Letters (a year later)

Transcribed verbatim from a handwritten letter. Since it is my own handwriting, I can still read it 35 years later.

Early February, 1988, El Esquirín, Nicaragua

I am in a war zone. This year there is no mistaking that. It is only 11 months since I was here last, just 10-15 miles down the road, but it is another world.

As the congressional vote on Contra aid approaches, the war situation worsens. Each time Congress is approached w/ an aid request, a new Contra offensive is mounted to show legitimacy and effectiveness in order to “justify” additional aid.

Two weeks ago, 2 co-operatives and a state-owned farm were attacked in pre-dawn raids. At one co-op, all of the houses were burned to the ground – houses built with Italian aid. At the other, the main house was destroyed, leaving several families homeless. At the state farm, 4 houses were burned. In these attacks the Contra killed 15 and wounded 58; all civilians. I doubt that you heard this on the 6 o’clock news or read it in the paper. It happened near here.

Security is stepped up everywhere. If I go down to the river to wash clothes, I have to return at 4:30 because of Contra sightings along the river. They took advantage of the government’s unilateral cease-fire to enter the country from Honduras.

Vigilance has been stepped up, with nightly patrols increased. As of today, all farm production has been halted in order to devote full time to defense needs. All brush is being cleared from the area around the houses & tents to improve sight lines. A shelter is being built to protect us in case of a mortar attack. (In the usual pattern, a farming co-op is “softened up” by mortar fire before troops actually move in. “Softening up” means to cause injury, occupying people in caring for the wounded, destroy homes, and strike terror in the hearts of the people. This makes it easier for the Contra to attack without encountering resistance.) Finally, a network of trenches is being dug so people can move around and communicate during an attack.

Parallel to the plans for the co-op are the plans for the brigade. If at all possible, we will be evacuated prior to an attack. Our evacuation plan is being drawn up this week. The Nicaraguans do not want to see U.S. citizens injured in an attack. If danger is near, we will be moved out. On the other hand, unless U.S. strategy has changed, the Contra will not attack while we are here. [Ed. Note: Each of us had a “Go Bag” with us at all times in case of an emergency evacuation.]

Last weekend we went to the town of Matiguás to help with their defense system. We were digging trenches and shelters to protect the town. Groups worked on the edge of town in all directions, in beautiful hills. The combination of the breathtaking scenery & the warm companionship w/ the knowledge that this was not a Sunday picnic but preparation for survival was powerful.

Recent intelligence reports reveal a Contra plan to simultaneously attack 4 towns and cities in this area. Matiguás is one of them, as is Muy Muy. These are the 2 towns nearest to us.

In Matiguás I stayed in a small subdivision on the edge of town. The people of the neighborhood put us up in their homes & fed us. A few of us went to a wedding reception on Saturday and were fed there as well.

The work was a volunteer project of the entire neighborhood. A wide variety of people came out to work on Saturday. At noon Gordy wished out loud for a beer. Instantly, a case of beer appeared, being carried over the hill. Lunch soon followed. Over lunch I talked with a local woman. She, like most of the adults in the community, takes responsibility for vigilance once a week. This means she stays up all night to be on the lookout for a possible attack. This doesn’t mean she gets the next day off from work.

After a few beers and lunch we went back to work.

Sunday mostly kids came out to work – a large contingent of 6-12 year old girls – an army unit also helped out. (The army seems to function a lot like the CCC [ed. note: Civilian Conservation Corps] did during the U.S. depression.)

When it was time for us to leave for a meeting, a neighborhood organizer called for a break & we all gathered on a hilltop for a closing ceremony. We were thanked for our help, support, and solidarity. We had done a lot of digging, much of it through rock.

He also apologized for the primitive living conditions & observed that maybe, being from the United States with all its privileges (and the source of the funds & leadership for the attack we were preparing for), it was a good experience for us to have gone through. I agreed.

We were invited back and asked if, next time, we could bring bats and gloves to help them start a Little League in the barrio. Whaddaya say? Got any baseball equipment I can bring next time?

[Ed note: some time has passed, but the letter isn’t dated here.]

Today has been wild. It has rained most of the last 2 days & everything is a sea of mud. It is too slippery to drive the trucks, so we carried the milling equipment out of the woods. It’s difficult to walk, slipping and sliding, w/ 5 lbs of mud on each boot. O, for my 4-buckle rubber galoshes! After work I wrung out every piece of clothing as I took it off. It has rained part of every day for a week. I haven’t shaved or gotten clean in 3 days. My tent stays dry, thank goddess and North Face.

Also today, a woman on the co-op was thrown from & dragged by a mule. 3 brigadistas & the truck took her to the hospital in Matagalpa after administering first aid. She has apparent head & hip injuries. If we were not here, would she have lived? I don’t know. There are no vehicles in this community of 150 people.

With no truck, our work will change tomorrow. No lumber, no water (for construction), no sand & gravel. We’ll carry drinking water by hand ¼ mile.

Then there are the fleas. They’re everywhere but seldom seen. Tonight, in the one room w/ electricity (for 2 ½ hours each evening) I’ve seen & killed 3. They seem to be worse in this room than anywhere else. Oops, we just ran out of gas for the generator. Now I’m writing by kerosene lamp. The rain has stopped and the crickets are singing.

4 Feb

Word came today that the House defeated the Contra aid bill. The news was greeted by a round of cheers which quickly subsided as we realized that it may mean little. When the Boland Amendment forbade aid to the Contra, the Executive Branch went to great lengths to break the law, then cover its track. When that failed they pretended, successfully, that the law didn’t apply to them. Since the Administration & the secret government were so successful at funding & directing the Contra when it was forbidden, why should we hope that mere non-approval of an aid bill should stop them?

Then we remembered the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, when the Exec Branch lied outright, fabricating an international incident to “justify” a major invasion of Viet Nam. With only a year to go in the Reagan presidency, what are the chances of a phony incident, like Tonkin Gulf, like the Nov ’84 “MiG shipment” to Nicaragua, “requiring” a direct U.S. intervention here?

Sat 6 Feb

The storm has lifted. My spirits too. The mountains, heavy with mist, have looked like a Chinese brush painting when they were visible this week. Now the sun shines and they glow a brilliant green. The mud has dried up & it is warm & breezy. Today we worked only ½ day, and it is tranquil. A flock of parrots flew by earlier, and I feel like I’m in a tropical paradise. Sunsets have been beautiful almost every night. The moon is just past full. Such are the contrasts in this life.

Don’t get me wrong. While the war has come closer & life has gotten harder, it is still a joy to be here. Work is progressing well, I’m healthy and dry (except my feet), the people I work with are great, & I understand Nicaraguan campesino Spanish much better than last year.

Thank you for working to defeat Contra aid. Its passage would have greatly damaged morale here. Keep up the work on the home front & I’ll keep it up here. I hope to be back in the U.S. refreshed, renewed, and ready to work this summer. See you then.

This became our unofficial theme song. “The sound of gunfire off in the distance/I’m getting used to it now.” We awoke at 4:30 AM to the sound of mortar fire off in the distance in the days leading up to the Contra aid vote. Like the gallows humor at the hospital many years later, it lightened things up a bit.