Tour Of Duty
issue 156 | February 1986
issue 156 | February 1986
Tour of duty
MY first attempt to get from Ocotal to Matagalpa is a fiasco. I have been told that the express bus for the first lap of the journey will leave at 7.00am. And sure enough it does. What I have not been told is that I should have bought a ticket two days ago. The hotel waiter who has served me dinner for the last two days has got a ticket and takes his place with more than a little satisfaction that the tables have been turned - sitting comfortably, while I am left on the pavement with my bags.
Back to the hotel for breakfast. The American tour party that arrived yesterday - in their smart TurNica minibus - is just surfacing. The tour is organized by Marge Lorty, a heftily built American doctor who, for reasons I never do work out, divides her time between Nicaragua, California and Whitstable in the UK.
'I've organized seven of these trips in the last two years,' she tells me. 'Just take along anybody who wants to come. Let people see Nicaragua, for themselves.'
And where are you going today?... Just out of interest... Matagalpa. Really?... Coincidence... Exactly where I was going... Terrible cock-up with the buses... Any chance...?
'Sure, be glad to have you along. There'll be a couple of stops along the way though. Might not be there till lunchtime'. (I wouldn't have got there before dusk on the local buses.)
The first stop is the hospital in Ocotal. 'Marge has us give blood in every hospital we pass,' says Robert, who describes himself as 'an estate manager for a very rich man'.
He's the first volunteer on this occasion. The second is Aaron, a 17-year old student. The third is Fred, who helps organise the tours. And the fourth is Marge herself. Anybody who isn't anaemic, isn't taking medication and hasn't had any nasty diseases is welcome. I have to excuse myself on at least one count.
While the blood is flowing I take a look around the hospital. This is where a lot of the war casualties come: about 30 a month they say, though it seems pretty quiet now. Elder Moncada, the X-ray technician, shows me his Siemens equipment, which he says has been here since the hospital was opened 40 years ago - and is frequently breaking down. The plate that holds the film, for example, is covered in marks which the doctors have to mentally subtract in order to work out what is inside the patient and what is not. I've been a bit sceptical about sending second-hand medical equipment to the Third World, but I'm beginning to see there's a case to be made.
'It's a first-class hospital,' says Marge, 'I've been treated here myself.'
'What was that for?' I ask.
'Oh, I was wounded, while I was working up in the border area. They really treat you well here.'
The rest of the party, a mixture of students and professional people, young and old, about 15 in number, all seemed to be getting a lot out of the trip, and enjoying themselves. 'I can say I gave my blood for the Sandinistas,' says Aaron. Well, I can vouch for that.
Their next stop is the Luis Hernandez Aguilar Agricultural Mechanization School, which is more interesting than it sounds. The person who greets us on arrival is as oily and greasy as you'd expect a machining instructor to be. She introduces herself as Marina; she's from New York.
'The school's job,' she says, 'is to give people in the co-operatives some idea of how to look after things like tractors, which they might not have worked with before. There's one story of a whole consignment of Russian tractors which were ruined by being driven off the ship with no oil in them.'
Round the back of the building I can see the debris from the wooden crates that held some of the US 'Tools for Peace' shipment. Oxfam-America managed to talk their way around the trade embargo, on the grounds, reasonably enough, that this was humanitarian aid. All the hammers and the files have already been distributed to nearby farmers.
The school's director, Apolinar Altimirano, gives a formal speech of welcome to his visitors. 'A lot of the people in America are asleep,' he says. 'They accuse us of being communist, of being totalitarian. That's why it's important that people come here to see the truth that this is a country where democracy is just beginning to be constructed.'
The tour bus drops me off in Matagalpa an hour or so later and I must say I feel quite sad about this, even though I've only been with them a couple of hours. But I've got my own, personal, more disorganised tour to continue with.
Matagalpa turns out be a disappointment: a lot of the people I want to meet are away from the city. So the next day I take a day trip to Susuli, a couple of hours away by bus. A week or so ago I was invited to visit Joannie, an American Medical Sister I met in Managua.
Getting there is pretty uneventful, though there is a very entertaining gent packed next to me in the bus. He keeps taking sips from a polythene bag of a clear liquid I take to be water (very sensible, it does get very warm in buses) but he is singing at the top of his voice by the time I get off.
Joannie seems a bit stunned to see me appear, but takes the interruption very well. One of the other sisters, an Italian called Magda, is holding a workshop for the health brigadistas. After I've been there a couple of minutes, a man comes in screaming and covered in blood. It takes me a while to work out that this is a demonstration and he's faking it - I think I'm definitely a bit slow today.
After the drama I get a chance to talk to Gregoria Molinares, who seems to be one of the most experienced brigadistas - the kind of person who is getting a lot out of the revolution, and who is putting a lot into it too (see the box below).
Back reluctantly to Matagalpa the next day and I can see there's some kind of open air-event in the fire station. A military character is making a speech and row upon row of men (and a few women) are listening very attentively. There are quite a few soldiers about, but then there always are. It looks like a presentation, a few gold watches being handed out perhaps.
Closer up I realise that the audience is not so much captive as captured: they are prisoners. And what they are listening to is a litany of their misdeeds.
'.There are people here who are ex-National Guard, speculators, tinkers counter-revolutionary elements... There's Juan Lopez an ex-Guard whose wife is now in the open prison...'
They are being accused of forming an underground network of support for the contras. The speaker is Commandante Ubede, a Sandinista leader, and he's brought his catch here for the benefit of the assembled press.
The evidence is on display too: incriminating letters targeting some of the CDS leaders in Matagalpa for assassination, captured rifles and ammunition and the charred remains of some contra leaflets with a crude likeness of Cardinal Obando y Bravo.
'... These people had been planning kidnappings and other counter-revolutionary acts in the city of Matagalpa . . . they were going to set off hand-grenades in public places.'
Another of the accusations was aimed at the 'evangelicals and Jehovah's Witnesses', who, it is claimed, have been persuading young men to avoid military service.
'Take the case of this boy Ali Vargas (Ali Vargas is asked to stand up for identification) ... who was housed in an evangelical church and then taken up into the mountains.'
The assembled press so far is entirely local: Radio Sandino, Sandinista TV, Barricada, Nuevo Diario. But about halfway through a Russian TV crew arrives, and then an ABC cameraman from the USA who like me has stumbled across this show while looking for something else. The members of the press are now invited to interview the 'unfortunate' Ali, which they (well we, I suppose) all do with some relish.
He tells of a network of people who planned to get him out of the country. But says he doesn't think they were linked with the contras. Confession over, the Commandante steps in to announce that Ali will now be set free so that he can serve his country.
The rest of the detainees are less fortunate: they will have to face trial. The press are now let loose to interview any of the prisoners they choose. Allowing the accused to be interviewed on TV is common enough in Latin American countries, though I still find it difficult to get used to - a bit like kicking someone when they are down.
I suppose I should do my duty, so I select one at random. His name is Federico Lopez Granado. He comes from Jinotega and he's eager to talk.
'It was the beginning of last month. The contras came to me because I had been involved in the overthrow of the Guard. They said if I didn't co-operate they would put me on the death list of the Commandante they call 'Champion'. They forced me to collaborate, to give them food.
'I feel really bad about being captured now - my wife is in great need. She's about to give birth to a child and I've got to take her to hospital and look after her - she's very delicate.
'I've already been in detention for a month and I still have to go on trial. The authorities must get the proof that will show I am innocent. I'm honest and law-abiding. I've never done anything to anyone, never killed anyone.'