issue 159 - May 1986
God on their side
I'M working in Cristo Redentor parish, in a small town called Meulle de los Bueyes (means: Ox-ford, but there are no university spires) on the chief link road between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
This area was the main focus of combat towards the end of last year between the Sandinista army and the US-backed contras. On one occasion I had been scheduled to say Mass at 2pm in the village of Cara de Mono, but the contras got there first. At 12.30 about 100 heavily armed mercenaries burst out of the tropical rain-forest and tried to capture the village. There was heavy cross-fire immediately behind the Catholic chapel, and the first to die was Ivan Torres, a 17-year old villager fighting with the Sandinistas. From the parish house here in Muelle, only 10 km from Cara de Mono, we clearly heard the machine-gun fire.
Fr Jose Curcio (the parish priest) and myself reached the village at 3.30pm and discovered that the mercenaries had been driven off; 19 of them had been killed and many others severely wounded. The Sandinista Air Force had sent in three small reconnaissance planes and two troop-carrier helicopters, and the village resembled an outsized wasp-nest. My most poignant memory of that Sunday afternoon was the horrified grief of the young brothers of Ivan Torres, whose head had been blown off by a grenade.
The village catechist ('delegate of the Word' is the official title here in Central America) is a woman who also belongs to the Sandinista police. She described how her house was surrounded by a group of contras and how she repelled the attack single-handed with a sub-machine gun. Her prompt action must have saved the village from a blood-bath.
The following month I returned. The small chapel was crowded: armed soldiers from the ragged Sandinista army, lots of children sitting on the cool tiled floor, the few benches occupied by the village elders. And Ivan's mother was there. It was one of the most joyful religious celebrations I have known. Two guitarists accompanied the singing of the moving 'campesino mass' - the text gives a dazzling portrayal of the flora and fauna of this country of volcanoes, lakes and tropical rainforest with the Risen Christ right at the centre, living in the hearts and faces of the three and a half million human beings who struggle for survival. There is nothing comparable that I know of in the English language.
I had expected to find the people of Cara de Mono despondent after all they had gone through in 1985. I didn't yet know the Nicaraguan spirit. They were proud of the resistance they had shown to the contras.
The dialogue we had was buoyant.
'They thought we had yellow livers, but we had them running like centipedes!'
'The other villagers won't laugh at us in the future'. ('Cara de Mono' means 'Monkey face', so they had reason to laugh).
'Ivan Torres was like Jesus Christ; he died, but he's flying here present among us today. It's not how long you live that matters, it's how you live and how you die.'
What really amazes me ii the spirit of optimism in these people, in spite of a war that is far from finished. Hope was born for them on the 19th July 1979, when for the first time in their history the Christian principles of justice in which they believe were suddenly within the grasp of the entire nation.
Not everybody here supports the Sandinista Government of course. Most of the shop-keepers and commercial travellers have seen their living standards eroded, and would welcome a change at the top. It Is not difficult, however, to discern that a large majority of the population supports the present leadership. In the most carefully monitored of Latin American elections the Sandinistas polled just over two thirds of the vote. Even the third who did not support them would not all be in favour of a violent overthrow of the elected government; there is a parliamentary opposition which is consulted on a wide range of affairs.
In many ways we are living from one day to the next, without a clear vision of the way things will work out. The massive involvement of the US. In trying to destroy what it regards as communism is yet another major error on the part of the Reagan administration. The silence and compliance of most of the Nicaraguan Bishops is perhaps no worse than the performance of the German Bishops when faced with Nazism 50 years ago, but it is equally unpalatable.
Who is to condemn our deacons and catechists for taking up arms to defend their families and their freedom? Does 61-year old Father Curcio act wrongly by publicly declaring his readiness to fight alongside the youths of his parish against the American invaders? I don't think so.
I am sure that in war-torn Nicaragua, and in all of Central America, God has taken sides, just as he took the side of the enslaved Hebrews in Ancient Egypt. God is visible in the face of the poor who are struggling for a better life, a life without fear and hunger.
Father John Medcalf is a British priest working on a project to set up rural libraries in Nicaragua.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7