For 19,000 refugees along the embattled border with El Salvador, a new and grueling forced exodus has begun as that country's civil war increasingly spills into Honduras.
The refugees must abandon what little they have built up in the months and even years since they fled the battle-scarred northern areas of El Salvador. Their tiny plots, their crude shacks of stick and thatch and canvas tents around such border villages as Guarita and La Virtud, their crude wooden pallets and even their hammocks are being abandoned.
More than 13,000 refugees will be brought to this windy little plateau about 20 miles from the frontier. The rest are to be resettled at an as yet unspecified location to the southeast.
Relief workers and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are trying for an orderly relocation over the next two months, but since the mysterious death of two Honduran soldiers in a refugee village two weeks ago, the Honduran Army is pressuring for immediate evacuation of all border settlements.
"They should be interned," the Public Security Forces chief, Col. Gustavo Alvarez, said in the capital, Tegucigalpa, Friday. "It is a sovereign right of our country to do so."
Alvarez, one of the most powerful military men in the country, said the refugees and such relief organizations as the Catholic agency Caritas are aiding the Salvadoran guerrillas.
The relief agencies deny any such role although they admit some of their supplies have wound up in guerrilla hands. The refugees themselves, while many have relatives among the guerrillas, have virtually no resources with which to help the insurgents.
The Salvadorans' latest internment began with the recent arrival of 440 refugees here from the area around Guarita. They first had to walk as long as six hours, carrying what they could on their backs. They were then loaded on cattle trucks -- 50 people, mostly women and little children, to a truck -- for a three-hour trip over barely passable road. They arrived here on a cold night and found no shelter.
In one of the tarp-covered shelters built since then, Feliciano Menjivar and his family are spreading mortar on the floor so they will not have to sleep in the dirt. There are 18 people in their one-room tent.
"The grownups can take it," said the 40-year-old Menjivar as he put his arm around his little daughter, Lupe. She was covered in dust, her dress patched together from rags. "What we worry about is the children." Relief workers are planning to build as many as 2,000 small houses and other facilities.
Like other refugees at Mesa Grande, Menjivar said some of the relief workers "told us we would have land when we got here, a river for water and to bathe in. Many things they promised us, but really there is nothing. We must start all over."
As the war in El Salvador intensifies, cooperation between Salvadoran and Honduran troops is growing and traditional life on the border -- let alone that of the refugees -- is less tenable. Both armies have U.S. advisers.
Salvadoran soldiers now cross the frontier almost casually. A much publicized attempt to seize refugees occurred at La Virtud Nov. 16. Salvadoran Col. Sigfredo Ochoa told reporters in El Salvador recently that he landed his U.S.-built Huey helicopter in a nearby Honduran airstrip to observe two single-engine airplanes used by relief workers. Witnesses here said the helicopter trained its door guns on the airplanes before finally taking off again.
Two weeks ago a Honduran relief worker with Caritas was murdered near the village of Las Hernandez. Officials who went to identify his mutilated body were told that Salvadoran National Guardsmen had spent several days in the town shortly before.
The wild-West atmosphere in these remote Honduran mountains has thickened with the political campaign for Sunday's national election.
On the night that the conservative, military-allied National Party held a rally in La Virtud almost two weeks ago, an attempt was made to burn a relief plane at the nearby Mapulaca airstrip, which is supposed to be guarded by Honduran soldiers. Anticommunist threats were painted on the walls of houses where relief workers from the French Medicine Without Frontiers and Caritas were staying. The French group has since withdrawn most of its personnel from the region.
The Honduran soldiers who were killed near Guarita were said by military officials in the area to have died in a shootout with guerrillas. But the soldiers were wearing civilian clothes and were wandering through the camp after midnight when they were shot with small-caliber pistols. Their own automatic rifles were not taken from them.
This has led some relief workers to speculate that the Hondurans were killed by local people, perhaps in self-defense.
The U.N. and other relief workers are hoping that once all refugees have been removed from the area, the groups will still be able to maintain three or more receiving camps for people trying to cross the border. Various relief agencies have charged that the Honduran and Salvadoran military want to create a free-fire zone along the border in this part of Honduras. The objective would be to deny sanctuary to the Salvadoran guerrillas.
U.S. Embassy officials and Honduran soldiers dispute this, saying the Honduran population will remain in the area and preclude such a zone. For whatever motivation, according to one international relief organization official, Hondurans recently have begun to abandon the area -- with as many as 80 leaving in the last few days.