issue 180 - February 1988
Sunday, bloody Sunday
Suddenly war has come to the little Nicaraguan village of Muelle do los Bucyos.
Father John Medcalf reports on these, the worst days of his life.
The last few days have been the worst of my life so far. Our village has been attacked by over 500 well-equipped contras. The battle began at three in the morning and continued uninterrupted until past daybreak.
The din of mortars, machine-guns and ricocheting shrapnel was horrendous as our attackers penetrated simultaneously at three different points - the high road, at the bridge over Monkey River and at Death Canyon. They were probably trying to blow up the bridge.
The contras surged into several of the village streets, where we heard them shouting defiant angry slogans ('We don't want your amnesty!'). The Sandinistas were forced into a temporary retreat but returned later with reinforcements to do battle in the streets. The bridge was saved and the contras eventually dispersed when their supply of ammunition came to an end.
We opened up the parish hall to the wounded and dead which were brought in from all parts of the village. Our canvas stretcher-beds were quickly drenched with blood, because we used them for the worst wounded - the others had to be laid on the tiled floor.
I have so many indelible impressions of that day: of cutting a soldier's clothes off his body with scissors as he screamed with pain; of a young man seizing my hand with an iron grip as he groaned 'I'm dying - I can't bear the pain'; of a baby girl less than two years old just staring ahead as the blood soaked into her clothes, of the terrible vacant look caused by shell-shock on the faces of teenage soldiers; of the stench of human excrement, urine and blood as the nurses and nuns struggled to clean up the patients. There were more than 30 gravely injured, and 20 dead. That morning seemed endless as we waited for an ambulance to transport the most urgent cases to the hospital.
At around two that afternoon one Sandinista driver discovered the dead bodies of three contras near the bridge. He was so angry he strung them up in the back of his open lorry, head downwards, like sides of beef bound for some unhygienic market.
Though they understood his fury, many villagers protested as he drove through the streets with the almost-naked bodies waving grotesquely.
I spoke to the mayor and we decided to give them a proper Christian burial in the village cemetery. There were no more coffins available, but by four o'clock we had buried the soldiers, wrapped in plastic sheeting. A rustic cross marks the grave.
It was just four months ago that I met my first contras face to face. I had been visiting villages to the north of the parish. They must have been watching from a hilltop as I rode towards them because suddenly I was surrounded by a company of about 40 soldiers, all aged between 17 and 18 years. One held up a Bible and a rosary, but none spoke until an older man, their commanding officer, strode up with an outstretched hand which I shook without enthusiasm.
He spoke with a deference that was almost fawning: they were fighting to save their country from an atheistic dictatorship. Nobody desired peace more than these loyal sons of the Catholic Church. Their victory against the Soviet Sandinistas was inevitable.
I remained seated on my mule, uncomfortably aware that my every gesture and expression was being carefully observed. The slightest word of encouragement would have elicited wild cheering. I felt.
Looking back I wish I'd been more courageous. I told them that the Sandinista soldiers were also Catholics, were also fighting for their country were also longing for peace. I urged them to listen to the voice of their individual conscience. And I suppose the general coldness of my tone conveyed my disapproval of their activities. Then I looked at my watch, pretended to be surprised at the lateness of the hour, and dug both spurs into the flanks of the mule, hoping to God that a bullet would not follow my hasty departure.
Two or three hundred villagers kept me busy that evening. All the prayers were for peace and those who were fighting - in both armies.
Afterwards while the congregation said the rosary, praying for an end to the war, I heard individual confessions - confessions in wartime are particularly painful and I find the experience more harrowing that any other of my duties as a priest. When the last penitent left I strolled to the back of the chapel and was surprised to see three young contra soldiers gazing rather wistfully in through the door - as if they felt unworthy to set foot inside.
Father John Metcalf is a British priest working on a rural liberties project in Nicaragua.