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Haitians Hold On in Honduras

Shunted between camps, refugees find little hope of asylum

HAITIAN refugee Wilner Andre sits on a hill with his pregnant wife beside him, fighting off flies in a place he had never heard of before he arrived.

"They gave me a piece of paper, and after I signed it, they said, 'You are going to Honduras, Mr. Andre says.

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While more than 11,000 Haitian boat people live in a tent camp at the United States Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, waiting to be repatriated, 145 others live on the outskirts of this small Honduran town.

During the crisis that followed the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide last September, these refugees joined the flood of boat people leaving Haiti for the US. The US Coast Guard picked them up at sea and took them to the Guantanamo base, where United Nations officials asked third countries, like Honduras, to take them in. Indefinite stay

Nobody knows how long they will stay. But for now, they are unlikely to be allowed into the US and do not want to return to Haiti.

The Honduran government has placed them in this abandoned logging camp where they sleep two to a room in wooden barracks. Flies and stench from poor sanitation are everywhere.

"The first time they sat down to eat, they took their plates and turned them upside down," recalls Omar Antonio Moradiaga, a Red Cross worker. "Then we knew they didn't like it here."

People bathe with a bucket at a single water pump. Men shave in the side-view mirrors of UN Toyotas. Most have only the clothes they wear.

Food is also in short supply. Crowded in line for a special Christmas dinner of 30 chickens, only half the refugees got a meal.

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"When the food was cooked everyone was fighting for a piece of chicken," said Andrs wife, Marie Altide Bastien. "A friend of mine was able to get me a leg, but that's all I had."

The UN chartered two jetliners on Nov. 22 to bring the Haitians here from Guantanamo, after Honduras had accepted them as temporary refugees. The US was ready to send them back to Haiti after the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) rejected them as asylum seekers. But the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the State Department pushed for third-country asylum.

"The alternative was for them to risk deportation back to Haiti, and the possibility of political persecution," says Fernando Chang-Muy, senior counselor for the UNHCR Legal Counseling Project. "Facing the fact that the doors were being shut in the US, what else could we do? We couldn't sit back and fold our hands. So we sent them to third countries."

Only one UN official, however, was available to tell the refugees where they were being sent, Mr. Chang-Muy says, and this relief worker spoke French, not Haitian Creole. As a result, many refugees were in the dark about their destination.

"I was asked to sign a piece of paper, but I didn't know what it was all about," says Joseph Jude, who fled Cap-Haitien in early November. "When we landed at the airport [in Honduras], the stewardess said that the Honduran government was looking for a place for us.... I was crying. I felt like I was lost."

US officials say these refugees are no longer their problem.

"It's not complicated," says INS spokesman Duke Austin. "If you're interdicted on the high seas, you have no right to come to the US."

Protesting their plight, the refugees staged a five-day hunger strike which ended Feb. 1 with five people requiring hospitalization. The refugees said they were not given a fair chance to make their plea for asylum.

Cheryl Little, a lawyer with the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami, says that the organization intends to send a delegation to Honduras and Venezuela to see if the refugees' applications for asylum have been properly heard.

"We have not forgotten the Haitians who were taken to third countries," Ms. Little says.

Meanwhile, the 37 women, 105 men, and three children live a secluded life in this dirt camp, guarded 24 hours a day by the Honduran military, and unable to leave without government permission.

To alleviate the boredom that permeates life in the camp, Honduran officials and Red Cross workers have encouraged the refugees to produce textiles and paintings that can be sold through the relief agencies. The refugees, however, identified more fundamental needs and set about building latrines and a wooden exercise station.

Other refugees are rehearsing a play about the various coups and counter-coups that have punctuated their country's history over the past five years.

"We think we can sell a lot of tickets," says refugee Jean Valcin. "People will pay to see our story."

But it is unclear how many Honduran villagers, who make less than $1.50 a day, will pay to watch a play in Creole - a language they do not understand.

Even so, the refugees have gained some acceptance in the nearby, poverty-stricken town of Bonito Oriental. At first, many of the poor peasants worried that the Haitians would compete for scarce jobs and spread AIDS.

"They looked strange," says local resident Jose Espinal, "but when they began to come, we started to accept them. We thought we had to help them." Voluntary return

US and Honduran officials say the refugees' stay will be extended, if necessary, until the crisis in Haiti is resolved or until they return voluntarily.

Of the original 250 refugees who arrived here in November, more than 100 have returned to Haiti voluntarily. But the rest insist that they cannot go back because of political persecution.

"If you see my father in Miami, tell him to take me away from this place," requests Philogene Charles, who says he worked for Haiti's Provisional Election Council and was under police surveillance before he left. "I can't go back to Haiti. But I can't stay in this place either."

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