Behaving Like Conquerors, Contras Disrupt a Village
The men of this hilltop village have run away in fear, leaving behind frightened mothers, wives, children and an occupying army--the Contras.
These guerrillas, wearing American army uniforms and carrying U.S.-donated weapons, didn’t come as conquerors. They were supposed to be temporary guests.
The “guests” have a different view. To them, Las Colinas was a stronghold of support for the former Sandinista government and it was, for all intents and purposes, handed over to them in the same way that Tokyo was given to the Americans when Japan surrendered in World War II.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Under a cease-fire agreement worked out earlier this month by the outgoing Sandinista government with representatives of the Contras and the new president, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the rebel fighters were assigned this area in north-central Nicaragua for their security during a disarmament process.
In exchange for handing over their guns, the Contras were to be protected inside seven security zones until the disarmament process is completed June 10.
Instead, following the lead of the Contras’ chief military commander, Israel Galeano, the rebel troops have refused to give up their weapons.
And now they are threatening to stay in this and other towns throughout the countryside until the new government satisfies Contra demands to dismantle the Sandinista-run national army and has met unspecified economic and political goals.
In the meantime, the Contras are behaving like conquering armies: taking what they want, living where they want and deciding the daily fate of the unfortunate residents.
Las Colinas is a case in point.
Perched on the bald top of a ridge about 80 miles north of Managua, the village houses 48 families in a collection of cement-walled huts scattered hither and yon on the rims of weather-carved ravines.
After the Sandinistas took power in 1979, Las Colinas was made into a farm cooperative, mostly growing corn and fruit. Its residents were given weapons in 1982, when the anti-Sandinista Contras were formed with American aid.
In 1987, the hamlet was attacked and seven village men were killed. From that day on, the entrance of Las Colinas was marked by a banner noting the dead and listing the number of children left without fathers from the attack. The Contras took down the banner Wednesday, the day they refused to start disarming.
As part of the cease-fire pact, all the Sandinista militiamen (armed civilians) inside the security zones had to give up any weapons they held to United Nations forces assigned to monitor the disarmament process.
Last Saturday, Commandant Kenneth Kelly, an Irish army officer working with the United Nations, came to Las Colinas to pick up the weapons of the cooperative’s militiamen.
“They were very reluctant,” the burly, red-haired cavalry officer said. “It took some discussion to get them to give me the arms; they were afraid.”
But what did the trick here and in other pro-Sandinista settlements, Kelly said, was a speech he gave likening the disarming to the landing of the first man on the moon: “I told them that their surrender of guns was one small step for the people of Las Colinas but one giant step toward peace for Nicaragua.”
But less than half an hour after Kelly had collected the village’s arms, a patrol of 15 Contras showed up. Although they assured the U.N. officer they only wanted to talk, by the end of the day, they had moved in.
“All the (village) men are gone,” said Maria Antonia Herera, “no one felt secure here.”
Herera, a 47-year-old toothless peasant whose worn appearance makes her look more like 67, said, “The men who left were in the militia and now there’s no one to defend us.”
Herera exemplifies the misfortune of guerrilla war:
“My husband was one of the seven killed three years ago when the Contras attacked here,” she recounted.
In spite of that, her son had left two years ago to join the Contras.
“When they (the Contras) came yesterday,” she said, “they told me my son had been killed in battle.”
Standing outside her dirt-floor home, shaded by the overhanging tin roof, Herera choked back a sob.
“It’s hard to live here. You work here, you die here. We can only hope for God’s grace.”
More likely to influence the villagers’ immediate fate are the 20 or so Contras now living in Las Colinas.
And not only in Las Colinas. Garrisons were set up in La Rica, another Sandinista armed cooperative that surrendered its weapons to Commandant Kelly, and in nearly every settlement in the zone.
Heavily armed Contra patrols, their officers riding on confiscated or donated horses and mules, move along every road. Contra sentinels stand atop the hills.
“We have 3,000 men here and there are more coming,” said Galeano in an interview. “We can defend ourselves.”
Galeano, who uses the nom de guerre Comandante Franklin, said there would be as many as 7,000 Contras in the security zones by the weekend.
Some of the locals have welcomed the Contras.
“We have uncles and cousins here,” said one Contra soldier who calls himself El Duende, Spanish for elf. “They give us food and places to sleep.”
Not Julia, a 28-year-old peasant who lives with her four children near the U.N. headquarters site called El Amparo, or The Refuge.
“I don’t want to give them anything,” she said, “but they just take.”
At this stage, nobody knows how long the occupation will last. Galeano said he will stay here with his rifle until his demands are met. He said he is willing and able to resume the eight-year-old war.
The U.N. force refuses to intercede on the grounds that it is, in the words of its commanding officer, Lt. Col. Ignacio Balbin of the Spanish army, “our mission only to be here, nothing more.”
Kelly explained that the Blue Berets, as the U.N. troops are known, after their headgear, function only to collect weapons.
“We don’t enforce the agreement, we don’t separate the forces. We only receive” arms, he said.
So far, the Sandinista army has also shown no disposition to interfere, staying 20 miles away from the security zone as required by the accord. One Western army officer who asked not to be further identified, said that “if the Contras are allowed to stay here, it will be very difficult to drive them out. This is natural guerrilla territory.”