Two area women who were among 23 persons deported from El Salvador Thursday said yesterday that they were detained by Salvadoran police while accompanying about 450 Salvadorans seeking to return to their homes in the countryside from refugee camps in the capital.
Marie D. Grosso, 43, of Purcellville, Va., and Tami Ito, 27, of Baltimore, interviewed at National Airport after arriving from El Salvador, said two U.S. Embassy officials who came to guarantee the group's safety after their arrest in Aguacayo, about 30 miles north of the capital, were "as annoyed as the military people at this repopulation effort."
The American officials chided the foreigners, including 19 Americans, for "interfering with" the "necessary" counterinsurgency strategy of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government in moving people from areas where leftist guerrillas are operating, Grosso said. The officials were not identified.
According to a report by the U.S. Committee for Refugees, about 20 percent of El Salvador's 4.8 million residents have been displaced by the war. The government has forcibly moved some of them to refugee camps in the capital in an effort to deprive the guerrillas of food and support.
Grosso and Ito are members of local human rights groups that are tracking the seven-year-old guerrilla conflict in the Central American country. They said they were not mistreated while under arrest but were fingerprinted and questioned extensively about their families and their backgrounds.
The group's members, who included two Canadians and two Australians, were not charged but were told they were being expelled because they had entered a military-declared zone of conflict without a permit. The women said they had valid visas with no restrictions and had not been told to avoid the area.
A Salvadoran government spokesman said the group was deported for "violating immigration laws," and a U.S. Embassy spokesman in San Salvador said their tourist visas had been revoked because they had been "in a conflictive military zone without permission and refused to leave."
Grosso, a mother of six, and Ito, a Johns Hopkins University graduate student, said that they had been invited by the refugees to accompany them as they returned to Aguacayo, a town near the Guazapa Volcano long known as a rebel stronghold. Fearing reprisals from the military, the refugees believed the foreigners' presence would help ensure their safety, the women said.
Grosso said the Salvadorans, mostly women and children, had been living in the refugee camps of Calle Real and Domus Mariae for periods ranging from four months to five years and wanted to return to their farms where they could raise food and earn a living.
On Tuesday, they set off in buses and cars for Aguacayo, but the next day, soldiers arrived and told the foreigners that they had to leave. They were transported by bus to Guatemala on Thursday. The women said they do not know what happened to the 450 Salvadorans left behind