MSF in Salvadoran Refugee camps in Honduras
1982 – France 2
We're in Honduras, a few kilometres from the border with El Salvador. For the last four months, a Médecins sans Frontières team has been assisting a population traumatised by the latest events in El Salvador, now refuge in the region of La Virtud.
MSF: "In the past, the village of La Virtud was totally neglected by the Honduran government. It’s true, it’s very remote. The villagers aren't used to outsiders at all. When we showed up, even though people were friendly, it was pretty clear they had little idea why we were here. So, our first challenge was integrating into the different local groups. We made contact with the military, the authorities and the grass roots organisations. »
It's 7am. Like every Wednesday, a US helicopter has just made contact with La Virtud's military chief. As well as his work as a doctor, the team often relies on Willy to handle its relationship with the local authorities.
Vincent Jeannerod, MSF: "In July 1980, MSF started looking at El Salvador. A team - which I was part of - left in August to make a quick assessment of assistance possibilities for the Salvadorans. After three weeks of investigations and meetings with all the humanitarian groups and key political figures - from the government and the opposition - we concluded that it was too dangerous to work inside the country. So we contacted the High Commission for Refugees and a humanitarian organisation called CEDEN ("Evangelical Community for National Development and Emergencies"), which we'd already worked with in '71 during Hurricane Fifi, and with CEDEN we explored all 200 km of the border strip, where some 15 000 Salvadoran refugees had settled. Three weeks later, an MSF team of four set up in La Virtud village, providing healthcare services that had been non-existent for the previous eight months. Their work was mainly seeing to the health needs of Hondurans and Salvadorans in the health centre, and above all, going into all the little hamlets of five or six Honduran families, where another ten or twenty Salvadoran families had amassed, and treating these people that were hidden away, terrorised by their experiences on the other side of the border. »
Commentary: The team is currently made up of three doctors and two nurses. They divide up activities between them on a daily basis, covering both the hamlets and consultations in La Virtud's health centre. Let's take a look at a place known as La Majada.
Bruno Bordelin, MSF: "Here a home built of packed earth and tiles which previously housed one Honduran family now houses seven, eight, nine or ten Salvadoran families - all looked after really well by the Hondurans. This situation actually involves the diseases of poverty and under-development rather than any disease particular to this country. The Salvadorans don't want to settle in the camps, they prefer being scattered around the countryside. Many of them are scarred by the war, traumatised. There's high numbers of psychosomatic disorders, and shock. They were shocked by the war, they're scared. They've got highly varied disorders that are absolutely not organic. They’re just suffering from .... how can I put this? From fear. They're fearful, these people. »
MSF: "The number of refugees has dropped recently as they're scared of the Honduran army. They've even more scattered across the mountain. Here, we're close to the road. People decided they needed to go wider afield. »
MSF: "We're in a transmission period right now because until recently there was only the health centre. It's been running for a few years and it’s only staffed by a nursing assistant whose role is limited to distributing medicines to patients. As from this week, this hospital - funded by MSF - is finished and has opened its doors. We've got four hospitalisation rooms, two big and two small, which hold a maximum of fifteen beds. There's also a laboratory and another room that could be set up as a small surgery and delivery room, if we get the material we need. »
Refugee Camps in Honduras: La virtud, Colomoncagua, Mesa Grande
8 June 1984 - France 2- La virtud, Colomoncagua, Mesa Grande Refugee Camps in Honduras
Commentary: Over 30,000 people were killed during a civil war that has left El Salvador, a republic in Central America, drenched in blood since the early 1980s. Tens of thousands of people have fled villages under attack and demolished by armed groups. The innocent victims of these attacks, uprooted from their homes, are mostly campesinos - rural people who live dotted around the countryside.
Many of the fugitives managed to reach the border and find shelter in neighbouring countries.
A man: "It was a nightmare crossing the border. It was around 1pm. Just as we were reaching the Lempa river, we heard helicopters and planes coming our way. When we were in the water, trying to reach the opposite bank, they started to bomb us and fire at us, it was horrendous. We tried to help the women and children, everyone was crying and screaming. »
Commentary: A big refugee camp sprung up near the village of La Virtud, on the banks of the Lempa river that separates Honduras from El Salvador.
The sudden influx of Salvadorans shattered the area's tranquillity. Even the local residents' safety was threatened. After several days' walk, hiding to escape patrols and with virtually nothing to eat or drink, the refugees arrived in a state of total exhaustion. As always, it was the children who suffered the most. The worst off were transported to health centres where a team from the French association Médecins sans Frontières awaited them.
International and governmental organisations provided the camp's population with basic necessities. The camp was improved, drainage channels dug and plastic sheeting distributed to the refugees for their shelters.
As well as normal rations, special food was distributed to malnourished children. The camp settled down, life took on a semblance of normality. But both refugees and volunteer workers, caught between two armies, lived in a permanent state of insecurity. Yvonne Dilay of Caritas spent several months at la Virtud:
Yvonne (Caritas): "When we were over there, Salvadoran helicopters appeared and machine-gunned the river and both its banks, on the Salvadoran and the Honduran side. We were crossing it at the time. Everyone ran to take cover behind rocks and trees.
Were you scared of being hit?
Yvonne: Yes, I thought we were all going to die. »
Right from the start of the exodus, the UN High Commissioner called for the Salvadorans to be located at a distance from the border - a usual precautionary measure. The conditions went sharply downhill so it became vital to transfer people further inland. But despite the threats hanging over their lives, the refugees were reluctant to leave La Virtud.
The camp at La Virtud is now deserted. But, further to the east, at Colomoncague, a large concentration of refugees can still be sighted from El Salvador. The protection of newly arrived refugees has become a necessity. Four HCR patrol agents, non-armed, provide an international presence over the two hundred kilometre border strip:
HCR: "Following incidents on this side of the border that cost both refugee and volunteer workers’ lives, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to post patrol agents here. My colleagues and I are charged with patrolling the whole border and hooking up with Salvadorans trying to reach Honduras. It's a delicate task. We have Land Rovers, we can rent horses, we've got our legs. Here, we're exactly three kilometres away from the Salvadoran border. It's really easy for refugees to know that we're here, that HCR is here. There's quite a bit of communication between the two sides. As soon as we hear about their arrival, we go to the meeting point. Both sides know where it is. And we wait for them there. Our main job is to ensure that they are treated properly and human rights are respected. Once we've taken them in, we escort them to a reception centre where they're fed and given everything they need. Then we steer them inland as fast as possible so as to remove them from the dangers they're looking to escape. Here, at Colomoncagua, there's now around 6000 refugees. And they're still coming into other border areas every day. We have to stay on our toes. We have to be there when the refugees cross. We have to keep our eyes wide open and gather any information that helps us to meet up with them as soon as they've crossed over and ensure that things go as smoothly for them as possible."
A good number of refugees have been in Colomoncagua for over two years. Despite their precarious circumstances, they’re living up to their reputation as capable, hard-working people. They've cleared hills covered with trees and undergrowth. They've laboured hard and sown crops on the fertile terraces. Now they've got fresh vegetables and cereals on top of the basic rations provided by international aid.
A good part of their work is carried out with tools they make by hand. They’ve built warehouses to protect stocks from wild boar and other animals. Most of the camps' population are women and children. They're the ones who do the communal cooking, prepare the daily meals - wheat cakes and black beans. In this pottery workshop, women are making earthenware pots, plates and jars to conserve the food.
Alongside a vast literacy program set up by volunteer organisations, a refugee teacher gives daily lessons. Given the number of children, three different groups rotate through the classroom.
Yet beneath the calm appearances, fear and insecurity reign. Colomoncagua is now situated so close to the border. There's plans to transfer the refugees to the interior from here too - a new site is being prepared.
Nueva Esperanza, new hope. This is the name refugees have given to the new camp in Mesa Grande, some fifty kilometres away from the border. Now that the tensions reigning in the border camps are just a bad memory, the refugees can at last find some peace. Bit by bit a daily routine sets in. Yet the fact remains that the upkeep of over 9000 people living in such an isolated spot presents a considerable challenge. So Mesa Grande is only an intermediary step, the kindling of new hope. Indeed, on this plateau, there is only enough workable land for a few hundred families to live on. In liaison with the government, HCR is looking to buy land elsewhere for more refugees to cultivate. The sooner this happens the better. Because these people, who have lost everything, only ask for one thing: to get back to work and through their own labours, cover their needs.
MSF doctor in Colomoncagua refugee camp
21 December 1986 – France 3 - Avelino, MSF doctor in Colomoncagua refugee camp, Honduras
TV presenter: Médecins sans Frontières celebrates its fifteenth anniversary. Fifteen years of volunteer missions around the world to assist victims of catastrophe and war. We have already shown you two reports on what's happening in El Salvador and to conclude tonight's enquiry, Jean-Luc Mertas and Patrick Boileau take us to the neighbouring country of Honduras, where many refugees from El Salvador have fled. They live in camps, like the one we're about to see:
Avelino, MSF: “My name is Avelino. I've been working in this camp for six months. It's a Médecins sans Frontières program. It's also my first mission. Our relationship with the refugees has changed a lot over the last six months. At first, people were distant, a bit wary about airing their problems. We had to work really long and hard to gain their trust so they opened up a bit. I think I've formed an idea of who they are, which for me is really important. ”
Commentary: Last August, the Honduran army opened fire on the refugee camp. Avelino decided to stay put. A few days later, a child, belonging to this woman, died in Avelino's arms. The Honduran police threw him into jail for voluntary homicide. The camp mobilised, the mother testified, Avelino was released. Doctors and refugees are now on equal footing. One of the biggest issues for Avelino, as for many others, has been avoiding a paternalistic attitude.
Avelino, MSF: "It's the easiest attitude to adopt. Obviously, things are ambiguous here. But these people are like you and me. But in a different country, in a different social, political, psychological situation, completely different. I think that working with them calls for liking them, on principle. But not being paternalistic. For me, these people are the most peaceful I have ever known. They've abandoned everything. And they need courage and strength of character to cross these mountains, with the mines and the soldiers. And once they get here, they're more or less imprisoned, while all they're looking for is a bit of freedom and peace. »
Commentary: Avelino's leaving. The time has come for presents, goodbyes, poems written by the children, dances during which the faces bear the daily masks of an uprooted people's sadness. For Avelino, it's a happy return to Spain, and the start of memories.
Avelino: "I won't ever forget life here. Impossible". »