Mule trains and herds of cattle often have to move aside as trucks loaded with troops rumble past on the road to Wiwili, raising clouds of dust.
At frequent intervals, there are Sandinista soldiers armed with Soviet-made AK-47 rifles. Some are trudging along the road or waiting for a ride. Others are bivouacked at the edge of the road.
Here and there, a naked child with big, curious eyes stands by a roadside hut and takes it all in--the military vehicles, the fighting men, the sense of impending combat. The road to Wiwili, winding through the mountainous backlands of northern Nicaragua, is a road to war.
The heavy military activity along the 75 miles between Wiwili and Ocotal, to the west, is an olive-green reflection of the increasing war effort by Nicaragua's leftist government. The Sandinistas are fighting U.S.-backed guerrillas, or contras, who operate extensively in the country's eastern reaches and along the northern border with Honduras. That border runs roughly parallel to the Ocotal-Wiwili highway.
In the road system of northwestern Nicaragua, Ocotal is where the pavement ends. At Wiwili, the dirt road ends.
The guerrillas' primary stronghold in the country extends through the roadless mountain terrain beyond the road--north, east and south of Wiwili.
The town's dirt streets are teeming with government troops, and security is tight. Visitors who stop to ask officers for directions are automatically asked for identification. The busiest place in town is the local headquarters of the Popular Sandinista Army.
The army mounts counterinsurgency operations here, moving out into guerrilla territory--the "war zone." In turn, the guerrillas attack defended areas along the road west of town. In the last year, guerrilla attacks have concentrated increasingly on government-run farms and vehicles moving along roads like the one to Wiwili.
Lucas Zelaya, a farmer who lives near the road, about 10 miles from Wiwili, told a visitor the other day that the guerrillas sometimes march down through a mountain pass from Honduras and cross the road on their way south.
"They come through here at night--sometimes 500 of them, sometimes 1,000," Zelaya said. "And they have taken a lot of people from here with them."
He said that his 15-year-old son, Raul, was abducted on Dec. 29 and taken away to fight with the rebels.
"He was picking coffee up on that mountain and they took him away," Zelaya said, pointing to a pine-topped peak. "They took several kids that same day, about eight."
Zelaya, wearing a baseball cap and a faded shirt open at the front, was leaning on his gray horse as he talked and watched the traffic on the road. Later, a Soviet-built troop truck came by, and young Sandinista soldiers in it pointed toward the mountains, joking with bravado about the rebels who pass through here. The soldiers called the rebels putas --whores.
At San Bartolo, a government cooperative farm, most of the men--and some of the women--were dressed in military fatigue uniforms. The place looked more like an army camp than a farm. The residents had been moved there from dangerous areas and recruited into the Sandinista militia. So far, the guerrillas have not attacked San Bartolo.
"They would like to attack," one of the cooperative's workers said. "They have come down close there in the hills to look."
Francisco Amador, a government technician in charge of tractor maintenance in the area, said that a nearby cooperative was abandoned last year after a guerrilla attack. That place was called El Coco.
"They went in there and killed almost all the people," Amador said. "They say there were 13 dead. There is no one in El Coco now."
The people of El Coco had been moved off farms in the war zone. According to the government, a total of 143,000 people have been displaced in the four-year-old war. That is nearly 5% of Nicaragua's population.
At the end of 1984, the Sandinista government reported that the death toll in the year's fighting was 4,600--including 3,000 rebels, nearly 1,000 government troops and 600 civilians.
Larger communities along the road to Wiwili are farming centers and garrison towns, as well, and have been fortified against rebel attack. As Amador leaned against a Soviet-built tractor and talked in Quilali, a town big enough to support a Texaco service station and a cheap hotel, Sandinista soldiers stood guard on a nearby hilltop.
Soldiers were coming and going constantly on Quilali's streets. Some lounged around sandbags piled in front of the local army command post. A troop truck hogged the narrow road coming into town from the west.
Out on the road, a mile or two west of Quilali, cowboys herded a few dozen steers westward, and three civilian Toyota jeeps squeezed by coming the other way. For a long stretch, there were no soldiers or troop trucks in sight.
Farther along, a cluster of women washed clothes in a stream. It was a peaceful, traditional scene, and there would have been no evidence of the war if one of the women had not been wearing fatigues.