Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 5 No. 3 | Fall 1983 (Seattle) /// Issue 5 of 24 /// Master# 53 of 73

Looking Behind the Headlines at THE REAL WAR in Nicaragua By Patty Somlo A O a postwar boom baby, my experience with war has been 2 1 0 through the eyes of the media. So I was little prepared for a visit to the heaviest combat zone in a country fighting a “covert” but nonetheless real war. Thus, when our group of artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians and others who were in Nicaragua to learn the inside story behind the conflicts in Central America was given the opportunity to travel to the town ofJalapa on the country’s northern border with Honduras, I gave it little thought. In the days that followed, I learned that the United States’ covert war with Nicaragua is no secret to the whole of this small Central American country. The nearly 7,000-strong CIA trained and backed forces, made up almost exclusively of ex-Somoza National Guardsmen, are making regular incursions into the Nicaraguan border territories. From their bases in Honduras, the contras, as they are called, slip across the border into Nicaragua attacking women and children working in the fields, kidnapping entire families from their homes, and destroying crops and valuable equipment. While the contras have had no success taking over territory within Nicaragua, they have nevertheless created considerable human and economic hardship. To date, more than 500 deaths have been attributed to the ex-Somoza forces. The majority of those killed have been unarmed civilians. The town of Jalapa sits on the front line of the war. At the center of a rich agricultural region, Jalapa has swollen in size as the contra attacks have escalated. Outlying farm families stream into refugee camps in the small town, since in their isolated homesteads they are sitting ducks for the type of hit-and- run war carried on by the U.S.-back Somocistas. Like their outlying neighbors, the residents of Jalapa were expected by the U.S. government to abandon their homes and move further into the country once the contra attacks began. At the same time, the CIA plan was based on the assumption that some residents would join the ranks of the counterrevolutionary forces attempting to overthrow the Sandinista-led government. Since Somoza had settled a large number of National Guardsmen and supporters in the region due to his interest in controlling and protecting its rich agricultural resources, the U.S. expected many of these ex-Somoza supporters to be anxious to join with anti-Sandinista forces. It was also assumed that a sizeable amount of discontent and opposition to the Sandinistas existed, not only in the Jalapa region, but throughout the entire country. It therefore seemed a relatively easy matter to swell the contra forces, establish a base in the abandoned Jalapa region and begin moving further into the country. The residents of Jalapa, however, have refused to fulfill their part of the scenario. Trained and armed men, women and children have organized round-the-clock guard duty throughout the area. Popular militia forces recruited from area residents supplement the Sandinista Army forces and reserves sanctioned in the region. Farmers seen working in the fields hold a machete in one hand, a gun in the other. Jalapans, having dug themselves in more firmly, say they will stay. Having heard this and more, and seen numerous photographs of the casualties of the war, I still had little fear about visiting the border. Hearing story after story about the heroic efforts of this town’s simple people, it seemed a small act for me to travel there to hear their stories in order to return home and tell them. Some members of our group were less philosophical. There was much discussion about whether the contras would or would not shoot a group of U.S. citizens. On the one hand, we all agreed that the deaths of North Americans in Nicaragua could strongly shift public opinion against Reagan's plans for increased intervention. Yet, we also had the examples of the U.S. nuns and land reform workers in El Salvador to remind us that our “allies” do get away with murder, even of our own people. By the time we piled on the buses, the members of our group had decided to take their chances. For most of us who had grown up with the media version of the Vietnam War, many late- night World War I and II movies, and the weekly Western shoot-outs, this would be our first unmediated look at war. The blackness of the nighttime countryside in Nicaragua is broken only by small stars and the silver of a moon. With no streetlights, it’s difficult to make out the small peasant huts scattered here and there among the hills. Occasionally, the bus lights flash on a bony ox slowly chewing along the side of the road. More often, a simple white cross marking in the passing of a son or daughter in the struggle that engulfed the nation prior to Somoza’s fall on July 19, 1979, reflects the glare of our Clinton St. Quarterly 29