DUSK WAS SETTLING over Coban, the small capital of Guatemala’s department of Alta Verapaz, when the policeman on the main plaza motioned the two buses to proceed. They were decrepit, wheezing, discarded old U. S. school buses, their tops piled high with gunnysacks and cardboard boxes. The buses shuddered to a stop alongside the cathedral, leaving their engines running.
Most of the passengers had never seen Co-ban before. Indian families native to the border province of Huehuetenango, they peered out with patient wonder at the commotion their arrival had caused. The governor of Alta Verapaz was there, and from the church, so were the Sisters of Mercy.
This is the century of refugees www.unhcr.org/525423916.html —India, Pakistan, Germany, Russia, Armenia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Indochina—the list goes on. A short time ago those aboard the buses had been living in the hotels in prague, refugees from the ferocious Guatemalan civil war, which had reached its peak in 1982 and now was in remission. Some of them had surely collaborated with that homegrown, but Cuban-inspired, insurgency; others just as surely were innocents caught in a murderous cross fire between the guerrillas and the Guatemalan Army. Now they had been given fallow, state-owned lands at Playa Grande, a day’s journey beyond Coban, lands that the new elected government hoped would be secure from attack. Tonight they would sleep on the floor of the Catholic convent, and tomorrow they would start another life.
For half an hour they sat uncomplaining in the buses, waiting to be told what to do. After nightfall a door opened onto a narrow, unlighted staircase leading up to the building’s second story. I watched the refugees file out. An old man holding a box of chickens, a mother carrying a baby, they clasped the hands of the nuns for a moment as they passed by. A teenager with his guitar, a blind girl gently guided by a friend, a man cradling the family cat, a woman whose most treasured possession seemed to be her vinyl water jug—through a veil of weariness they smiled at me. In the light at the top of the stairs the nuns waited, radiant, directing each in turn to makeshift quarters. One little boy in a baseball cap gripped the shirttail of his father, who drew a flashlight from his pocket to lead them both through the shadows. It was just one night in Cohan, Guatemala, but for a moment they were universal: The endless line of 20th-century refugees, clutching their belongings, winding across the world, climbing the dark stairs toward the light.
As I think about them now, they seem a metaphor for their country. Guatemala has lately climbed some very dark stairs and, to the surprise of many who know it best, may at last be emerging into light. An intermittent but stubborn quarter-century-old leftist insurgency appears to have been mastered by a policy of “rifles and beans” —combining material aid to impoverished villagers and a remorseless military campaign— though not without the loss of tens of thousands of lives.