemala under the terms of the recently signed 1992 peace accords. This book is a case study of the community of Santa Maria Tzeja in the Ixcan region of Guatemala, and its experience of 'reweaving' itself back together in the mid-1990s. The author focuses his study on two particular areas: the challenges facing the community with the return of families from Mexico; and the difference in experiences between those who fled to Mexico and those who stayed in the community under the tight control of the Guatemalan army.

The case study offers a fascinating glance at the complex issues involved in the process of trying to build a community after ten years of brutal military occupation. It also illustrates the diverse interests of the principal players in the community: the inhabitants of the community who chose to stay; the returning refugees; the 'nuevos', or newcomers brought in by the army to take over vacated land; and the international players, such as NGOs and, in particular, members of a U.S. church group led by the author who have been forging ties with the community since 1997.

It is important to recognize the motivation and target audience of this book. As mentioned above, the author is part of the Needham Congretional Church, a mainline Protestant church based in Boston, which established a partnership with Santa Maria Tzeja. As such, a strong undercurrent running throughout the book is that the support and commitment of people like himself and his church group are required for the successful rebuilding of Guatemalan society after thirty-six years of civil war. The author thus seeks to have this story serve as a primer for other 'people of the developed world' who would like to become involved with the issues facing Guatemala. In fact, the last chapter of the book explains how to become involved in the support of the Guatemalan peace process, and provides a list of U.S.-based organizations dedicated to the support of Guatemalans. However, the necessity of outside support, which is taken as axiomatic by the author, is certainly deserving of a more critical examination.

In spite of its one-dimensional view on the role of the international community in the Guatemalan peace process, the book does provide an interesting window to the complexity of issues currently facing Guatemalans, particularly the indigenous populations, whose lives were dramatically altered by the civil war.

Heather McPhail, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington D.C.

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