They still have nightmares about being killed in the dark, and sometimes their children run shaking and screaming from their makeshift beds. It has taken them weeks to cross the soggy mountain trails, the flat savannas and the murky ooze of the rain forest, dodging jaguars and snakes. At times they caught wild turkeys or iguanas; sometimes they ate nothing for days.
According to figures compiled by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, about 7,000 men, women and children secretly have crossed the 400-odd miles from El Salvador to Belize because they could no longer live with death at home. They are only a sprinkling of the estimated 280,000 refugees El Salvador's civil war reportedly has spawned so far.
What makes them different is that they have been welcomed here. In Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the United States the thousands of wanderers, often lacking legal visas, have been harried by the authorities. In newly independent Belize, wedged between Guatemala and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, they found that no one tried to drive them away.
Belize, with its 3 million acres of idle land and a population of only 145,000, is looking for farmers and pioneers. It can use people willing to put up with hardship to till good but untended land. Refugees, above all El Salvador's peasants with their reputation for hard work, qualify.
In January this year, the Belizean government informed officials representing the United States and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that it would welcome 1,000 refugees from Haiti and 1,000 from Vietnam, as long as they are willing to farm. Belizean officials said they realize this is but a mere drop on the enormous hot plate of Washington's refugee problem yet they are surprised that they have received no reply from either the U.N. agency or Washington.
Sources at the State Department and the U.N. agency said Belize's offer is under consideration.
Here in the forests around Belmopan, the miniature capital -- population 4,500 -- the Salvadorans at first put up little stick-and-thatch huts surreptitiously. Then, when no one bothered them, they started clearing patches of apparently vacant land around their rickety shelters. Now these are neat gardens with corn and beans.
Under an improvised palm roof, a group of refugee families the other day talked about the war they had left behind in El Salvador.
They came from Santa Ana, Sonsonate and Usulatan provinces and did not want to give their names for fear of family left behind. But in the simple vocabulary of the peasantry they took turns telling stories about the "carnage" in which the Salvadoran Army and police invariably were said to be the culprits. Their allegations of murder, of eyes gouged out, sexual organs cut off, severed heads, made some of them loud and angry, some very quiet.
The trek to Belize had taken three to five weeks. They had starved, been lost, often afraid. There were snakes and tapirs in the jungle.
"Dangerous cats, like the jaguar and the ocelot," said a middle-aged man, pointing at his machete. "I had no defense other than this."
But those dangers, he said, seemed small next to life back in Sonsonate. "There we were up against machine guns. There was no defense for us at all."
Some of the women now earn a little in the market of Belmopan. Several young men take the bus to Belize City to wash dishes and sweep floors.
Soon some of the families may be moved. In the fertile Belize River Valley, just north of here, the government has donated 6,000 acres of farmland. A contribution of $1.5 million from the United Nations will go toward infrastructure -- a school, a commissary and community center to settle 200 Salvadoran families to farm there.
As the bulldozers are starting this month, this project has all the makings of a modest but rare success story for El Salvador's refugees, thousands of whom are stuck in refugee camps in Honduras or hiding in U.S. and Mexican cities dreading discovery and deportation.
But the lenience toward Salvadoran refugees is not likely to be open-ended. Already the government of Prime Minister George Price has been criticized by black groups who fear the influx from the south is fast "latinizing" a country where the racial balance tips easily.
Although the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees believes there are about 7,000 Salvadorans, there is no figure yet for the growing flow of Guatemalans escaping the harsh and still escalating violence there. Border patrols report that Guatemalan Quiche and Kekchi Indians arrive almost constantly across the southern jungle trails. There is no way to keep track of them.
In the past, Belize has always had a black majority, the descendants of the West Indian slaves brought here to work the logging camps of this former British colony.
They became lawyers, civil servants, police and took over the bureaucracy as the British withdrew.
In the 1980 census, however, blacks were outnumbered for the first time by the Maya and Carib Indians and the descendants of Mexicans, British, Lebanese and Chinese.
"It's a delicate situation," explained a government official, himself of mixed race. "The Latins are having more children while many skilled blacks are emigrating to the United States. The Latins tend to be racist. The blacks see they are being displaced and are afraid to become second-class citizens in their own land."
The debate here, therefore, is how to avoid disturbing the ethnic balance and possible racial strife. The options, as an official described them, are: strict patrol of the borders in case of a refugee flood, bringing in black refugees from Haiti or even Africa, or enticing some of the 30,000 Belizeans now living in the United States to come home.