As Honduras sees itself drawn reluctantly into the growing conflicts of its three neighbors -- El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua -- refugees from those war-wracked nations find themselves treated not only as symbols but as sources of the encroaching turmoil.
"The refugees cause problems with other countries," said Honduran Foreign Minister Edgardo Paz Barnica. "Or if they don't, other governments say that they do."
More than 32,000 peasants have fled to Honduras since 1980 and more are coming all the time.
They usually live in squalid camps a few miles inside the border where 4-year-olds play in the mud with twig-and-tin-can toys, mothers nurse babies whose dark hair is likely to turn orange with malnutrition, and old men stare at the mountain ranges that separate them from the land they once farmed.
Nicaragua says some camps harbor anti-Sandinista rebels fighting to overthrow the leftist regime in Managua. El Salvador insists that the grim concentrations of its country's refugees here provide "rest and recreation" for Marxist-led guerrillas.
A broad, complex range of issues is working against this strategically located country's efforts to find the secure neutrality that many Hondurans say they want.
Some top Honduran officials are talking about their problems as if they could be solved by simply getting rid of the ever-growing refugee populations.
On the difficult question of negotiations with Nicaragua's Sandinistas, for instance, the refugees are cited more than any other single factor as the reason for Honduran insistence that any discussions, including any talks about potentially explosive border conflicts, be dealt with regionally.
"What is the nature of these refugees?" Minister of the Presidency Carlos Flores asked. "You have to go to the roots of the problem. It's because of the regional violence that they have come to Honduras and other countries . . . . Bilaterally, what can you do between Honduras and Nicaragua, or Honduras and El Salvador? Very little. It is a regional problem."
The Hondurans have proposed several radical and, many people believe, unworkable solutions to the immediate refugee problem.
President Roberto Suazo Cordova has called on larger, richer nations to take some or all of the refugees. The issue of which refugees might go to which nations is sidestepped.
International relief workers here say there is little likelihood that any of the refugees will be relocated to any third countries. Other nations of the region could little more afford them than Honduras. Some already have refugee problems of their own. And most of the peasants in Honduran camps are unequipped for life in a developed country.
Interior Minister Oscar Mejia Arellano said another, more innovative proposal is being discussed: to relocate the refugees deep in the interior of Gracias a Dios province, a sparsely populated but theoretically arable wilderness that suggests a tropical Siberia. Honduras would have to get the United States or some other nation to pay for a $25 million road into the territory. Thus far no such funds have become available.
Honduras is not a signatory to any international agreements concerning the treatment of refugees, according to Mejia Arellano. "What Honduras has done is mainly an act of humanity," he said. "Honduras doesn't have any money."
Along with Haiti and Bolivia, this is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. But the direct cost of supporting the refugees is not paid by Honduras. All direct expenses -- this year totaling more than $4.5 million, according to relief officials -- are paid by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and international voluntary agencies to which Honduras contributes virtually nothing.
The Honduran government makes little pretense about neutrality toward neighboring regimes or the refugees fleeing them. Nicaragua's Marxist-led Sandinista government is perceived as a threat, so there is sympathy for those who run from it. The right-wing governments of El Salvador and Guatemala are basically considered allies, so refugees fleeing those countries are considered suspicious.
Partly as a result, the Guatemalans and Salvadorans are kept in virtual internment camps, forbidden to leave them and guarded by Honduran soldiers who in some cases have worked alongside the troops from whom the refugees fled in the first place.
Guatemalans and Salvadorans have been intimidated on several occasions by the mere presence of Honduran troops moving through the camps. Last summer, a Guatemalan doctor and an American woman working with the Guatemalan refugees were abducted and the doctor killed by Honduran troops, according to the woman's subsequent statements. A few weeks later, two Guatemalan paramilitary officials toured the camp, accompanied by Honduran soldiers, and the fear left over from their appearance lingered for months.
At Mesa Grande, a deranged old man who wandered away from the camp was found several days later face down in a creek bed with stones tied to him. No one knows who killed him, but the refugees see the murder as a warning not to stray.
The Nicaraguans, by contrast, are given almost complete freedom of movement. The latest influx has been allowed to linger in an area where the Sandinistas say there are major "counterrevolutionary" guerrilla camps. The U.N. refugee agency has said it will not provide the new refugees with any aid until they are moved from the Nicaraguan frontier.
The majority of Nicaraguan refugees are Miskito Indians whose theoretical freedom of movement is tempered by the fact that most of them already are in southern Gracias a Dios, with no easy means of exit except back to Nicaragua.
The trauma of displacement, the endurance of fear, and growing hopelessness are common denominators in all the camps, and visits to four of the major groups of refugees suggest there is little to choose among them.
The wind-chilled tent city of 9,000 Salvadorans at Mesa Grande in the west was hastily opened a year ago under persistent, sometimes violent pressure from both Salvadoran and Honduran troops to clean out the immediate border area around the town of La Virtud.
It was known from the start that the "permanent camp" at Mesa Grande did not have enough water and recent tests confirmed that what water there is is badly contaminated, according to a relief worker. There is not enough farmland, and local people do not want to see Salvadorans have plots handed to them when Honduras' own peasants have yet to benefit from long-promised land redistribution.
At the other major camp for Salvadorans, Colomoncagua, where no pretense of permanence and infrastructure ever was made, conditions are reportedly even more precarious.
U.N. and Honduran officials are planning once again to relocate 7,000 of the 9,000 Mesa Grande refugees as well as the 6,000 at Colomoncagua. This would be the third time in as many years that many of these people have been forcibly uprooted. But relief workers say the relocation to new lands remains mired in bureaucratic indecision.
Among hot, rain-soaked huts at Mocoron in eastern Honduras, 9,500 Nicaraguan Miskito Indians took refuge in December after fighting broke out with Sandinista forces intent on relocating and assimilating them within Nicaragua.
More than 20 people die each month in the camp, according to relief worker censuses. Forced marches in December and January accounted for some, an epidemic of kidney disease in the spring killed many young children, and now daily rains continue the spread of disease.
The people remain primitively suspicious of medical care, often trusting in witch doctors to heal them. But in April, a witch doctor trying to treat victims of the nephritis epidemic wound up accused by his patients of causing it. On orders of the Miskito leadership, according to camp officials, the witch doctor was drowned and beheaded.
In the north, El Tesoro is filled with more than 500 Guatemalan peasants who fled to Honduras after what they described as forays by agents of the military. The region they fled is far from sites of clashes with guerrillas, and the only motive given for the alleged intimidation seems to be to eliminate any potential for unrest.
One 29-year-old peasant from the Guatemalan province of Chiquimula told of watching his house and much of the little village where he lived burn to the ground last spring.
Near Danli, in the south, are about 3,500 Nicaraguans who fled the leftist Sandinistas in the last few months.
Rupert Mejia, 55, lives with one group in an abandoned Masonic lodge. He spoke bitterly of other peasants in Jalapa who became Sandinista partisans dictating what began to seem every detail of his life, from the political meetings he had to attend, to the place he sold his coffee, to the whereabouts of his young sons.
Mejia paraphrased the Sandinistas' slogans. "They say that Nicaragua is free, but it is not free and the Fatherland is death for us."
But what the refugees have found is that there may be no freedom for them here either.