Grim Byproduct of Contras’ War : Plight of ‘Displaced Ones’ Sows Unrest in Honduras
Honduran pioneers worked two decades to settle the rugged, remote borderlands east of here. They built hardy new communities on coffee, cattle and corn. Then the Nicaraguan war came spilling over the border into their lives, bringing contras and Sandinistas, mortars and mines, turmoil and peril.
Today the frontier area teems with so many anti-Sandinista rebels and their Nicaraguan supporters that it has been dubbed “New Nicaragua.” Thousands of Hondurans have fled, abandoning their homes, herds and crops.
The desplazados, or displaced ones, have scattered into more peaceful parts of Honduras, some looking for new land to settle, others moving in with relatives, many borrowing and begging to survive. Most receive little or no official help, although their plight is a source of growing concern.
As some critics of U.S. policy in Central America see it, the United States is responsible for the problem. They maintain that because Washington supports the contras--the rebels fighting to oust the Sandinista government in Managua--it should take care of the Hondurans displaced by the contras’ war.
For the Honduran government, the desplazados are an embarrassment, a nagging reminder that the government does not have full control over its territory.
“The contras have completely taken over 450 square kilometers of our territory,” the Honduran newspaper El Tiempo said in a recent editorial. “What is happening with our fellow countrymen from the area along the Nicaraguan border is a national shame.”
El Tiempo put the number of desplazados at more than 16,000. Other estimates say the figure is about half of that. It is difficult to determine how many Hondurans have left the border area and how many remain, because the Honduran army restricts public access, taking special care to keep reporters out.
The desplazados tell of some villages entirely abandoned and many others with only a few remaining families.
Antonia Pineda de Ramos, 33, was pregnant with her eighth child last January when Sandinista soldiers, pursuing contras, swarmed into the Honduran community of Amparo. Ramos said that she, her husband and their children fled on foot, along with 10 or 11 other Amparo families. As they left, fighting broke out.
“If we had delayed, it would have caught us,” Ramos recalled. “As the fighting passed by, we lay down in a ravine. We were there a long time. Then we spent the night in the woods.”
Since coming to Danli, the Ramos family has been living in a one-room adobe house with a dirt floor. The rent is $10 a month, and “sometimes we don’t have any way to pay,” Ramos said.
Wearing a faded red calico dress, she stood nursing her youngest child as she spoke in the lean-to kitchen of the tiny home. Other children played around her, and a wood fire crackled in a homemade clay stove.
Ramos was preparing to cook a meager meal of beans. Her husband was out selling firewood.
“The times are not good for selling firewood,” she said.
Remigio Gonzalez, 40, also sells firewood in Danli. He, his wife and their 10 children live in a one-room wood shack borrowed from an uncle. Most of the children sleep on pieces of burlap spread over the dirt floor.
Since leaving Amparo in January, Gonzalez has returned four times to check on his farm, but he has not dared to take his family back. The last time he returned, he counted 15 shell holes in his property, and he said Sandinista troops enter the area frequently.
“They patrol in Honduran territory,” he said.
Only a few Honduran families remain in Amparo, and other villages near the border have been abandoned completely, according to Gonzalez.
“There are empty villages where there is absolutely no one--schools abandoned, houses burned,” he said.
In some places, Nicaraguan families that support the contras have moved into houses vacated by Hondurans.
“It is said that the United States has bought the area to maintain the contras there,” Gonzalez said. “Maybe they paid the government. We aren’t even paid with a crooked smile.”
Gonzalez has tried to organize the displaced families in Danli to request help. He said the Honduran authorities do nothing for them.
“They answer that these things are not up to them, that they are international things,” he said. “Everything we have worked for is lost. We have worked many years to have a better life, and here you find us in calamities. We go around begging to survive.”
Eligio Chavarria, 34, left the village of Arenales in May of last year after Sandinista mortars destroyed two houses there. He returned with his wife and five children in August, but they left again in January after more mortar rounds fell.
Chavarria said his 70 chickens were stolen by contras and his coffee is rotting on the bushes.
“We lost the harvest last year and this year,” he said. “Our life is there, but the way things are, you are gambling with your life to go there.”
Chavarria and other desplazados said they know several Hondurans who have been killed or maimed by land mines in the border area. He said he did not know whether the mines are set by contras or Sandinistas, but “they are sprinkled around wherever you go.”
Luis Alonso, a reporter in Danli for the Honduran newspaper La Tribuna, said four Honduran civilians have been killed and 18 to 20 wounded by mines in the past year.
Teodoro Mendoza, 65, said a group of contras killed his wife and 36-year-old son on Jan. 17 at their farmhouse near the village of El Bosque. According to Mendoza, the contras were retaliating because a sharecropper on his farm had complained to authorities after being beaten by a drunken rebel commander.
Adalberto Salcedo, a Danli lawyer and local representative of the Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, said contras are to blame for those deaths and more, as well as for numerous other abuses of Hondurans in the border area.
“The contras don’t let them live in peace,” Salcedo said.
Abraham Hernandez agrees, but he has stubbornly refused to leave his home in the village of Arenales. Hernandez, 71, was in Danli the other day to deliver a “manifesto” signed by 41 men who have kept their families in Arenales, Amparo and Espanol Grande.
The document said, in part: “For five years we have put up with all kinds of abuses by that foreign armed force called ‘contra.’ It is not fair that we should have to start a new life in another place.”
The manifesto demanded that the Honduran government pay for the losses of Honduran residents and throw out the contras.
Most of the desplazados are from a triangle of Honduran territory that juts into Nicaragua southeast of the town of Las Trojes, which is about 50 miles east of Danli. The triangle is known as the “recovered zone” because Honduras won it from Nicaragua after a prolonged territorial dispute.
The dispute was settled by the International Court of Justice in 1960. With encouragement from their government, Honduran settlers began homesteading the recovered zone, and dozens of farming communities sprang up along the border.
In the early 1980s, contra guerrilla camps also began springing up in the area. And an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Nicaraguan civilians, mostly relatives and supporters of the contras, have crossed over to camp in the Honduran borderlands.
Hondurans began abandoning the area last year. The exodus reached a peak in March, after more than 1,000 Sandinista troops invaded to attack the contras’ main military camps.
The Catholic relief agency Caritas conducted a survey of desplazados from 30 villages to determine how many families remained. Lucila Saldana, a Caritas official in Danli, said all but 117 of the 1,007 families in the villages had left.
For example, she said, all but 13 of the 110 houses in Arenales have been abandoned. The survey did not include counts for many other villages in the area.
Jose Leon Aguilar, the director of Caritas in Danli, said most of the desplazados have returned to the areas of Honduras where they lived before settling in the borderlands. Others have come to Las Trojes and Danli, and many have gone on to virgin lands along the Patuca River farther east, where new settlements are being established.
Aguilar said that Caritas is distributing food and other aid to about 800 desplazados. Every 15 days they receive rations of corn, rice, milk, beans, sugar and coffee, he said.
“It isn’t enough,” he added. “We can’t give them a full diet for lack of funds.”
He said thousands of desplazados apparently receive no aid at all, but he added that “we don’t know where they are, if they need help or not.”
Among the desplazados that Caritas has found, many are in desperate need.
“They have housing problems, they have health problems--mostly nutrition problems among children,” Aguilar said. “About 20 children have died of malnutrition since March.”
An American official said the United States is providing some staple foods for about 2,000 desplazados. The food is distributed by a local charity organization in Las Trojes and by Caritas.
The U.S. government also has provided transportation for privately donated medical supplies and clothing and has donated 54 tents for desplazados in Las Trojes.
The U.S. official, who asked not to be further identified, said that additional American aid cannot be provided unless it is requested by Honduran agencies.
“That’s the only way we can respond,” he said.
According to an informed source, Honduran government officials are reluctant to ask for much aid because the desplazados issue is politically touchy.
“To admit there is a desplazados problem, they would have to admit that they don’t control a certain part of the country, and they can’t do that,” the source said.
Wilfredo Castellanos, vice president of the Honduran Assn. of Coffee Producers, said that growers from the border area want the United States to compensate them for about $50 million in lost production since 1980.
“They know perfectly well that the cause of this whole problem is the policy of Reagan,” Castellanos said.