By ANITA SNOW – Associated Press – May 11, 1996

ESCUINTLA, Guatemala(AP) _ Manolo learned everything he needed to know about politics the day he saw soldiers kill his mother.

The 14-year-old Ixil Indian, standing about 4 1/2-feet tall in his olive green uniform and bandolier, typifies the younger generation of Guatemalan rebels in Central America’s last and longest war.

Now that their leaders are negotiating peace, what happens to the young guerrillas, many without parents, is a major worry.

Manolo saw his mother die when he was 9.

“Manolo cried and cried,” his 17-year-old cousin, Rodolfo, said beside a campfire at a rebel camp in the mountains of southern Guatemala. “And when he was done crying, he and I joined the guerrillas.”

While Guatemala’s first rebels were motivated by leftist ideology, more recent recruits like Manolo are largely impoverished Indians who took up arms in self-defense or revenge after being brutalized by the army during a war that has killed 140,000 people.

“Manolo told me he wanted to join to protect himself from the army, to protect his father,” said Rodolfo.

It is these young combatants that the Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity worries about most as it prepares for eventual disarmament and transformation into a political organization, rebel leaders said during a rare visit by an Associated Press reporter and photographer to the camp this past week.

Probably half of the 1,000 to 2,000 rebels hiding in Guatemala’s jungles are under 20, not even born when Marxist guerrillas rose up against the government more than three decades ago.

Many are orphans with limited education and nowhere to go. For them, the guerrillas are family, providing food, protection, discipline and affection.

With rebel and government representatives signing accords on socioeconomic and agrarian reforms last Monday, peace seems almost a certainty and some younger combatants seem confused.

“I don’t know. What do you think I should do?” Noemi, 15, replied when asked about her future.

Her parents separated years ago and she doesn’t know where her father is now. Her mother is a rebel, jailed since the army captured her a year ago.

When Noemi became a guerrilla two years ago, she couldn’t sign her name. She now joins other teen-age guerrillas who tote AK-47 rifles along with their notebooks to reading classes every morning, but she still cannot read an entire book.

During political classes in the afternoon, rebel leaders exhort young combatants to study politics and history and improve their reading and writing skills.

“We have to study more,” Antonio, a senior rebel, told the teens. “Study really hard!”

Comandante Santiago, the camp’s top officer, similarly exhorts rebel officers.

“We know that we can destroy with guns, but now comes the hour to overcome with ideas,” he said. “We will fight not with the rifle but with the pen.”

The pressure to prepare for peace increased after a cease-fire took effect March 20. It stepped up even more with last week’s approval of the accords on socioeconomic and agrarian issues, once considered the biggest obstacle to a final peace agreement.

The accords commit Guatemala’s government to better serve the majority poor through increased social spending and a rural development plan. The rebels suspended a “war tax” frequently demanded of large landowners.

The guerrillas appear armed well enough to continue the battle if they want, being far better equipped than the Zapatista insurgents who rebelled in southern Mexico more than two years ago.

They have new uniforms — two apiece — and are armed with AK-47 or M-16 assault rifles and grenades.

At the camp, electronically detonated mines guard entrances. Inside, several heavy machine guns are set on tripods. Rebels carry anti-tank weapons such as rocket launchers and rocket-propelled grenades.

A short wave radio transmitter keeps them in daily contact with their top leaders living in Mexico City during peace negotiations.

Despite their firepower, rebel leaders say the collapse of the Soviet Union more than four years ago made their battle seem ideologically irrelevant.

And while human rights abuses by the military still occur, the brutal counterinsurgency campaigns of the 1980s have long since ended, making the fight seem less urgent.

Most importantly, despite decades of fighting, no surrender on either side is in sight.

“The world is changing and we cannot do things as we did in the past,” said Comandante Santiago. “We have to be realistic and pragmatic.”

Another ranking officer, known as Capt. Willy, conceded that many fighters may find disarmament hard.

“It will be difficult to explain to some companeros that our fight was not in vain, that there is fruit even though it is not the fruit we initially fought for,” Willy said. “We had once wanted a complete change, but for many reasons that is impossible.”

Before rebel and government leaders discuss a final peace accord they must sign agreements on the military’s future role and constitutional reforms. Demobilization will be discussed afterward.

Rebel leaders say they expect demobilization will be much like that in neighboring El Salvador after a January 1992 peace agreement ended 12 years of civil war. Under that accord, the United Nations oversaw the concentration of rebels into camps for up to a year during demobilization.

But the Guatemalan guerrillas also hope to avoid the problems experienced in El Salvador and in Nicaragua after combatants laid down arms.

In both those countries, many former fighters later rearmed either as new style guerrillas or common criminals when the governments failed to provide promised land, loans, job training and basic education.

The problem is especially pronounced in El Salvador, where many young former rebel and government troops have joined youth gangs.

Former guerrilla armies in both countries, later transformed into political parties, have also suffered splits.

As in those countries, there will also be the problem of whether to grant amnesty and to whom. The Guatemalan rebels oppose a general amnesty, which would protect government soldiers who committed wartime atrocities.

During the visit by journalists this past week, the young fighters told of seeing their villages obliterated and their relatives killed during the army’s scorched earth campaigns of the 1980s.

Rodolfo told of soldiers using machetes to cut apart a pregnant Indian woman in the boys’ hometown of Nebaj and of how residents moved to a “resistance community” formed by Guatemalans fleeing violence in their villages.

After his mother was killed for suspected rebel ties, Manolo walked barefoot two days through the mountains to get to such a community.

But Manolo, a shy Indian boy with a brooding countenance and penetrating black eyes, doesn’t talk much about why he became a  guerrilla at age 12. He speaks limited Spanish and ignores most questions about his past.

“I wanted to learn to shoot,” is all Manolo said, holding up his assault rifle.

“He learned how to shoot very well,” added Rodolfo. “When the soldiers came into one of our camps, Manolo stayed when we retreated. He just gave it to them!

“Now, Manolo has to go first when we retreat.”


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