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But Specter of War Lingers : Shaky Truce Lets Rural Nicaragua Begin to Revive

Times Staff Writer

The war that has beleaguered this coffee-growing village is not over. But for the first time in nearly seven years of fighting, the townspeople felt like having a fiesta.

On the only road in town, farmers coming from the countryside crowded around a merchant’s table to bargain for blue jeans and transistor radios. They butchered two cows and downed gallons of guaro, a corn drink. In a meeting hall decorated with plastic streamers, teen-age peasant couples danced awkwardly on the dirt floor until dying batteries silenced the folk music from a cassette player.

Among those arriving during the festivities, which marked National Peasants Day, were three families of new settlers from the capital of Managua, Sandinista pioneers in the rebuilding of Mancotal’s state coffee farm. They mingled with independent cowboys who sympathize more with the Contras, who have burned the collective five times and killed 14 inhabitants.

In the six months since the Sandinista government and U.S.-backed Contras agreed to a truce, Mancotal and much of rural Nicaragua have enjoyed a revival. A record corn crop is ready for harvest, and the relative calm has brought schools, medical care and public transport back to villages long cut off by the fighting. A reverse migration is under way, as some of those driven to the cities by war return to farm the land.

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But the automatic rifles unloaded with the household belongings of Mancotal’s newcomers are a sign of how uncertain this peace is. Since June 9, when they broke off talks on a final peace treaty, the Contras have violated the truce with attacks on collective farms, schools and other government targets, while Sandinista troops have harassed the rebels’ rural supporters. Both sides have resumed forced recruiting on a large scale.

Residents of half a dozen communities in Jinotega province, always one of the most active combat zones, say that the truce has reduced the level of the war more than it has reduced their fear or pessimism. In recent interviews, government and rebel soldiers, farmers and professionals in this hilly, thickly forested area said the current low level of conflict may be the closest thing to peace they will ever have.

“This idea of the war being on top of you is hard to take out of your mind,” said Silbino Hernandez Ramos, an elderly independent farmer in Mancotal. “Things are normal today because there is no combat here. But tomorrow that could change. We don’t see an effective cease-fire, but we have to try to live normal lives while the army comes and goes, while the Contras come and go. This is our reality.”

Unpaved Road

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The road to Mancotal meanders along a ridge overlooking a lush green valley and the man-made Apanas reservoir. Like the other roads fanning north from Jinotega city, it is neither paved nor well protected against rebel ambushes. The only sign of the army one recent day was a broken-down troop transport truck, abandoned to a lone mechanic.

Before the truce, only the foolhardy traveled on the road after 4 p.m. But on this day, both trucks of the Jinotega-Mancotal civilian transport service, each crowded with passengers, crossed in the fading daylight at 5:45. Hours earlier, children walked from school and ranchers herded cattle on this road, and a bulldozer leveled the muddy ruts in its gray gravel surface. In the past, the guerrillas burned such equipment on sight.

A few weeks ago, Contras stopped one of the Jinotega-Mancotal trucks, stabbed the driver and abducted four passengers. Gregorio Salgado, who drives the other truck, a 1970 Chevrolet Fargo pickup, said the rebels probably attacked because some Sandinista soldiers were aboard.

“I don’t let the soldiers ride,” he said, “but sometimes they get on anyway. They tell me the cease-fire has made the road safe, but you never know.”

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Visiting Nurse

On the opposite side of the reservoir, Antonia Gonzalez, a government nurse, took another road north from Jinotega to treat tuberculosis patients in a string of war-zone villages rarely visited by outsiders.

The truce has been good for the area’s health. The hospital in Jinotega has treated only four civilian casualties of the fighting during the past six months, compared to 87 during all of last year. Most of its current patients are pregnant women, some of whom couldn’t have reached the city during heavy fighting.

Health workers have used the calm to spray mosquitoes and build public toilets in places they couldn’t get to before. Enrique Gonzalez, busily training local medics, says all but 15 of the 160 villages in this part of Jinotega now have at least one resident who can vaccinate children against polio, tetanus and scarlet fever.

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But these medics, called brigadistas, are still Contra targets because they work for the Sandinista public health system. Several have been kidnaped during the truce, forcing others to take precautions, such as hiding medicine in sacks of corn when they travel.

Farm Attacked

The drive to the war zone made nurse Gonzalez especially nervous. Two days earlier, rebels had burned all five shacks and the common kitchen at El Recreo, a state farm near the one she was about to visit.

That farm, Las Lajas, just had its best planting season ever. The truce made it possible to truck in 170 migrant workers, four times the usual contingent, to sow new grain fields and tend the coffee trees. But recent fighting on nearby hills had the place on edge. “For six nights we haven’t slept well,” said farmer-militia member Eliseo Rodriguez, 76.

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Riding back to Jinotega, the nurse became unusually quiet as her jeep traversed a narrow stretch of road bordered on one side by a steep jungle-covered rise.

“That was ambush country,” she said later, as the terrain opened up. “We’re out of the inferno now.”

Most of the Contras who once stalked the hills around here retreated north to bases in Honduras months ago, after the U.S. Congress refused to resupply them with arms and ammunition. But throughout Jinotega, small bands remain active and capable of deadly assault, like one that killed four children and a militia member at Monterrey, a nearby state farm, on the night of Aug. 16.

Clashes Down

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With both armies formally committed to halting offensive operations, the number of reported clashes and combat deaths has dropped sharply since the truce began March 21.

After a lull in April and May, however, the Contras have started killing specially targeted civilians at nearly the pre-truce level, according to Witness for Peace, a Washington-based monitoring group that opposes U.S. aid to the rebels. It has confirmed 38 civilian deaths since late March, all but five of them since the peace talks collapsed in June. (The Contras and the Sandinistas are to meet in Guatemala City today to begin preparing for renewed, high-level talks on ending the conflict.)

Thus, while a decline in the level of fighting has brought relief to most of the countryside, the high risk for civilian Sandinista employees and state farm workers has returned, especially since the Contras aren’t under as much pressure from the army.

“The truce was so relaxed at first that the Contras slept in the schools at night and let children go to class during the day,” said Eddy Montalban, a sixth-grade teacher in Abisinia. “But after a couple of months they started abducting the teachers.”

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Schools were opened for the first time in five villages near Abisinia in March and April, Montalban said, but three of them have since closed.

Supporters Vulnerable

The truce has also made Contra supporters in rural hamlets more vulnerable to Sandinista repression. Some have been jailed, but not on the massive scale that followed the last big rebel retreat in late 1985, according to Lino Hernandez of the Permanent Commission of Human Rights in Managua.

“The government is trying to keep the Contras as inactive as possible, so they get tired of the insurgency and go back to their farms,” Hernandez said. “If the Sandinistas made generalized sweeps, no Contra would dare return.”

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Instead, army counterinsurgency teams are touring remote villages in Jinotega to discuss their needs for health care and education. In some cases, the people are asked, but usually not forced, to move to more defensible settlements, soldiers and residents said.

But in two recent visits to the hamlet of Las Trozas, state security agents arrested three farmers and burned the home of a fourth, Fernando Cruz, several residents said.

Rebel Protection

In a war fought to a large extent over land, the 25 families of Las Trozas have long resisted Sandinista efforts to organize their plots into a collective farm and have turned to the rebels for protection. Cruz proudly told a visitor he worked as a Contra guide “to help fight communism,” and led the visitor on a 30-minute trek to a rebel camp deep in a jungle thicket.

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There, five well-armed guerrillas idled near a river, waiting to join 15 others on a march to the next settlement. Hugo, their muscular 18-year-old leader, said his group had hiked back from Honduras in April to assure farmers in places like Las Trozas that the rebel cause is still alive. In turn, the farmers have fed his fighters and helped them avoid detection; their last clash with the Sandinista army, he said, was more than a month ago.

“If the United States does not help us, we will keep fighting anyway, even if we have to use machetes,” Hugo declared.

The relatively few Contras still in Nicaragua--about 2,000, both sides estimate--have shown an unusual ability to match the Sandinistas in the competition for fresh fighters.

To the relief of farmers everywhere, the truce prompted both armies to ease up on recruiting during the spring planting season. But now the renewed intensity of Sandinista conscription and Contra abductions threatens to disrupt the harvest.

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Military Roundup

In August, the army sealed off the road to Mancotal and swept through the town for two days, rounding up about 70 young men for two years of obligatory military duty, according to Eduardo Cruz, the Roman Catholic sacristan. But those same two nights, he said, a rebel patrol scoured the surrounding villages and netted a similar haul.

“When the Sandinistas come around, people run like snakes,” said Pedro Antonio Hernandez, 29, a Mancotal farmer who has been forcibly inducted into the forces of both sides and deserted each. “Then they keep hidden, because the Contras are never far behind.”

Today, the Sandinistas have the edge in the battle for Mancotal’s 136-acre coffee collective. The truce has helped them refortify the place, which was reduced to 35 dispirited families when the Contras last destroyed it on March 1. Volunteer settlers from Managua have doubled the work force and rekindled some enthusiasm for the coming harvest of Nicaragua’s most valuable export.

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At the festival the other day, a peasant farmer was awarded a weekend trip with his family to a Nicaraguan beach resort for exemplary work at the collective--laboring in the fields by day and patrolling with a rifle by night.

But even with the war wound down, the routine can be nerve-racking. One new settler has already quit Mancotal and taken his family back to Managua.

“We heard fighting last night,” said Eileen Tobin, a Canadian nurse who lives at the farm. “We hear shooting at least once a week. It makes people nervous about the war exploding again. They think it’s going to come back as hard as ever.”


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