Life in Nicaragua
Over the past several years many Ann Arborites have travelled and worked in Nicaragua. In recognition of a wealth of first-hand knowledge right here at home, AGENDA invited a number of these sojourners to write a few paragraphs or clip a part from their journals on their own experiences while there. Here are some of the journal entries, stories and reflections we received.
Compiled by Arlin Wasserman - Gregory Fox
My first impression of Nicaragua was simply one of shock at the poverty. Obtaining food and water s a major daily concern. The typical Nicaraguan home would not be an acceptable tool shed to an American suburbanite. Public transportation is a nightmare of overcrowding. This feeling of shock softened as I began to see this poverty in a Nicaraguan context. The lives of the poor in America are filled with violent crime, drug abuse, and despair. They live in a society which often treats them as being less than human. In Nicaragua, there is little violent crime or drug usage, and alcoholism is declining rapidly. Although uneasy about what the U.S. will do next, the people of Nicaragua are hopeful about the future. The Nicaraguan poor are seen as the backbone of the society.
The strongest evidence that change is occurring came from the everyday people we met. Many had an air about them that I rarely encountered before. It was like the feeling you get from a woman who's just gotten a divorce from a domineering husband. They were proud of the Revolution and excited about the future. They were becoming aware of their own possibilities. The members of the family 1 stayed with in Juigalpa all had very definite opinions on everything. In spite of my broken Spanish, they never tired of discussing anything and everything with me. Often, they would start arguing among themselves about the issue at hand, forgetting to speak slowly so I could understand.
Steve DeBroux 3/29/87
After being close to the contra attack at La Colonia, I told myself that this was as close to any war I wanted to be. The last two days I've been in 'Las Montanas de la Guerra'. There's a strange sensation from inside - wondering if the contras are watching, hoping they can read "prensa" on the side of our jeep and that they will respect that. I had some very violent dreams last night. I saw Carter and Rick and I don't know who else; they were killed in a horrible truck accident off the side of a mountain. They were in a military truck. It was very clear and very graphic. I awoke soon after and felt unsure as to why I saw that, unsure of where I was. The dogs would bark wildly in the night and wake me up and I had to wonder why they were so stirred. I'd hear footsteps around the jeep where I was sleeping and I had to wonder who it was, suddenly wishing I had slept in the school house with the others. At that time my fears may have been unfounded, but there was fear nonetheless. I've not been in a war zone before. Ifs overwhelming at times, tranquilo at times, uncertain all the time. I've only been here overnight. My god, what is it to live all your nights here?
Phillis Engelbert 6/20/87
Several members of the Los Colinas came to greet us. They were anxious to tell their stories. I spoke with one woman who described episodes of the attack she most remembered. She spoke of the execution of her son, which was performed in front of her and others. The contra had bayonetted him in the throat. "The blood flowed like a river."
I remember staring down an entire row of patches of charred wood and metal where buildings had stood. I stooped down amid the rubble and picked up a handful of exploded grenades and bullets- one of which I kept as a souvenir. It struck me how little these people had to begin with and how now they were left with nothing. Their meager homes had been destroyed. Their spirit had been broken. They lost several community members.
I spent time with another woman who lost a son during the attack- her second thus far in the war. We spoke standing in the rubble that was once her home. She showed me the remains of the table where she and her family had eaten dinner. When the contra came she fled to the hills with her younger children. One of her sons stayed behind to defend the cooperative and was killed. She said the contra promised to return and that she and the other cooperative members feared another attack. "I don't sleep at night. My eyes are always on the hills."
Emily Milner 8/5/87
Nicaragua, after one becomes accustomed to the scarcity and poverty of living conditions, feels like being in the U.S. as far as people go: people get up and go to work in one form or another, they get the bus and get tired; drivers drive fast and honk pedestrians and other vehicles out of their way; some are greedy, trying to get as much money for taxis or food from North Americans or internationals as they can (but they reason that we are all rich anyway, which from their standard of living is true). People seem little concerned about the police or military, showing no respect, let alone fear, for soldiers trying to get on buses, etc. And I for one would expect them to show some respect for the soldiers who may go to the borders and fight and die (but such is the way of people).
Robería Bernhard 8/18/87
I met with three former contras, José and Orlando, brothers, and their friend, Julio. They returned to Nicaragua through the amnesty program the Sandinistas began. The program encourages contras to return to Nicaragua. The government does not harass them. These men were questioned by the Ministry of Interior, and said it was as "tranquil" as meeting with my delegation. They were not detained if they did not supply the officials with vital information. Instead, Carlos, Orlando and Julio were told to return to their homes and live in peace. This has been difficult for them, however. Their family farms are outside of the city of Wiwili. They cannot go there and work because they fear the contras will kill them. This has led two of them to join the Sandinista army, an option offered by the amnesty program.
We asked them what life with the contras was like. They told us the contras lie. For example, the Nicaraguan government will kill anyone who returns to the country or Nicaraguans do not believe in God - falsehoods that kept the men with the contras for so long. The greatest lie the contras told was that campesinos join their force by their own free will. Carlos, Orlando and Julio were kidnapped. Carlos and Orlando were teachers. Being state employees, these two brothers were threatened with death. Julio was carried in a bag for five days. Once he reached Honduras, his captors told him if he admitted to the chief that he was brought by force and not voluntarily, they would kill him.
We asked them about the morale of the contras. They told us it was very low. The soldiers were never paid. Instead, the leaders used the money to buy expensive clothes and to entertain themselves in Honduras. The leaders bragged about victories that never happened. As a result, drug use became prevalent. It was not unusual for high ranking officials to use cocaine and for the actual militia to take speed and smoke marijuana. After being with the contras for more than two years, Carlos, Orlando and Julio finally escaped. They were driven by the death of Carlos' and Orlando's sister, who had been riding in a truck that a band of contras had ambushed.
Brian DeBroux 3/18/87
Luz is the daughter of the family I live with in Managua. I have been in Nicaragua for nine weeks, but only met her three weeks ago. She has been in the mountains of Jinotega picking coffee When she was in the mountains she carried an AK 47 automatic rifle with her at all times. Everyone who picks coffee is armed because they are prime targets of contra attacks. So why would a 16 year old risk her life to pick coffee? The answer to this question is also the reason why Nicaragua is going to survive and win the not-so-secret war being waged by the White House.
Luz understands the importance of revenues generated by coffee exports to her country's economy. She understands that many potential workers are needed to defend their country and are not available to work. This understanding results in thousands of volunteers going to the mountains to pick. But this understanding is a manifestation of a deeper quality among Nicaraguans, a sense of collective mentality and a feeling that sacrifices must be made for the good of the whole. This feeling is prominent throughout the country.
The mayor arranged for us to visit a rural clinic ten kilometers from Juigalpa to see the initiation of a nationwide vaccination program. We were accompanied by the Director of Region Five of the Ministry of Health.
The clinic was a small stucco structure, with five small rooms. It had just been completed and was the first ever in the area. A line of brown-eyed, honey-skinned children waited with their parents. They carne from nearby ranches and villages, some on horseback, some in trucks, and some on foot. For many, it was the first medical attention they ever had.
Despite this progress, the leading causes of death among children are still malnutrition and dehydration from chronic diarrhea. But a still greater tragedy was that the contras had destroyed two new clinics exactly like this one, depriving thousands of rural Nicaraguans the only medical care they had ever had.