issue 156 | February 1986
DIRECTIONS in Nicaragua are very vague. Ask anyone the way and the answer is usually: 'Over there and round the corner'. If anyone asks me for directions I no longer excuse myself as a stranger but just say 'Over there and round the corner' and they walk off quite happily.
In Ocotal, a town on the border with Honduras, I ask the way to the police station and get so confused as to which building it is that I go in by the back door and finish up behind the counter, looking down on the duty officer who is reading Barricada in the waiting room.
'How did you get there?,' he asks suspiciously.
'Well, they said it was round that corner, so that's the way I came.'
I'm not sure he believes me, but he doesn't seem too upset and soon recovers his composure. 'So what do you want?'
I explain roughly what I'm doing: that I've come to the border to talk to the local garrison. Somebody suggested I should check in here first, so they don't think I'm from the CIA.
'Yes!' he says. 'Quite right. This is a high-security area; we have to keep track on people's movements.' At this point he produces what looks like a large exercise book and starts to fire off a long series of questions. These include my entire movements since I entered the country, all of which are written down in a random order. Where have I been, who have I spoken to, what have they said? He is obviously playing all of this by ear and enjoying himself enormously. When inspiration starts to flag, I add a few unsolicited details, just stopping short at my inside leg measurement.
'Now, who is it you want to see in Ocotal?' I show him my letter of introduction from the Ministry of Defence, which he copies word for word. Apart from talking to the Army, I say I will just chat with anyone I meet in the street. Not at all a good idea, he thinks. 'They might give you the wrong impression. Who knows what they might say?' 'That would make it all the more interesting,' I say. But I do manage to steer him away from this. And in the end we have a long philosophical discussion, the content of which I have entirely forgotten.
Ocotal is a very pleasant, compact and friendly little town, remarkable considering what a tense location this is. The 312th Brigade has its headquarters here, so it has more than its average share of soldiers on the street. I still can't get over how friendly and welcoming the soldiers are. They'll embrace you like an old friend after a one-minute conversation. And that's true all over Nicaragua - quite unlike most other countries in Latin America, where the temptation is to cross the road if you see a military uniform ahead.
Diego Martinez, the local Army Commander, is responsible for 120 kilometres of the border with Honduras. His headquarters is in a rambling old house that does not look as though it was built to withstand the impact of a thousand army boots. Quite a few of the soldiers (men) seem to be wandering round with hammers while others, (women) are mopping the floors. A vast map of the border area covers one complete wall of his office.
'All those blue flags show infringements by the Honduran airforce. At present we don't have that many problems with the contras themselves. It's not that they don't want to attack. It's just that our security system keeps them out.
'Besides we've got the support of the people. Historically this is a very revolutionary zone. Sandino was here. Many of the colonels of Sandino's army came from here. The revolution had started here long before the Triumph.'
How about the soldiers?, I wonder. For many people military service does not seem that popular. Some young people are even leaving the country to evade it.
'It's a small minority, influenced by imperialist propaganda and deceived by the counter-revolution. And since most of them are from bourgeois families it's more of a problem in Managua than in this zone. In fact around here we see more people coming back and giving themselves up.'
'There's a law of amnesty here. Anyone who wants to turn themselves in can go back to their homes; they can go back to work. The contras are not all bad people. Often they are just campesinos who have been deceived. And the revolution believes that anyone can change.
I go down to the army training school at the edge of Ocotal to see the recruits in action. A couple of boys on sentry duty check my papers. 'England!, ah the Beatles!': time to do my bit for cultural interchange. I think I am communicating quite well until one of them asks what language we speak in England.
The language inside the camp is vivid. One barracks sports a mural of an American eagle being crushed by the boot of a Nicaraguan soldier. And on the notice board, over a picture of President Reagan at his most grandfatherly they had placed the caption: 'Reagan - the bastard'.
The chief activity on the parade ground is of two or three boy soldiers trying to grab hold of an errant donkey. But round the perimeter, columns of heavily laden recruits are puffing past. There are others on the basketball courts doing an endless series of press-ups and behind the barracks they are continually digging and filling in trenches - a reminder that, apart from needing courage to be a soldier, it helps to be young and strong.
Back in the centre of Ocotal, I'm walking down the main street when I hear somebody shouting 'Peter! Peter!' from a couple of blocks away. Who on earth would know me here? The figure peddling furiously towards me on his bike is our friendly but inquisitive local cop. After the usual pleasantries he wants to know, sure enough, where I am going now. Fortunately I have a plausible reply for once - I'm going to the MED. The Ministry of Education, that is - or at least the zonal office.
Education is another of the casualties of Nicaragua's war, as more money and more people are absorbed by the Army. And for the children around here the problems are particularly acute. Miriam Olivas in the MED office points out that not every teacher can be persuaded to work in as dangerous an area as this.
'That's why most of the teachers are people who have been selected from the villages themselves. It's better for the community too, since they are often suspicious of new people.
'But one of the biggest problems now is shortage of materials. You'll see children working with tiny stubs of pencil and rubbing their mistakes out with saliva because they don't have rubbers.'
I ask about text books and she shows me some of the ones which have been revised since the revolution. They are mostly printed abroad, since there are no colour presses in Nicaragua - some in Mexico and others in Cuba and East Germany. There have been complaints that the Sandinistas use the education system for indoctrination. A quick glance showed that the reading books did say that 'g is for guerilla'. But g is for guerilla - and they seemed very innocuous otherwise.
'In any case,' said Miriam Olivas, 'you have to teach children about the world around them. They have to know what a co-operative is. They have to know what an expendio - a distribution centre - is.'
'Why,' I ask 'do most of the bookstores seem full of weighty Russian tomes?' You will see entire walls stacked to the ceiling with 25-volume sets of the works of Lenin. (They're very slow movers by the looks of it - though people do buy the latest edition of glossy magazines like Soviet Woman.)
'They're all donated by the Soviet Union' says Miriam. If President Reagan really wants to subvert Nicaragua, he should spend some of his 27 million dollars shipping the Spanish edition of Readers Digest.
From the MED I head for a school to the north of the city. This really is a beautiful part of the country. We're surrounded by steep green mountains and thick white clouds sit on them like carefully placed pillows.
But I should pay more attention to where I'm going. A baseball comes whistling past my ear. I suppose the kids have as much right to play baseball on the Pan-American Highway as I have to walk on it - probably more. And they do swear they aren't aiming at me.
The director of the school, Judith Ponce, has that look of distracted calm common to primary school teachers the world over. Most of her children are screaming round the patch of land between the two buildings. Some are inside playing jacks and others are reading, lying on the floor, in a classroom that seems to have no furniture at all. We retreat to her little room at the back for a conversation. (See box.)
There's the usual pandemonium when I produce a camera: everyone wants to take a picture of everyone else. 'Me next, me next!'
Everyone gets their turn. Generous of me, I think, to expose the NI's camera to such dangers - perhaps we should think of it as an investment in future Anglo-Nicaraguan relations.
I leave the school, however, to cries of 'Adios gringo!' Perhaps they haven't yet had their lessons on internationalism.