Graffiti of a Nicaraguan survivor: war doesn’t just disappear with the signing of a peace treaty and the onslaught of reconstruction efforts. To understand the true cost of any armed conflict, we must first consider the lingering effects of war one, five, ten, or twenty years from its official end
They killed you and they didn’t tell us where they buried your body, but since then all our land is your tomb.
Or let’s say you came back to life in each inch in which your body is not.
They thought they killed you with an order “fire.”
They thought they buried you, but what they did was bury a seed.
IN MANAGUA, NICARAGUA’S crumbling capital city, artistic, political, and cultural graffiti adorn many of the otherwise bare structures. More revealing than any textbook about Nicaragua could ever be, these artifacts are a window into the hearts and minds of the people that live in this nation.
After the corrupt Somoza dictatorship embezzled the foreign aid designated for rebuilding Nicaragua after the earthquake of 1972, that regime was overthrown by the Sandinista revolution in 1979. But the Sandinistas’ Marxist philosophies were at odds with U.S. foreign policy, and in the 1980s the Reagan administration financially backed the Contras with the aim of ousting the Sandinista government, which was seen as a communist entity.
The Contra War wasn’t a traditional war fought between two armies. The Contras admittedly had no real chance of overthrowing the military, so their goal became to usurp the Sandinistas by destroying the infrastructure and exacerbating the economic havoc that already existed in the embattled nation. This strategy also included the assassination of compassionate individuals who worked to minimize the effects of poverty and violence.
The Freedom Fighter’s Manual, published and distributed by the CIA in 1983, is an eye-opening reflection of how the Contra War was fought. From time to time I doubt that this document is real and unearth my copy from the box where I keep it as physical proof that I haven’t imagined it. Its pages, filled with light-hearted cartoon drawings, are touted as a “practical guide to liberating Nicaragua from oppression and misery by paralyzing the military-industrial complex of the traitorous Marxist state.” Inside are instructions for damaging and destroying machinery, wasting natural resources, ruining vehicles, making Molotov cocktails, and wreaking havoc on the already decayed Nicaraguan infrastructure. The Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare, released by the CIA in 1984, is even more gruesome, advising the assassination of officials and human rights advocates in detached language, using such words as neutralize, reduce, and replace.
My announcement that my final semester as an undergraduate would be spent abroad as a participant in Xavier University’s Nicaraguan Service Learning Semester inspired many comments from my concerned family members, though not one was sewn with the tactful threads of enthusiasm.
“I’m sure you could find an excellent exchange program in Europe. France and Spain are incredible destinations for college students.”
“It’s not safe.”
But I couldn’t be discouraged. What my rebellious-young-woman stage lacked in experimentation with sex and drugs it made up for in adventures that were well outside the realm of my sheltered, Midwestern, “Leave-It-to-Beaver” upbringing. I was twenty-two, resolute, and already mentally packing my bags for Managua.
This isn’t to say that I wasn’t afraid, because I definitely was. Nicaragua was destitute and foreign, impoverished beyond my ability to comprehend. Not only did its history include frequent natural disasters but it had also endured civil war and political upheaval of epic proportions.
In retrospect, my family had good reason to be afraid for me to travel to Nicaragua; the country would open my eyes to realities that I was far too innocent to ever believe without firsthand experience. Once I came to understand that Nicaraguans were human beings, just like you and me, my capacity for empathy was awakened.
AFTER ARRIVING IN NICARAGUA our student group visited Granada, Matagalpa, Esteli, Masaya, and Leon. Everywhere we went, faded monochromatic photographs of boys and men with haunting, desperate stares covered the walls of the cities as tributes to the war dead. Their wives and mothers spoke with us, crying as they told their stories of life and death. The cost of Nicaragua’s “cold war” in human lives was officially 60,000. But the true cost can never be known, as this nation hasn’t yet recovered from its violent past, and the damage has persisted like a curse. It is present every minute of every day in the lives of modern day Nicaraguans.
At a Christian-based community meeting in Managua, the participants sang to us a poignant song and their voices echoed eerily in the sparsely furnished room. “It is not enough to pray,” they sang, “because even the pilots were praying when they went off to bomb Vietnam” Yet, as U.S. citizens, we were met with only kindness and acceptance. We were never judged or mistreated. Our hosts embraced us and treated us like part of their community. Philosopher and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz wrote, “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.” The Nicaraguans that we met gifted us with the truest forgiveness that I could imagine.
By the end of the Contra War in the late 1980s the goal of ousting the Sandinistas had been accomplished, but at what cost? The loss clearly affects all Nicaraguans but most notably the poor. “It’s always, ‘There’s no milk, there’s no soap, there’s no sugar, there’s no toilet paper, I don’t have money to buy oil, my kid got sick, I don’t have money to take him to the doctor, there’s no medicine in the hospitals.'” recounted Blanca Obando Fonseca in the Witness For Peace publication, A High Price to Pay.
DURING OUR TOUR THERE, every weekday morning a few of the wealthier children from our neighborhood could be seen carrying their chairs back and forth to their school rooms. It was a curious sight to see how they had learned to balance the old wooden chairs on their heads without letting the heavy burden change their gait. The poorer children didn’t have chairs to bring, or even paper and pencils. They walked empty handed.
Along those same trash-strewn streets grown men sold their wares from tiny carts, a lifetime of accumulated hardships having taken a toll on their physical and emotional beings. They hunched their shoulders to reach the metal handles of their carts as they rang their bells to advertise the “Eskimos,” or ice cream treats, they had for sale. Their families were hungry. Would there be enough money to buy food, medicine, clothes, they worried?
Father Joseph Mulligan, S.J., who has served the poor in Nicaragua for more than eighteen years, is constantly confronted with these harsh realities facing the poor. About a year ago he accompanied a poor man with a serious hand injury to the hospital trauma center. Once there, he recounted, “The doctor told us we had to go first to an x-ray clinic about two kilometers away to get x-rays, which I paid for. When we returned, the doctor said he would stitch the wound but we had to provide a surgical kit containing thread, gloves, bandages, and the rest. He himself happened to have one, which he sold us! If the man had gone to the hospital alone, he probably would have had to spend a day or two trying to borrow the money he needed.” Some Nicaraguans die waiting in vain for rudimentary medical care that they can’t afford to purchase.
INVOLVEMENT IN THE SERVICE Learning Semester included volunteer work in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, where our group was based. Three times each week I left the bustle of navigable, paved Managua streets and continued on foot over the dusty, deeply rutted dirt road that led to El Recreo’s community center. On my way I leapt across streams of raw sewage running through this destitute neighborhood. Some of the children couldn’t make it across the sewage and fell into the sludge, crying.
El Recreo was a bleak reminder of the ongoing economic suffering in Nicaragua and the direct impact both the war and the subsequent lack of development has had on the poor. Homes were shockingly insubstantial; no self-respecting American farmer would even coop chickens in such objectionable structures. Women worked from sunup to sundown to try to provide for their families. At their feet cried their malnourished children, some advertising their slow starvation by the telltale orange tint they wore in their hair.
The weeks passed and I became quite close to many who attended the community center’s nutrition program, especially Roberto and his mother, Mariela. Roberto was ten months old with curly black hair and expressive
eyes. I always looked forward to bouncing him on my hip and making him coo. Mariela knew that I loved him. One day as the semester was drawing to a close, she timidly asked, “Will you take him home with you to America?”
Her eyes scanned my face for my reaction. “I am too young for a baby,” I told her. “He needs to grow up with you, his mother.”
She didn’t respond to my comments but I still wonder what she was thinking.
Over the years I have thought about Roberto a thousand times, bringing tears to my eyes. Where is he now? What kind of person could he have become had he had real opportunities? According to the 2004 Index of Economic Freedom, Nicaragua’s per capita annual income is only $474, while its national debt is greater than $5.8 billion. As a result, the government spends a pittance on human development such as education, health care, sanitation, and nutrition. Most experts agree that there is very little likelihood that Nicaragua will ever pay off its crippling debt.
Today, as my mind wanders back to the streets of Nicaragua, I see the skeletal remains of buildings from a bygone era, dirty squatters’ settlements on the fringes of the city dump, tiny babies listless with hunger, and child laborers working as if their lives depended on the next five-cent sale. Is the Nicaragua of today all that the Contras and their American backers had planned to accomplish?
Yet despite all of this hardship and pain, Nicaraguan neighbors greet one another with smiles, an embrace, and a kiss to the cheek. A new day dawns over the stirring landscape, illuminating a bit of poetry scrawled on a street-front stucco wall:
I cannot remain silent,
I cannot remain indifferent before
the suffering of so many people.
No, I cannot remain silent.
I cannot remain silent; I’m going to
forgive my friends.
But I have a promise, and I have to sing
When not living abroad, Michelle Bargo resides in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a freelance writer with a master’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders.
COPYRIGHT 2005 American Humanist Association
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group