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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 July, 2004, 02:22 GMT 03:22 UK
Past vanishes in Honduras
The BBC's Mike Lanchin
By Mike Lanchin
BBC, Honduras

Whatever my Salvadoran wife, Silvia, had been expecting on her return to the Honduran refugee camp she once called home, it certainly was not this.

Silvia, Mike's wife, and her mother, Rosa, look at the scrap metal, all that remains of the houses in the Mesa Grande refugee camp they once called home
Nothing remains of what was once a massive refugee camp
"There is nothing here, it's so strange, there is absolutely nothing," she murmured.

"I can't believe I was once here," she repeated softly. "It can't be the same place."

We had driven half an hour down a dusty unmade road from the nearest town and two hours from the El Salvador-Honduras border crossing.

A few small adobe houses were scattered along the pathway.

A rusting iron gate was the only clue from the past.

But as we wandered between sparsely growing bushes and pine trees, looking out over the bare emptiness of rolling green hills where cows were now grazing, Silvia's memories from 22 years ago suddenly came flooding back.

Waiting game

"There was row after row of tents all along here. People were just sitting around, doing nothing, waiting," she recalled.

"Somewhere down there by the road, is where they used to bring the provisions in - tinned powered milk, I can still recall the horrible smell.

The grave of a former Salvadoran refugee left behind in the cemetery at the Mesa Grande refugee camp
Those who died in the camp have no one to tend their graves
"And that's where we used to play," she said, indicating a spot near what looked like a washing basin made of cement.

"Mum always called us to come quickly in case we got into trouble with the soldiers."

The Mesa Grande refugee camp was once home to over 30,000 Salvadorans, like my wife and her family, fleeing the brutal civil war back home.

The camp, administered by the UN High Commission for Refugees, was just one of three such facilities set up to take in the flood of refugees that began in the early 1980s and lasted almost a decade.

Movement in and out of the camp was severely restricted, and a detachment of Honduran soldiers kept watch day and night around the perimeter.

Mixed messages

"We were happy they were here and we welcomed them because they had been abandoned by their country," said Juana, a middle-aged Honduran woman who ran a small shop from her home opposite the camp.

Site of the former Mesa Grande refugee camp in Honduras
She still recalled selling sweets and matches to the refugees through the gaps in the wire fence around the camp.

But Francisco Marchado, a former Honduran aid worker who actually worked inside Mesa Grande, told a different story.

"Our government and the media told us that these people belonged to the guerrillas (fighting the US-backed government in El Salvador). So there was a lot of fear," he said.

"It was especially tense here in the border regions, because the Army would arrest anyone they thought linked to the Salvadoran rebels, or to the Sandinistas over in Nicaragua," he added.

Although not directly involved, Honduras played a pivotal role in the neighbouring conflicts of the 1980s.

Not only were there refugees from El Salvador, but the US backed-militias known as the "Contras", who were fighting to overthrow the left-wing Sandinistas in Nicaragua, had their bases inside Honduran territory.

The US military also had a considerable presence in the country during that period.

Sucked in

"We felt we were being sucked into conflicts beyond our territory," Mr Marchado said.

Observers say that Honduras is currently embroiled in another sort of war - this time with violent street gangs or Maras.

Some see it as being a direct result of the crises of the past decades.

"We have a million-and-a-half guns on the street in Honduras, which has only six million people. Where did they all come from? From the illegal guns in the Contra years," said Father Thomas Goekler, a Maryknoll priest who runs a rehabilitation programme for youth in the northern city of San Pedro Sula, one of the worst-hit areas.

"I see Mara thing as a tremendous cry of frustration," he said.

"Because of how people were controlled in the 1980s, Hondurans really developed a tremendous lack of any possible hope of getting out of this mess," he added.

Mike Lanchin reported from Central America for the BBC in the 1990s.

His four-part series Legacies of Rebellion is being broadcast on BBC World Service on Mondays at 0805 GMT.

Secret graves found in Honduras
28 Apr 03 |  Americas
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19 May 04 |  Country profiles
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