Some Birds with Clipped Wings Still Fly
They're young, for the most part, like the others. But they're different. A war they didn't seek—none had ambitions to be a hero—ripped a piece out of their body and their soul.
During the Sandinista years, although their pensions were scant and life was much more difficult for them than for others, the government found ways to give them a little extra. Even after the economic crisis generated by the war forced it to modify its policy of free medicine and medical care for the population as a whole, veterans with disabilities remained exempt. The government also provided many of them with a little urban lot to build a house on or a tiny farm where they could earn a living with help from family or friends, or, in other cases, retraining courses with a guaranteed job at the end—in short, something to help ease their burden with some dignity.
If material benefits were scarce, moral recognition abounded. In their speeches, Sandinista leaders eulogized these youth. And in commemorative events or rallies to support the besieged revolution, they occupied positions of honor with their wheelchairs, their crutches or their dark glasses and white cane.
And behind them, they felt, came a whole population that supported and appreciated them.
But then came the FSLN's electoral defeat, and the young veterans faced a disconcerting new reality: the cause for which they had given more than their life was rejected by the same population they had defended. Once they broke through their stupefaction, they discovered something even more terrible: no one wanted anything to do with them anymore. They were no longer lauded as heroes, but shunned as a living denunciation: their disabilities accused the guilty.
And the guilty don't like being accused, less still when they are powerful. They think that, with just a pinch of their fingers, they can snuff out the flame of the thousands of disabled from both sides, because both are victims of the same lash.
With the March 1991 monetary change, the small pension for war-injured veterans shrank to an insult. The food subsidies that had at least filled their stomachs have disappeared, as has the free medical care. Some have been thrown off the lots that had been adjudicated to them, and the tiny house they nailed together with great difficulty for themselves and their family has been bulldozed.
If that weren't enough, the neoliberal economic adjustments applied by the new government violently reduced the job market. The state bureaucracy slashed its payroll, and many state-run companies closed their doors altogether so they could later be privatized without the nuisance of dealing with an organized work force. Even the most able-bodied had trouble finding work; for those with physical limitations, job prospects were nl.
Suddenly, a new battle was thrust upon these veterans of war; the battle against abandonment. It is perhaps more difficult than the war they just fought; there are no generals and no defined strategy to guide them, and the weapons are intangible. It is also a much more insidious war, because the enemy outside often finds an ally within, echoing the message that they should just surrender to their physical, and often emotional, trauma. But most of these young men are a special breed; they once fought for a cause they considered—and in the majority of cases still do—to be a just one. And they're still fighters. Their youthful passion pushes them do battle against a society they know is still unjust. That society is trying to push them aside, but they are determined to occupy their rightful space. This is the story of a handful of these young men who are fighting for that space. It is also the story of a program at the Instituto Histórico Centroamericano (IHCA), which is dedicated to supporting the physical, spiritual, emotional and economic rehabilitation of veterans with permanent injuries.
Economic dependence: A disability with a cure One of the many legacies of the US-sponsored war is an estimated 10,000 Nicaraguans with disabilities. But Nicaraguan society, itself weakened and ill, does not see people with disabilities as useful; it has virtually lost its ability to assimilate anything "different." Worse yet if they fought on the side of the revolution. Because of their disability, or because of their presumed political affiliation, or for both reasons, few take them into consideration, either socially or economically.
The roots of discrimination against people with disabilities reach deep in Nicaragua, even among its victims themselves. One of the most tenacious roots emanates from traditional religion, which sees such disabilities as "punishment from God."
The struggle to change this consciousness is in its infancy in Nicaragua, and the fight to make public places accessible for people with disabilities has not even begun. At best, a few public buildings have wheelchair ramps alongside their staircases, but the potholes and open drains in the sidewalk-less streets are treacherous even for those who have the use of all their faculties.
But, at least for now, some of the worst manifestations of the economic and psychological problems faced by people with disabilities can be mitigated by reducing their dependence on others—a tough challenge given Nicaragua's ongoing economic crisis. In 1987, IHCA accepted this challenge when it began working directly those who had suffered permanent injuries defending their country.
As a first task, IHCA workers conducted a survey to learn more about this special group. (See envío, Vol. 7, No. 85, July 1988, "The War Disabled—Wounds Still to Heal," for more on this initial investigation.) One result was the discovery that their average educational level was third grade. If one of IHCA's goals was to help them become more economically independent, teaching them a skill was an obvious imperative.
A second survey thus set out to find out what trades they wanted to learn, as well as what society needed and demanded. Auto mechanics topped the list for the urban veterans and agricultural mechanics for those from the rural areas; learning how to operate these vehicles was also a high priority for both. Since these interests dovetailed with Nicaragua's need for skilled driver-mechanics, IHCA created the Leonel Rugama Driving and Mechanics School.
Writing straight on a crooked line Many of the youth who passed through this boarding school had joined the insurrectionary struggle in their early teens, then defended their country for four, five, six or more years, never thinking about themselves, never taking time to study—and never seeing this sacrifice as heroic in itself. Their disability was particularly hard for the youngest men, since the only thing they knew how to do was fight for their country and their revolution.
Since their reduced physical capacities made that impossible now, they believed that they were no longer good for anything.
Oscar Espinoza had lost his left arm at the shoulder. But the real impairment was in his soul; he couldn't accept his new reality. On the first day he fortressed himself behind impenetrable isolation and muteness. He only left his room to attend class and was terrified of communicating with his classmates, even though they, too, had permanent injuries.
After a few days, however, the youthful vigor of the others began to knock on the locked doors of his soul. Little by little, he began delaying the flight back to his room after class, or venturing out of it earlier to join in their conversations, jokes or games.
His spiritual progress became increasingly evident until, one day, it came time to sign up for driving class. No one asked Oscar which group he wanted to join. Everyone assumed he couldn't participate and asking him seemed in bad taste.
But Oscar didn't see it that way. He wanted to learn to drive, and managed to convince the others that he could, so it was agreed to let him try. In any case, the transit police would have the final word on the matter. Along the way, Oscar invented a new driving method, using his legs to help guide the steering wheel in difficult maneuvers.
The day of the exam, the police couldn't believe their eyes as they watched Oscar drive with total safety and aplomb. He had finally accepted himself. Oscar was the best student in his graduating class—a good plot for a movie about human courage. In the school, Oscar and the others learned, after many years of believing differently, that God does not abandon his children, although he may seem a bit deaf at times. They learned that they are not condemned to depend on public charity, but can earn a living offering a socially useful skill.
Over the next two years, the Leonel Rugama school trained 200 handicapped veterans in semester-long courses. But then the new government came, bringing with it the economic policies that sent thousands of able-bodied workers into unemployment; competition for the few jobs that opened up became ferocious. Consequently, IHCA changed tack.
What greater independence than being your own boss?If veterans with disabilities are at a disadvantage in the open labor market, another possible way to achieve greater economic independence is to create micro-businesses in which one person, or a few working together, can produce something or offer a service. But getting a micro-business started, however micro it may be, requires capital, even if just micro-capital. And in today's Nicaragua, banks only lend money to the rich.
So IHCA created a micro-business program, in which each vet is an owner, his own boss and often his only worker, although immediate family members sometimes help out. This not only offers a way to raise his self-esteem, but also to give him a preeminent place in his family. In a country of unemployed, usually including most of his own relatives, he is the economic support for them all.
"Here nothing is imposed," explains Andrés Solís, a young Jesuit on the IHCA team. "If the goal is the authentic rehabilitation of these veterans, they have to be permitted to seek their own solution. Those who are interested present the project that they want to develop, then IHCA does a feasibility study, based on the data supplied by the petitioner, to guarantee the project's maximum success.
"Success is very important for these compañeros," Andrés stresses. "If they accumulate economic failures on top of the problems they have with their disability, it can leave them irremediably frustrated for the rest of their lives." If the project offers the possibility of success, IHCA finances and advises it; if not, the team encourages the applicant to come up with another idea.
"But the majority of the projects presented are appropriate and feasible," says Wilmer Ruiz, the only lay worker on the team.
"In the final analysis, the applicants are aiming to resolve needs they see in their own community, and they know better than anyone what is needed."
A needed project, or a nutty idea?For this very reason some of the projects appear a bit out of the ordinary, like Juan Canales' bicycle rental scheme. "I saw that none of the kids had a bike to play on and also thought that adults could do their errands more easily on one," recalls Juan, "but no one had the money to buy one. So it occurred to me that, by renting them, I could resolve this and earn some money, to everyone's benefit."
IHCA, despite some doubts, financed Juan's bicycle rental center, with small ones for children and big ones for adults. "Don't think it was easy," says Juan. "But little by little we've made a success of it."
Juan was a lot like many Nicaraguan teenagers of the 1970s—rebellious, generous, opposed to the way things were, like young people ought to be. So when he had the chance to collaborate with the FSLN in the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, he didn't hesitate. Neither fear of death nor fear of prison scared him. The only thing he didn't contemplate was precisely what happened: when he received orders to prevent the passage of a National Guard convoy, he did it, but in the process took a bullet that paralyzed one whole side of his body. He was 18, and the date was February 22,1979, five months before the Sandinista triumph.
A veteran might be stumped if asked his birth date, but he remembers the exact day and minute he got hit, as well as every detail surrounding the event: the color of the flowers growing alongside the road, the caliber and sound of the weapons rattling around him, the names of the birds and animals fleeing, terrified, from the human savagery, the kinds of trees that shaded the spot, who said what in the last conversation he had with his comrades in arms... He also remembers every detail of how a piece of his body got ripped away, and, once he begins to tell his story, there's no stopping him in the middle, even if the listener is suffering more than the narrator. He usually recalls it more with sadness than with bitterness.
Juan, now an incredibly gaunt man of slow, awkward movements, but of unstoppable activity, recalls the time when he couldn't stand up, or eat without help. "I couldn't even keep from drooling," he says. "Half my body was dead."
The popular triumph over the dictatorship was his consolation. It also motivated him to make the first effort toward his own triumph. It was very hard when he could only use half his body, but his conviction was whole, so he kept trying, by himself at first and with help from others later.
"I'm an FSLN militant, and this helped me try to get better," Juan says, explaining that his work as a grassroots organizer was decisive in his physical improvement. Not so for recovering his self-esteem, though, because he was still dependent economically.
"Although my family never said anything, I felt awful." He's now 30, and, given the time that has elapsed since his injury, he can talk freely and maturely about it, which is seldom the case among those more recently wounded. "I felt I was no longer good for anything, and caught in that I began to drink because it's terrible to feel useless."
It is painful to hear about the anguish of this man who felt at such a young age that his body and his hopes were destroyed. But more painful still is the question that Juan's story provokes. What kind of world have we made that considers a human being useless just because he or she can't get a certain kind of job? "I believed it myself," he admits. "Because I couldn't earn a living, I didn't value myself."
Juan carried his bicycle rental idea around for a long time, but could never attract anyone to finance it. One day he heard about IHCA and with lots of determination but no illusions—he had already had plenty of disappointments—he went to present his seemingly nutty bicycle project. The IHCA team didn't give him any promises, but they didn't turn him away either.
They just accepted his proposal for assessment. But that was good enough. Every day, dragging one still immobile leg, Juan Canales went by to see if they'd made a decision. "I harassed them," he admits. "But I was impatient to know if they were going to approve it, if there was hope. For me that was the most important thing."
Finally the news came that the project was accepted. His life took a turn for the better. It wasn't easy at first. Given his inexperience and too much trust in his clients, who didn't understand about rentals, six bicycles were either stolen or destroyed. But experience is the only way to learn, and Juan learned a lot.
He learned so much that the tiny business managed to replace its losses and even begin to grow. Soon the time came when the shop got too busy to handle alone, so his family members, who had lent their shoulder without comment when he needed it, began to work with him.
So you're now the economic head of the family? Juan tries to hide the surge of satisfaction and pride that this question sparks. "Yes, I guess you could say so," he responds modestly, giving to IHCA much of the credit. "IHCA has been like family to me, to all us disabled. In truth, I never thought they'd give me an opportunity like this. This is something that has lifted all our spirits. It's like a resurrection."
Loving with deeds IHCA, a Jesuit organization, was created over 30 years ago as a documentation and consultation center on Central America. Its library, housed in Managua's Central American University, is an impressive collection of books, periodicals and monographs on all aspects of the region. IHCA also provided information and analysis to help guide those doing more active pastoral work.
The 1979 revolutionary triumph didn't bring immediate change to the institution, but, by 1981, when the Reagan Administration and its allies in Nicaragua and elsewhere launched their intense disinformation campaign, IHCA saw the need to provide Central America committees, church groups and nongovernmental organizations with undistorted facts and a different interpretation, one based on IHCA's option for the poor. So it started publishing a small mimeographed bulletin in four languages. That was the beginning of envío.
At the same time, IHCA began supporting pastoral work in the Christian Base Communities and in secular popular organizations such as the Farmworkers Association (ATC). This work was based on envío’songoing analysis of Nicaragua's key internal dynamics as well as the interacting international ones. The envío team also presented its efforts to classes and visiting delegations.
By 1987, this IHCA felt the need to integrate its socioeconomic and political analysis even more with its spiritual goals. One day—some say by Divine Providence and others by coincidence—IHCA's director came into contact with a disabled war veteran, and, soon after, with a group of them. What better opportunity for such a convergence of IHCA's work?
The Leonel Rugama school, inaugurated the following year, didn't disappear with the switch to the micro-business project; it's been adapted to the new conditions. It's now used for project administration, ongoing analysis of the national reality, bible seminars and group therapy sessions, all revolving around the Eucharist.
In Nicaragua, where reality often shifts abruptly, there's no room for petrified schemes. Nor is there in IHCA, which, given its service vocation, wants to be attentive and sensitive to the needs of the disabled veterans. They, in fact, without meaning to, were the ones who reoriented the activities.
It all started in Santa Lucía, Chontales, in Nicaragua's central zone, in 1990, when a group of 11 such veterans requested financing from IHCA to plant basic grains. They would work the land together, but ownership of it would be individual. The proposal departed from IHCA's initial scheme in every possible way but, since it seemed like a good idea, IHCA supported it. The cooperative still exists, and has been a very profitable and positive experiment.
Sowing small seeds Guillermo Huezo and Felipe Aldana, both Jesuits, joined the team that began the micro-business project in Carazo, southwest of Managua, in 1990. They already had experience working several months in Chontales, helping injured veterans in emergencies. "We raced off to the doctor to buy medicines when someone got sick, or took zinc to someone whose roof leaked," explains Guillermo. "We put out fires, but we weren't building anything."
"The worst defect of that kind of work," Guillermo goes on, "is that it reinforces the concept that a disability means isolation and dependence. All they have to do is ask and they receive, with no effort on their part, almost like begging. They don't like that."
The veterans from Chontales also slowly transformed this concept of work, through their conversations with the religious workers who periodically visited them. "The key thing is to listen and show with actions that you've heard them, that their criteria have been taken into account and that they can reorient a project to make it more suitable to their needs," says Guillermo. "And who knows their needs better than they do?"
This human accompaniment also shakes off isolation. The most serious problem, the one that's the hardest to resolve because it's at the root of all the others, is their insecurity, their lack of self-esteem. If they can't accept themselves, they won't have much luck getting others to accept them. "Sometimes I'd invite a couple of guys who didn't know each other to join me for a beer," recalls Guillermo, "and what happened was always beautiful, the way they connected through their similar problems. I learned a lot in those exchanges too, matured a lot as a human being and as a religious person."
When the family helps "These are my children," says Juan Aburto, proudly displaying a team of enormous oxen munching grass a few yards away. "They're named Red and Black." He got them with a loan from IHCA
Juan Aburto, single and proud of it, is a farmer; he approaches his animals with the confidence of a long and affectionate relationship. The two imposing masses of muscle lumber toward him mooing, making the earth tremble with each step.
Juan loves the land. He'd always dreamed of making it produce, of working it with his two strong hands for others, but his family had no land and buying any was beyond their means. And they had bad luck with the agrarian reform; they never got a parcel.
Besides, life led Juan along other paths, at least for a time. He got his injury while climbing a hill to wipe out a machine-gun nest that was impeding their advance. It was supposed to be a surprise attack, carried out in absolute silence, but one of the commando members stepped on a mine. In the shootout that ensued, Juan took a bullet wound in the foot which later turned into crippling osteomyelitis.
Juan had his family's total support and that helped him keep going, but he confesses that he became "very rebellious, very nervous. Everything bothered me or offended me." His injury, however, served as a letter of presentation at the Pikín Guerrero cooperative, which favored discharged draftees, above all if they had some problem. Juan finally got his piece of land.
But land needs investment to produce. Juan received some seeds and tools and a team of oxen with the land, but they weren't very good quality. One ox was stolen and the other was indolent—even among oxen there are some that don't like to work. So there was Juan, with his beautiful little plot, his defined vocation for farming, but no oxen to help him.
"Black is the oldest," explains Juan. "He's a good worker and already knows it all. You only have to tell him what you want and he does it. Red still doesn't have much experience, but Black is teaching him." Two oxen on a double yoke have to know how to work together, and the peasant with them. They make up a team, and if they all understand each other, the work goes well and quickly. If not, it's difficult and will be poorly done.
Not a hint remains of the nervous, discontented rebel that Juan became. "Work has helped me get past all those problems," he says. He grows beans and corn on his plot and also has some fruit trees. His father works with him, and during peak periods so do hordes of little brothers and cousins and their friends.
They seem to be playing a lot more than working, but Juan assures that "when there's work they get real serious. The thing is that there isn't much to do right now." The harvest is in, and there are a couple of months to go before it's time to ready the land for the next planting. Juan will do that with his oxen. And when he hitches them to a wagon, they become a way to transport agricultural implements or the harvest, or to bring water from the river for his fruit trees and vegetable patch. "Oxen are like a peasant's right hand," he says. When he speaks of them, he does so as if they were thinking beings. "At times," he says, "it seems to me that they think better than many who call themselves human."
"The cooperative has decided to give the women work too. We're going to start a chicken project and the women can feed the hens what we produce here. But since I don't have a wife—and don't want one either, because they only bring problems—I'm going to get one of my sisters involved. Or maybe they won't want to, and no one from my house will go, but I'll collaborate with the project in any case."
Both a means and an end The micro-projects are seen as a possible means of social as well as economic reintegration. "If they're a success, terrific," says Carlos Barralaga, a young Jesuit with a big smile who only gets serious when he talks about work. "But even if they aren't, the simple act of working returns some of the disabled person's self-respect." Carlos, whose optimism never fails him, is far less worried about the hazards of failure than his coworker Andrés Solís. In Carlos' opinion, "Their initiation into the business world, whatever its result, will be something they'll tell their grandchildren, right up there alongside the hazards of the war they lived through. It's worth supporting them for that alone. Besides, they defend their project with real energy. They grab at it."
But many circumstances are out of their control, especially in a country with a shattered economy, in which disagreeable surprises no longer surprise anyone. As, for example, the currency change of March 1991, which wiped out all the micro-businesses just as they were getting started. Nonetheless, youth accustomed to fighting don't get beaten easily. They began again, with IHCA's help.
"The most impressive thing," continues Carlos, "is that they don't like compassion. They demonstrate enormous courage by joking about their situation. But if you dig a little deeper, you discover that all that bravado is for show, to hide their tremendous anguish. Our work is to fill all that with God, a support they can always count on. We need to show them that what happened isn't some 'divine punishment,' as some would have them believe, or that God has forgotten them, as they often think. Their injury is a point of encounter with God, under other circumstances. God is accompanying them, getting them back on the road, but in another way."
Silvio Aviles joined the team almost at the beginning of the micro-business project. Short, thin, almost transparent, Silvio seems like a kid just out of high school, but he's almost 26. Did his childlike appearance help him reach out to the veterans? What happened when they discovered that he's much older and is a Jesuit?
"People here have the concept that a future priest has to be dressed in black—his eyes fixed on heaven, his hands together—and speak only of God," Silvio says, chuckling. "So when we came around, dressed in jeans, tennis shoes and colored t-shirts, chatting about whatever, they didn't associate us with religion."
Perhaps for this very reason, it wasn't easy at the beginning. The works plans and visits were coordinated through the Organization of Disabled Revolutionaries, but the religious workers soon discovered that somebody had gotten the wrong idea. The veterans had been told to watch what they said during the visits, because these priests were suspected of being rightwing, with bad intentions. "Like I said," Silvio reiterates, still chuckling, "we don't fit the traditional image of future priests, so someone didn't trust us." But the wall of mistrust was soon demolished by deeds. With varying degrees of success depending on the circumstances, the micro-projects began to take off.
"Some of these guys don't understand God's message very well, so they end up not understanding themselves," says Hector Estrella, a young Jesuit team member who's so punctual people have trouble believing he's Nicaraguan. "For example, they'll say that they aren't very Christian, because they hardly ever go to church. They aren't aware that giving the best of themselves—their life, their body and their health—all to defend their neighbors is a Christian value, Christian charity carried to heroic proportions. You have to explain it to them, because they think that being Christian only means going to Mass, taking communion, praying—in the end, formal religiosity. They don't see that Christianity is mainly in other things, in sharing."
"At the same time," Hector confesses, "I've learned a great deal from their desire to face life. I've learned how to live in these times of desperation and of retreat from spiritual values. But there are still times when I feel helpless—always the same problems, always the sensation that nothing is advancing. You resolve one person's situation and a hundred more come forward."
Coming up from anguish Francisco Campos has the air of one of those mischievous little boys who turn teachers' hair grey, but who are always remembered with the most affection as the years pass. He chats with everyone who comes by his tiny cigarette stand in the Jinotepe market, many of them old acquaintances or habitual clients—those who can only afford to buy their daily ration of puffs by the individual cigarette, not by the pack.
Francisco is one of the few who don't like to tell their own story. Now that he's coming out of his trauma, little by little, he prefers not to remember it. As a young draftee, he was thrown into the air by an explosion that left him with a twisted foot, hearing difficulties, frequent dizziness and war psychosis.
"I have a lot of projects," he hurries on. He explains that he's finishing primary school and afterward plans to study electricity. Well, really, he wants to study computers, but since his accident, his head isn't the same as before, and to study computer science you first have to finish the third year of secondary school, while to be an electrician it's enough to have finished primary school.
He hopes to intern for a year at the Gaspar García Laviana Professional Institute, which also teaches computer science. "The doctors have told me not to tax my head too much, so I think I'll just hang out with the computer students and that way I'm bound to learn something."
Projects and more projects. Always talking about the future, or about the distant past, before the day he was tossed into the air like a rag doll. About the time between that day and the one he opened his cigarette stand, he says nothing. You have to fill in the gaps by talking to others who knew him then.
But that's natural. Not only was it a physically painful time, during which every part of his body hurt, during which he had to begin all over again, it was also a time of self-pity, of the certainty that his life was over, even though he was not yet 20. Francisco spent four years not wanting to go out into the street, hiding behind his fears and his drink. It was hard to shake him out of that. But he was evidently unhappy with his situation, and when was offered the opportunity to be useful to himself, and thus to others, he abandoned the bottle and began to work in his modest business—barely a table with a few cartons of various brands of cigarettes and a stool to sit on and serve his constant stream of clients.
The vendors in nearby stands are now his friends, and children are always coming by to greet him. His stand has also become an integral part of his family, which helps by going out to buy the cartons of cigarettes; he manages the money but it's still hard for him to ride in a bus because of his frequent dizzy spells.
And is the stand profitable? "It's enough for my expenses, to pay for my studies and to invite my girlfriend out occasionally," he responds. "What more can I ask?"
But he's not willing to spend the rest of his life behind that table. Despite his problem, he has found a way to continue fighting for his own dreams, just like anybody else. The stand "is good in the meantime, as a way to get started. Afterwards I want to do more."
Big and little ambitions When Jorge Tello began working with the veterans a little over six months ago, he already knew a fair amount about the subject because he had occasionally accompanied other members of the team. He says he always wanted to be included in the work.
He persisted until they agreed, but when he first started, he'd return home each night feeling he'd been beaten up. "On any given day you visit several people, each with a problem. Some get their project going well, they have their accounts in order, and that gives you a lot of energy to keep going. But then you come across others whose project is foundering, not necessarily because they're administering it badly but because of the country's economic state, and instead of fighting they start drinking, for example. It's very human, but very painful. Each house you visit is different, which forces you to remold your own attitudes and see how to help."
Each team of two attends some 30 or 40 young men and their families. In these weekly visits, they don't talk only about economic business, but about a whole gamut of subjects: family relations, household problems, religious doubts, the country's situation. In an evaluation at the end of 1991, the young vets requested that the work move more into religious support and faith. That was a great satisfaction for Jorge.
Jorge has seen how the people he works with have grown. He mentions a young man who had received financing for a project that simply couldn't survive. "To make matters worse, he's married to a brilliant woman, who has carried the economic burden of the household, so he's sort of her shadow. Probably without meaning to she puts him down; after his project failed she got one financed, and it's doing well. In such a machista society as this one, a woman's success combined with a husband's failure generates an almost unlivable situation. But despite it all, he hasn't lost heart; he's still working, still seeking alternatives. He has lots of faith and hope, and transmits enormous joy. He loves to read; as well as teaching him a lot, books are a consolation and company for him."
"Quique" Sili Ezar, a Honduran involved in this work, is most impressed by the simple, elemental nature of these veterans' aspirations. "They're so poor and their life so precarious that their aspirations are tiny. The first thing they want is to guarantee three meals a day for themselves and their family; once that's resolved, they want housing—not a mansion, just something solid, safe and sufficient. When those two needs are met, they start dreaming of some household appliance, like a TV or a sound system. And that's it. And to study; the majority want to continue their studies, to finish primary or secondary school, even to go to a university or get some kind of advanced technical training. It's precisely in the area of education that they show the most ambition."
All for the family A dirt-floor shack with no plumbing is no place for a family to live, although many do; in Nicaragua, the majority. But that doesn't make it any less inadequate for raising strong, healthy children.
Juan Ramón Tercero's shack was particularly miserable. It wasn't even built of old planks, or of even more or less resistant plastic or cardboard. It was just four badly placed sticks with cloth draped between them. The cloth was so worn that, even folded in two for greater consistency, it provided no privacy and let in all the rain and wind. Juan, jobless like almost everybody, lived there with his small daughter and his wife, who was about to give birth to their second child.
But now this cloth hovel has been replaced by a two-and-a-half room wood construction, still humble, but solid and safe. Surely the King of France, receiving foreign ambassadors in his palace at Versailles, never showed such pride as Juan did ushering us into his new house. While Juan stood beaming, his daughter, barely two years old, hid among the folds of her mother's skirt.
IHCA helped Juan Ramón get a plot of land and provided the building materials. With no help from anyone, he raised the house in only four days. "I was in a hurry to finish because I didn't want my son to be born with no roof over his head."
He's overflowing with enthusiasm. "I want to fix up the kitchen and build a bathroom, and I want to make a little porch where I can sit in the afternoons and drink some juice, and I want to make windows..." A million other things too, because Juan is another man full of projects. It seems that building his little house has given him new life.
It's not hard to imagine how this enterprising man felt leaving the hospital, after doctors spent two months doing what they could for his mangled hands and only managed to partially save one. "It was in Zompopera, on July 10, 1986"—again, never just "six years ago," always the exact date, like filling out a form. "My military service was almost up when I fell into an ambush and ended up like this, one arm amputated at the elbow and the other hand missing a few fingers. I wanted to take revenge on everything; I almost went crazy."
Fleeing from himself, he went to Costa Rica, where problems were the same—or worse, because he wasn't in his own land. He worked as a guard and as a driver, using his stumps to sustain the wheel. But working for others always meant problems because of his limitations and the psychosis his experience had left.
The friendship of the young woman who is today his wife is what shook him out of the depths of his anguish and made him seek help. When he finally found IHCA, he requested a loan to set up a used clothing stall in the market near where he lived.
"Everything went well at first," he says. It was almost the only stall of its kind, and had plenty of clients. He managed to save some money, which he used to build his bed and a wardrobe for the family's few belongings. He also helped out his mother and grandmother, both ill, and a son from a previous relationship.
But then bad luck hit: suddenly second-hand clothing stalls sprang up around him like mushrooms. His own business failed before he'd been able to save enough to build his little house.
The conversation is interrupted by an ill-humored cry from a minute bundle in the middle of the big bed. "He was born in his own house," Juan Ramón declared proudly, as his wife hurried into the bedroom, separated by a curtain, to nurse the kicking little bundle. The house is now eight days old.
His two-year-old, fidgeting with the colored ribbons that hold two tiny braids on their tiptoes, is jealous and can't decide whether to stay or leave the room. Her dark little eyes watch us with a mixture of curiosity and mistrust, letting no detail escape her, as she finally entrenches between the knees of her papa.
The lot is big enough to dwarf the tiny house in its center. Juan Ramón and his wife have set aside a space for a garden, beyond the reach of any possible house expansion. There, two tiny coconut palms are slowly unfurling their first fronds.
Adapting to new conditions The Jose Luis Ortega project—the name given to IHCA's new micro-business program—was also a first experiment for IHCA in a new work methodology, which seems to be a very useful one for these atypical prospective entrepreneurs.
After first presenting his proposal, the vet has to go find answers to questions on a project form, as well as those that come up in the interview. This procedure has various other goals beyond the obvious one of trying to assure feasibility. One is to get the individual out of the house where, in many cases, he has been imprisoned by fear and self-pity for a long time. Another is to get him fully immersed in the project from the outset and to generate good work habits and a sense of responsibility; at the time of his first contact with IHCA, the young man has most likely spent years in virtual inactivity, either because of an overprotective family or because he couldn't find work.
A minimum of a month and a half is usually spent in this preliminary fact finding stage, during which new perspectives and possibilities emerge from places they'd been hiding, waiting for the young man to wake up and discover them. As his new enthusiasm takes hold, old substitutes for happiness, like alcohol or drugs, are progressively forgotten.
Finally the big day comes, the day the project is turned over to the beneficiary. It's a very serious event. Since a bank can always recover its capital plus interest, or at least foreclose if the business falters, the signature of the bank bureaucrat, scribbled in his sterile office, is ceremonious enough. This project is much more ambitious. Its interest isn't in recovering an investment, but in recovering human beings. To do this, part of the ritual involves a personal and family commitment, made in the beneficiary's own household.
"This is like a visit from God, a sign that God hasn't abandoned us," says one recipient. In many cases the one at the bottom of the family totem pole, contributor of nothing except expenses for medicines and food, becomes the family's economic cornerstone. Given this new responsibility, this new self-value, a person who is impaired physically ceases being so spiritually. It is the beginning of a personal transformation, and often of a decision to help other brothers in misfortune to receive the same benefits.
Cooking with honey During the last months of 1988, away from the battlefield itself, much was heard about Operation Danto 88, the all-out army advance that pushed the contras back into Honduras. It was heralded in triumphal terms to blot out any image of bloody battles; victims are always invisible when operations are victorious. But one didn't need much imagination to presume that the military success was drenched in human blood.
Ronald Aviles was one of many Nicaraguans who made that success possible. And it cost him very dear. Ronald was not quite 16 when he volunteered for the draft, not even old enough to be called up. His flat feet would have given him an out, but he wanted to serve. Then, with only three months left of his two-year tour of duty, a mortar explosion flung him into the Bocay mountain air. Among other deep wounds he suffered, shrapnel ripped off one ear, leaving a serious hearing impairment.
But the deepest is his memory of those who couldn't return at all. In the same mortar blast that wounded him, he saw six other comrades die. He knew he was a survivor. But he'd never been away from home before his army stint, and was still very tied to his family—in other words, he was a strong candidate for permanent psychological dependency.
But God wrote straight on this crooked line. A sister who had taken baking courses wanted to set up a pastry oven in the house, but it required a much higher investment than the family's strapped economic capacity could handle. That's how IHCA came to the family: Ronald decided to also learn the trade of pastry-making. The last in the family, the one who ran the risk of becoming useful to no one, even himself, joined his sister as another cornerstone of the family economy.
But his real vocation isn't desserts, it's computers. "Business is good," he says. "Above all it gives us enough to eat for now, and allows me to continue my studies until I get to be a computer engineer." And it's not impossible; there's a school in the small city of Jinotepe, where he lives, where he can study to be a middle-level computer technician without abandoning his baking. "It's very important not to feel like a parasite," he says. "I have to work hard to do both things, but such is life. It seems to me that I'm even better off than many other young men who haven't suffered a disability, but can't find either work or support."
Encountering the crucified"I didn't want to do this work," admits Carlos Luís Núñez, a young Costa Rican Jesuit, whose face radiates sensitivity. "I knew it would be very hard for me; and it was. My first day I came home incredibly sad. I didn't think I'd be able to shake it. But you develop such affection for these people that you get over the sadness; you even forget how difficult it was at the beginning."
More than a year later, Carlos Luís feels that the hardest task for him is talking with a confident voice when he knows that poverty is on its way to becoming indigence in Nicaragua, thanks to the new economic policies. He also knows that this hits those with disabilities even harder than others.
"At times it's frustrating, because you can't do everything you want to do, everything that's needed, but that's where the crucified Jesus is, with the poor and oppressed. I admire the heroic gesture of these people more than they do, so one of the most important things we can do for them is help them discover the enormous Christian values that their lives embody."
Carlos Luis advises a number of budding micro-projects—of which approximately 70% can be classified as successful. It's a pretty low success rate for a young man who can't yet accept the suffering of others, but for a country in Nicaragua's economic straits, it's nothing to sneer at. Carlos Luís explains it as a product of the young men's combativeness.
He who plants flowers Jaime López isn't home when we arrive. He's out buying some things for his small restaurant—tomatoes, cabbage, onions and a few herbs indispensable to the culinary alchemy that transforms these simple ingredients into a delicious soup. But he's not long in coming, carrying cuttings of "flor de un día"—one-day flower.
"I'm going to plant them around here," he explains, smiling, "to adorn the business, because these flowers spread out and look pretty."
This young man's life, however, was not always full of smiles and flowers. Like nearly all his age from his city of Masaya, he joined the struggle against Somoza early on; in his case in 1976, when he was barely 18. Because of that, he didn’t finish high school.
His biography is like that of many young men of his generation; not hesitating to do anything that would free his country, he fought without rest until the revolutionary triumph, then promptly joined the Sandinista Popular Army just as it was transforming itself from an irregular guerrilla force into a regular constitutional army. Afterwards, he had many different responsibilities, among them political head of the Irregular Warfare Battalion named after the legendary Sandinista hero Miguel Angel Ortez, "MAO." He earned the rank of lieutenant.
Although always at the service of the revolution, he found a few minutes to get married and have three children. Then one bad day, the 16th of January 1986, he was ambushed near Siuna. One foot was damaged so badly that it merited a trip to Bulgaria to try to close a wound that wouldn't heal. When he returned, he went back into the army, to continue working with the same faith. But he was no longer the same. It wasn't only his foot; he also kept having vision difficulties from a head wound he had suffered at the same time. And a tiredness that would easily overtake him when he did anything involving physical exertion. While telling us all this, he is slowly, slowly planting the flower cuttings.
Life went on, though, until after the 1990 elections, when the decision was made to cut the size of the army. In the first massive discharge, Jaime found himself out on the street with family responsibilities and the need to begin all over again, but now with his physical capacity significantly diminished and no marketable skills. And as more time passed, he also found himself enormously bitter. "I'm not resentful anymore," he says, now that he's found a solution, "but I do feel frustrated, because the FSLN let in many wolves dressed in sheep's clothing, and that lost us authority first and the elections afterwards."
With a bit of money he had saved and some the army had given him when he was discharged, he bought a small lot near his house. It's urban land, but land in Nicaragua is giving; all you need to make things grow is a little bit of attention and a little bit of water, so he planted some food crops. Then one day he heard about IHCA and he figured that if it had been able to help others in his condition, why not him?
He didn't have to think much about a project. Next to his house was a small vacant space that was part of his property, right in the middle of a busy street; it had already occurred to him that he could put a little diner on it, a place where people could come and spend a little time with friends.
But he didn't want to ask for everything. He could build a simple arbor structure himself, out of intertwined branches and a palm-thatched roof. He could also supply all the tables and chairs, working with things he found around the house. He only asked for a refrigerating unit, so he could offer nice cold fruit drinks and keep the greens and the meat fresh. He wife would be responsible for the kitchen and he, for serving the public.
"The country's situation is making things difficult for us," says Jaime. "People don't even have enough money to eat in their own homes, much less spend it on the street. But every day we earn a little something, and on the weekends there are people who prefer to eat here and not cook at home." To earn a bit more, Jaime and his family plan to go out and sell their delicious prepared food at recreation spots, like sporting events, festivals, beaches and the like, so that little by little they can confront life, together and united.
It's no good to be alone One of the most serious problems for people with disabilities is knowing and feeling themselves to be different. The rest of us walk on our two feet, work with our two hands, see with our two eyes, hear with our two ears. They don't. Awareness of this "inequality" leads to isolation as a way to avoid compassion or ridicule. Work is an excellent reintegration mechanism, above all if the work goes well. But even in a work situation, even if they're the owner and their own boss, these veterans suffer some manifestation of discrimination. If the business does well, it's because it does well; if it does badly, it's because, well, what can you expect from the poor guy?
To help face this situation, IHCA promotes periodic meetings of these young men, get-togethers in which family members also share, enjoying themselves together, learning new things. In the final analysis, they all have similar problems, and if someone finds a solution, or at least a skill for dealing with them, it will surely be useful for everybody.
During these meetings, IHCA personnel give talks on the current national affairs, based on envío's research, so the young proprietors can learn more about the country's present circumstances and how to take more charge over their lives and their businesses. There are also workshops on administering micro-projects, and religious talks with a message directed to them: God is the father of all, including you. And your injury, your seeming misfortune, is the place designed by God so you can find Him, the unexpected bend in the road where He awaits you and calls on you to hope against all hope.
It's not easy to break through the belief that a disability is a "punishment from God." But one objective pursued in this work is to replace the culturally deforming vision of God as a vengeful being who metes out punishment for some unknown sin—probably never committed by the disabled person or even by his ancestors—with a new and positive one.
Building for security It's not easy to walk into Roberto Aguirre's house. You have to watch every step to avoid sticking your foot in a sack of cement or stubbing your toe on a 100-lb. quarrystone block, or knocking into something half built. It's a good sign. If a person starts improving his house, or at least expanding it, it must be because things are going well, right? "Don't you believe it," says Roberto. "Things may not be too bad, but they're not going well either. The economic crisis is so bad that days go by where we don't sell or do anything." The fact is that Roberto has to invest in better, more solid housing for security reasons: he's a jeweler, so he has semi-precious stones in his house, and a bit of gold. Mind you, we're not talking about Hollywood motion picture jewels here; Roberto's a poor jeweler with a poor clientele.
"It scares me to have this here," he says. "It's not a big deal, but the crime rate worries me, so I invest every cent I get in security." The house is being made safe and solid, with walls of thick, well-hewn quarrystones to dissuade thieves. Roberto works in a corner of his house, his simple wood table illuminated by a fluorescent overhead light. Just this plus a stool and a small metal cabinet with lots of plastic drawers that once held medicines or nails or cooking spices. That's where he stores his tiny jeweler's tools and the mini-treasure that makes up his raw material.
While Roberto explains his trade, three children—two, four and six years old—watch curiously like little jeweler's elves, or romp nearby, paying no attention to their mother, who is trying to keep them quiet and at a distance. "You can see what they do to me. They love playing with all this, so the minute I turn my head they're already making mischief with my things and suddenly I can't find anything."
Roberto got his leg wound when he was 21, already an adult. The majority were much younger, because Nicaraguans 16, 17 and 18 years old had to defend their revolution against other Nicaraguans of the same age who fought with an invader's attitude.
But Roberto, like many in his situation, considers that the disabled among the "contras" should also be helped. "In some cases they're worse off than we are, because nobody pays any attention to them. The gringos and the contra chiefs have totally abandoned them; their chiefs are now getting good salaries in Managua, like they wanted, so they don't want to remember the others for anything." But, we point out, they left him with one of his legs paralyzed.
"They aren't our enemy and never were. What happened was that they weren't politically clear. They're our Nicaraguan brothers who were mistaken. The real guilty party is the United States."
And if IHCA broadens its own program to help the former contras, as it plans to do, how will that go over? "It seems a good idea to me. They need help, because they're also in bad shape. And they must be clear now that they supported the wrong cause. And, besides, they were left handicapped, and that's horrible."
When Roberto went to war, he already had a profession. He was a topographer, and thus knew how to draw. But he had a first cousin who was studying jewelry making, and Roberto liked the minute detail work, so he learned too. When he came back from the war with his leg immobile, he worked as a jeweler with some business partners who went out and sold his products. But it wasn't a very good deal, because the partners got the lion's share and he only got the work. He longed to work for himself, but didn't have any money to invest in tools and the costly raw material. Like the others, however, he eventually heard about IHCA, which gave him the necessary financing to get started.
His wife Giaconda, as thin and solid as a steel rod, listens to him talk as she goes about her household chores. She's been married to Roberto for seven years and, since then, has always helped her husband. Giaconda, what did you see in Roberto that made you decide to marry him? "Well, I don't know," she says timidly. "Just his way; he's very good and kind." He already had his problem then, didn't he? "Yes, but that didn't matter to me. He's a very good man, very obliging." And your family, what did they say? "They all like him, so they thought it was a good idea. You see, in my house we're four women and one man, so when I said I wanted to marry Roberto, everybody was happy. He's always working so he'll have something to offer when someone comes to buy."
Roberto's work definitely has its ups and downs. When Mother's Day, or Christmas, or the period of first communions come around, he has orders coming out of his ears. The rest of the year is calm, although someone is always getting married or wants some little thing. So when he has few sales, he works to build up a small inventory.
His agile, sensitive hand picks up an ugly, dull stone, forgotten at the back of one of the plastic drawers. "This is a semi-precious stone, and that," he says, indicating a little ball the color of ash, "is gold. Ugly, no? It only looks pretty after being worked." Human labor makes things beautiful.
What happened to the contras?Being disabled, whatever the cause, marks a person for life. In Nicaragua, those who sustained lasting injuries fighting in the Sandinista Popular Army are doubly marked, because it is assumed that they fought for an ideological conviction, and those who hold the high cards now are their ideological opposites. Giving work to one of these former soldiers is equivalent to advertising your politics.
Not so with the ex-contras. Although the government doesn't seem very concerned about those with disabilities, some organizations were set up to assist them. While rumors abound of embezzled funds, disabled former contras do get some pension. It's not enormous, but it's a lot bigger than what those get who defended the constitutional government during the past decade.
But the disabled contras have other problems. They fought for a cause too, convinced that Sandinismo was an evil communist ogre, the villain in the picture. But when the Sandinista government turned power over to the current government, they discovered too late that they had fought the wrong enemy.
With the savage application of the neoliberal economic adjustments, their list of complaints and disappointments has grown by the day. Many who were considered heroes by the most backward sectors right after the elections feel the country's economic destruction as their own responsibility two years later.
IHCA is now considering working with this sector, and has made some first contacts in Region V. While these people may need some economic support, they are also hungry for understanding and friendship. The sadness that comes from the knowledge of having lost a fragment of their body supporting someone who didn't deserve it is much more serious and heart wrenching than their economic problems.
Prosthesis for the soulThe war brought unprogrammable consequences for Nicaragua, among them the need for an entire factory to manufacture prostheses to fill the empty spaces in war-tom bodies: legs, arms, eyes. The factory may look like a nightmare to the rest of us, but, to those who have lost a part of their whole, it's more like a dream.
Nicaragua never had a factory like this before. In the past, people who had the misfortune of losing an arm or a leg had two possibilities: if they were rich, they could go abroad to get the necessary prosthesis fitted; if they were poor, they could just forget it.
Soon after the revolutionary triumph, a nongovernmental agency financed the creation of a small prosthetic shop to supply the needs of those who had lost a limb in the insurrection against Somoza. But it had finished its work within two years, still too early to imagine how intense, prolonged and bloody the aggression against tiny Nicaragua would become. By 1984, when the nature of the war was becoming more evident, the Ministry of Health and the International Red Cross reopened the shop, and expanded it into a factory. Demand had grown exponentially.
In a short time, given all their opportunity to practice, the apprentice Nicaraguan technicians had become consummate professionals; in one single year, they made more than 600 prostheses. And the worst of it was that, even at that, they couldn't build up an inventory. The quality of these prostheses, made with such special affection by the workers, was considered equal to the best that could be found abroad. The technicians innovated, they researched and, once more, Nicaraguan creativity was a match for the misfortunes of war.
The war disabled were treated without cost and their prosthesis replaced every three or four years, its maximum use life. For many years, no one in Nicaragua paid for medicines, but even when the economic crisis generated by the war forced the government to require patients to contribute a percentage of the costs, the war-injured remained exempt.
Now everything has changed. They have to pay "free-market" prices for the medications that they need more urgently than ever, given that, in many cases, their health has deteriorated.
They also frequently need very costly psycho-pharmaceuticals to face the anguish produced by their terrible experiences. The cost of their prostheses also has to be borne by these citizens who gave the best of themselves for a country that has now turned its back on them. Many of these veterans are more whole and have more dignity than those who abandoned them to their fate—people in need of a prosthesis for their shriveled souls.
A surprise projectByron Salomón Aburto had been so coddled by his family, so drowned in attention and affection from an over-solicitous mother, that he ran the risk of be corning a useless lap-dog. In fact, he already was. A constant life of doing nothing but resting, or else sleeping, had put him far down the one-way road to nowhere.
But when IHCA offered him a way back, he surprised them. He proposed an original project, one with no antecedents in Nicaragua, no prior experience: a video-rental shop in a neighborhood so poor you wouldn't think anyone had enough money to rent a cassette, much less own a machine to play it on. But Byron knew better; he knew that many houses had a VHS, and within two months the small business became one of the most successful of any IHCA had financed. "Look, mom," Byron joked, "it's true that people don't have money to eat, but they can always scrape up enough to escape for a couple of hours."
Byron's problems began on May 3, 1987, in a place with a legendary name, Kum Lagoon, west of Puerto Cabezas. Like many others, he now has one immobilized leg. It's no accident that paralyzed or amputated legs are the most frequent disability encountered among these former soldiers: the contras sowed Nicaragua's soil with small anti-personnel mines the size of a sardine tin, whose role is not to kill but to maim. The logic is that a wounded soldier, particularly one with a leg wound, causes the army more immediate problems than a dead one because it means tying up several others to get him to a place where he can be rescued. And in the longer term, all those in his condition become permanent burdens on the beleaguered government; they are permanently out of commission as soldiers, but in need of costly and constant medical care and rehabilitation. And unlike a cadaver, which dims from public memory over time, a disabled veteran has a demoralizing effect on the war effort; he's always there, on his crutches or in his wheelchair.
And the designer of this barbaric logic? The nation that calls itself the leader of the Christian, democratic, western world.
Byron is happy among his videos. He has stockpiled hundreds of titles, always attentive to the tastes of his public. "People like horror films and action films. Some like movies with more content, particularly if they've received good reviews in the newspaper and are considered 'must see' films. But the majority prefer something that just passes the time, and doesn't make them have to think."
Nicaraguan reality is so intense, and requires so much profound reflection that it's not so strange that at the end of a day or week of work and of struggle against a world ever more unintelligible, the working people who live in Byron's neighborhood would opt for uncomplicated distractions, or for taped concerts by their favorite singers.
Among his collection are also lots of animated children's films, for the numerous kids in his populous neighborhood. "They're excellent clients," Byron says, "and besides, they never get tired of seeing the same movie like adults do."
Byron is almost as discreet as Francisco Campos about speaking of the time that lapsed between his injury and his encounter with IHCA. He says he tried to work with a truck, transporting merchandise with his brother. While it's not totally false, it's not exactly true either. The truth is that Byron was quickly buried alive in the depths of his family's house, lacking all desire to deal with his new situation.
IHCA may wait for the vets to present a project, but it doesn't wait for them to discover the institution. Work teams go out into the regions in search of people with problems, and start visiting them regularly to encourage their spiritual recovery.
Sometimes this creates new problems, such as friction with over-protective parents who sometimes fear the consequences of a new challenge for their son even more than he does.
Salvadoran Jesuit Francisco Rosales seems to have been specially designed for such problems: observing, patient and stubborn, he never forgets that, in these cases, you have to convince the family first, to explain that over-protection only does more damage, because the disabled family member is never taught or helped to accept himself as he is and to take on life as he finds it. Francisco also throws a tough question at them: Who do they think will take over the responsibility for this coddling the day they die, who will maintain him if he hasn't learned to do something for himself?
"Very frequently," Francisco explains with all the insight of a trained psychologist, "parents who are old and consider themselves useless, too, see in their son's disability a way of returning to the old days of his childhood, when he depended on them for everything. In these cases of excess affection, you can usually find a big dose of selfishness."
The house of Byron's family is simple, but spacious; his business could grow a lot without expanding beyond its four walls. But Byron himself already has. He's gone from being an over-protected son to being the man of the house.
First steps toward infinity Like Byron's video shop, many of the small businesses have become not only an economic support for the family, but a fundamental part of the local community. And each new success brings ideas for new challenges, new possibilities. One such possibility is that the businesses begin to coordinate among themselves for the benefit of all.
Some experiments have already been made along this line: some farmers who are beneficiaries of the program have coordinated with another participant who has a little transport operation so as to supply tiny neighborhood stores run by still others. There are economic benefits at every link along this chain, all the way to the consumer.
But so far these efforts have been just that: experiments, tried once, or once in a while. "This coordination needs to be consolidated, institutionalized," says Sister Teodora López, SAC, who directs the program, "That way the participants won't feel isolated, even though they'll continue developing their activity individually."
But as with other innovations that have arisen in the past, this one has other objectives: Sister Teo defines them concisely: "to transform the mentality of people with disabilities so they will never again be the objects of public assistance or charity, but instead are valuable in and of themselves, able to work in an organized way with their equals. It also means they will be helping those who are objectively incapacitated by their injuries or by their age, those who serve their community in another way, by their counsel or even by their capacity to receive everything in exchange for nothing, which embraces a Christian attitude, a vital attitude like that of Jesus."
Father Napoleón Alvarado, SJ, IHCA's general director, highlights still other aspects. "Like those with war disabilities, there are other social sectors that appear to be of no interest to anybody, like the war orphans and widows, mothers who lost sons who were their only economic support, the retired, the elderly who are closeted away in old-age homes. The designers of neoliberalism aren't interested in these people.
"But they go on living anyway, and they need to make themselves felt in society, because society is forgetting them. They need an increase in the pittance the government gives them as a pension. Because those with war disabilities have experience with organization and discipline, because they've proven their courage and willingness to fight, they are the ones called on to fight in the street for their right to life, and, in the process, to put forward the broader social demands, such as increases for everyone on pensions. Through their success the orphans and widows and others will also benefit."
And, in fact, the Organization of Disabled Revolutionaries (ORD) has led the most energetic protests carried out by this sector.
ORD represents several thousand of those with disabilities from the war or other causes, including the great majority of those helped by IHCA. ORD activists have peacefully occupied various media; they've mobilized in the streets; they've explained their cause to sympathetic journalists; and they've repeatedly taken their message door to door.
Those with war injuries come together because they need each other. And they try to bring together other equally forgotten sectors because they know that united they have a greater possibility of getting a response from a government that does not remember its electoral promises. As this issue of envío goes to press, a number of them are entering the third week of a hunger strike for a 200% pension increase. They have been joined in this drastic measure by several Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs, as well as by recently discharged military personnel. So far, the government has refused to meet with them.
Whatever disability these discontented people have seems to present no obstacle to the riot police or the President, who herself needs a cane to get around. On her orders, the police used tear gas to break up one of ORD's protests several months ago.
"These war veterans are so forgotten by everyone that not even the FSLN concerns itself with them," adds Father Alvarado. "No member of the National Directorate has the specific function of seeing to them, nor is there any form of organized and official attention, nothing. Just the search for quotas of power. Regrettably, some of them need prostheses for their soul too, like the gringos.
"Some international organizations," Father Alvarado continues sadly, "gave real support to Nicaragua's struggle during the war years. That was beautiful and worthy of gratitude, but now they aren't concerned about the aftermath of that war. They helped create consciousness about it, but they aren't doing the same now to help those who played it out to the end, following the ideological message that they helped spread. Today they say they're only interested in programs with a structural impact.
"And the worst thing is that they say they're followers of the Crucified one."
Work in Masaya: A special qualityJose "Chepe" Núñez only joined the team a few months ago, when it began to work in the Masaya area. There you don't have to go looking for the veteran in his house, perhaps wishing for a corkscrew to pull him out of its farthest room, where he’s been hiding for years. In Masaya, the veterans seek out the religious workers so they can propose their project and try to begin their life again.
"There's little we can teach these budding merchants here," says Chepe, with an admiring twinkle in his eye. "I'll give you one case. IHCA financed a small cart for cosmetic products for one of the vets here, sort of a vanity table on wheels, with a mirror. He's now created a list of clients who buy on time, paying him a córdoba or two a day. That way these clients, most of them women, don't feel like they're paying him anything. But he collects. He's devised a real work method, too. In the mornings, he makes his rounds, selling cosmetics and collecting his daily payments. In the afternoons, he first goes and buys replacement stock, then he goes home and does his accounting.
"The best part is his accounting system: he makes a copy of everything in three different notebooks, which he keeps in three different places. I once asked him if he didn't think it would be enough to keep just one set of books, and he said, 'What if I lose it? I don't remember everything they owe me, but if I keep three sets, it would be hard for them to all get lost.' How do you like that for seriousness?"
Masaya was one of the places where the National Guard repression hit hardest, well before Somoza's imminent downfall became obvious even to him. The people defended themselves as best they could, and everyone pitched in: men, women and children. IHCA assists three of these women who were injured before the triumph.
"It's not necessarily always economic help," says Chepe, "because one of the women is already economically self-sufficient. But all three of them need someone to listen to them, to speak to them about God, to remind them they're not alone."
These women were very young when they were injured, 15 years ago, but now they're adults, particularly by Nicaraguan standards.
And they're still fighters. "The guards messed up my legs, but not my heart," says one, who was left with two useless legs when she was not yet 20.
"You can't imagine a person less interested in money than she is," exclaims Chepe. "It was even a problem to convince her to let us finance a refrigerator to help with a tiny store she and her mother run in the house. The two are alive because God is great, but they radiate such happiness, such eagerness for life!"
Gerardo Cibrián is another member of the Masaya team. As a Salvadoran, he is particularly aware of pain and suffering and profound human needs. In his view, Masaya's veterans feel very committed to IHCA, and try especially hard to make a success of the ventures it has financed. He sees how they help each other so they won't founder. "It's not fear of losing IHCA's economic support," Gerardo clarifies, "but fear of frustrating their friends. A bond of affection and friendship has been established that has become an incentive for our work and their recovery."
Courageous and aggressive "I do everything I can and try not to be passive," says Juan Carlos Aburto. "I get upon the roof and fix the leaks; I go from one place to another, because I'm not going to remain crippled." Juan Carlos is a big man, 41 years old, strong as an oak tree, and paralyzed from the waist down.
He clearly doesn't let obstacles get in his way. He fell in love with the attractive young woman who is now his wife, and they now have a six-month-old daughter. Right now, as she plays happily in her mother's arms, his daughter gives every impression of listening attentively to his story.
Juan Carlos' life has obviously been hard for him, and, despite his obvious courage, one detects a tinge of bitterness as he talks. At times you get the sense that he has lost almost all his faith in just about everything. But after talking with him longer, you come to understand that he's coming into a second innocence that gives the effect of believing in nothing.
"Only in God. Before, with the other government, it was nice, because it really helped you as much as it could. But there's nothing you can do with these people. I have to take some very strong vitamins, which are expensive, to maintain strength in my arms so I can get around on crutches. But now I have to buy them, and there's no money. It's been more than five months since I've taken any, since the baby was born."
This confession leaves him a little sad, but a smile from the tiny girl wipes the clouds from his face. One of Juan Carlos' characteristics is that he never got wrinkles. Difficulties just get him moving to try to resolve them. Perhaps there's a big fear of moral defeat in this courage with its strong aggressive stripe. Perhaps he fears that his first defeat will be his last, that he'll never be able to get up again if he falls once.
"I had a cart that I used to go out and sell, but it failed," he says (the business, not him), "so now I sell firewood and kerosene in the house. That takes care of our minimum needs."
He complements that by going out in the cart twice a week selling fruit drinks in plastic bags. "I also pick up everything I find in the street that might be useful for something: old tires, batteries. You can't get much for a drawer full of nice clean batteries, but they'll give you something, and if you've pulled them out of the garbage, it's all profit." With his hands and a little bit of patience, the man who doesn't want to remain crippled mends everything he finds and resells it, and with that and God's will he's mending himself.
His boldness and his decisiveness are nothing new. As soon as the new Sandinista Popular Army was formed, he became one of its supply chiefs. As the war heated up, Juan Carlos was the one who went wherever there was a military base, no matter how dangerous and difficult it was, to deliver food and other provisions to the young combatants, even though he was no longer so young himself.
In 1981, he fell off a truck in Puerto Cabezas and was nearly killed. It took a while, but he recovered, although it was harder to get around after that. Anyone else would have decided he'd had enough and would have looked for another line of work.
But not Juan Carlos. He continued working with the army as soon as he was back on his feet, and in 1984 friends convinced him to volunteer for a Reserve Infantry Battalion, one of the last to be organized before the first contingent of new draftees completed training and took over from the barely trained volunteer units.
"Well, it wasn't quite voluntary," says Juan Carlos. "What happens is that your friends begin to get you enthused, and suddenly it's like, if you go I'll go, and in the end we all went. They convinced me, and I went."
His battalion was sent to Tronquera, a town in the North Atlantic with an inactive pine resin factory, a too-active military base and hardly anything else. Way up there near the combat-riddled Río Coco, Juan Carlos fractured his pelvis. If he'd received the necessary treatment in time, Juan Carlos would be walking with no difficulty today. But meanwhile, his buddies in the battalion did what they thought was right for such a tough man. "Those savages! When they saw that I wasn't getting up, they said, 'Hey man, move, don't give us all that sissy stuff about how you can't. There's nothing wrong with you.' And they stood me up to see if they could get me walking. I kept saying, 'Leave me alone! I can't walk, I can't!' Can you imagine that, with a broken pelvis? They damn near killed me!"
The members of these battalions, for the most part adult men, toughened by the struggle for life and the struggle for the struggle, were the twin brothers of those volunteer fighters for the Spanish Republic, of whom a sensitive and sainted priest said, "What brutes, my God, but what men!"
Juan Carlos belongs to that race, too. When he had recovered a little and learned to get around on his crutches, he continued collaborating with the army. "And would you believe it!" he says midway between rage and a clean chuckle, "pretty soon they wanted to get me in combat again, just the way I am. Those spongers weren't going, but they said to me, 'Look, we'll stick you in a machine-gun nest and only haul you out when you're dead.' Wow, what a way to tempt me. But that time I refused, I didn't want to go." Probably a wise decision.
Again the nostalgia creeps in for those faraway times, when being disabled in the war was an honor, if not a privilege.
"Medicines? Free. Medical treatment? Free. I'd go to a military base where some friend of mine was and they'd give me everything I needed; I had no needs and no grief. And at Christmas a little gift for the kids, for the family. Now when my daughter was born I had to pay 10 pesos just to get her out of the hospital."
Ten pesos—or córdobas—is two dollars, very little money on the face of it. But for someone who works until he drops for every cent, it's major capital.
But not even this gets him down for long. Projects continue buzzing around in his head trying to get put in practice. He's got everything in that head except cowardice, everything except taking a backward step. Step backward? Hah, not even to take aim.
Only one thing gets Juan Carlos really annoyed, and that's coming across one of those who call themselves Sandinistas doing anything incorrect; worse yet, if they come around trying to take advantage of the disabled vets. And some do, because there are all kinds.
Hope fights backThe experience of Sergio Flores shows that there are all kinds. A serious man and a worker, his main suffering on coming back from the war with no more fingers on his right hand was that no one offered him a job. So there he stayed, in a corner, maintained by his wife, with whom he has two children, trying to figure out what to do.
It affects many men profoundly to be maintained by a woman, even if she's his wife, and even if it's for such obvious reasons as a physical disability. The theme is ingrained into Nicaraguan culture, as it is in the rest of Latin America. The man is supposed to maintain the house, period. If he can't do it, he shouldn't have one; if he can maintain more than one, he can have them all.
The Jesuits came to Sergio's salvation, helping him find something useful to do for himself and others. El Dulce Nombre de Jesus, the district he lives in, had no mill, so when people wanted to grind something—corn, meat or cheese, for example—they had to walk four kilometers to the nearest mill. A mill is an absolute necessity for a Nicaraguan, since many foods, even fruit drinks, are made from ground products. Sergio installed a mill and earned a good living and the gratitude of his neighbors.
But, like in all the fairy stories, success had a price. Sergio's wife's ambitious stepfather concluded that, since the mill, which was generating such good returns, was installed in his house, it should be his. At the beginning, his message was indirect but increasingly clear—silences heavy with threats and aggressiveness. Sergio's mother-in-law took her husband's side, even insulting her own daughter, who had sided with her own husband, who, loyalties aside, had right on his side. The situation became so intolerable that Sergio decided to defend his possession: with IHCA's help, he took the mill apart and dismantled the room he had set it up in, and moved to another community that also had no mill.
Now his old neighbors in El Dulce Nombre de Jesus have to walk four kilometers again if they want to make nacatamales or pinol.
Being friendsMost of the young Jesuits who work with the war disabled aren't Nicaraguans, nor were they living in the country during the long conflict with the United States. But they come from neighboring countries, where there was always a lot of interest in what was happening in Nicaragua even though equally bloody conflicts were taking place inside their very own borders. This was certainly the case of Victor Valdivieso, from El Salvador, who requested to join the IHCA program the minute he learned about it. He was accepted a couple of months ago.
"I always admired these brothers' struggles and wanted to work with them," he confesses, "because one gets involved emotionally with their lives. That's the only way to do good work, although you have to know how to maintain the necessary distance when it comes time to make the hard decisions that will really help them.
"But you can only truly comprehend and help them if you put your heart in it and let yourself get caught up in their world."
Victor arrived after the work was already a year old. At the beginning, he feared that his presence would inhibit those he was assigned to visit. "They'd never seen me before," he explains, "and didn't know who I was. Mistrust would have been logical."
But that didn't happen. The young men opened up to him without fear, given their confidence in IHCA and in the Society of Jesus. "I became fond of them and that's all there was to it," he says. "Their trust, their simplicity won me over; it's very motivating and helped me learn about a very complex problem. I figured I'd learn about these problems sooner or later, but I didn't expect that it would be so soon and with such frankness."
But everything isn't rose-colored. Sometimes you discover signs of a lack of solidarity among them, though that isn't so surprising. "They are so poor and in such need that it's not so unusual that they'd opt for a 'me first' policy." But solidarity is more common. Sometimes when a disabled vet presents a project, he asks for the smallest financing possible so as to leave some money for others. And when things go well for him, he does everything he can to repay the whole loan and not just the symbolic percentage to which he commits himself.
The young Jesuits have come to understand that accompaniment is at least as important as the economic aspect. Consequently, they don't hesitate to also help people who aren't strictly included in the program. "Numerous disabled people come looking for us, even if their economic situation is taken care of," says Victor. "One particularly pathetic case is a kid with all kinds of support from a well-off family. He lives in his room with a video, musical instruments, everything a young man could want."
If he wants anything else, all he has to do is ask, and his family does everything possible to get it for him. "But he was never accepted with his new disability and was overwhelmed by loneliness. I don't know how he learned that we existed," muses Victor, "but he came looking for us to ask for help. It was clear that he didn't need economic help, but it was just as clear that he needed something. So we visit him after we finish our work with the others. He's always waiting for us with some surprise, like a new video or some new cassette to listen to. He does everything to make our stay in his house as pleasant as possible, as though he doesn't realize that we're going to see him, not his videocassettes. You can tell that each one of our visits is like a party for him."
Not yet a cornerstoneJadder Cruz's life has been one frustration after another. Motherless since he was very young, he was taken care of by his older sister and brothers until 1989, when his name came up on one of the last draft calls. Only a few months before the FSLN's electoral defeat marked the end of US aggression, and thus of the war, he was wounded in the foot and ended up with his leg amputated at the knee. But his stump gets infected constantly, requiring continual care so he won't get gangrene.
Jadder preferred not to leave the house. Staying between the four walls was better than going out into the street, where his old acquaintances could see that he was now an "invalid." He didn't try anything by himself until IHCA found him and convinced him that all people are necessary.
His project to sell basic grains and do shoe repairs door to door was small, but it got him out of the house, forced him to face himself and others. He did it and he made a profit, which he drank. Meanwhile he looked for a woman with whom to make a family, but some would say that his aim was a bit off the mark there too.
She loves him, that's clear, and he her, but she's old enough to be his mother. In any case, they get along well. And, in her, Jadder, the man for whom everything always goes sour, found support, security, incentive. Perhaps he sees her as the mother he never had, but living with her has given him more self-assurance; despite his disability and all his other problems, he was able to win a woman's love.
IHCA doesn't pretend to be everyone's solution, just to help each one find his own road and travel it. The objective isn't to resolve every problem, but to support the solutions people find by themselves and have been unable to implement for lack of money or other help. And when someone gets snarled up in the search for solutions, IHCA tries to stay nearby, so the small advances that have already been made aren't lost.
For some time now, Jadder has been given occasional help with medicines and food, in the hope that he'll find his road.
Because he will find it. He's energetic, a worker. His two hands are capable tools that can turn simple raw material into useful things. He's a good craftsperson, endowed with a great ability to resolve small practical things. And he's sweet and good-natured, when drink doesn't make him aggressive.
The value of beginning again
Leonardo Vega's life is like a summary of Nicaraguan history, which in turn is like the story of Sisyphus, except that, for Vega and his country, there's no good explanation for why they have to keep rolling the stone back up the hill only to have it get away from them close to the top. And except that neither Vega nor his country ever lose their spirit or their smile or the conviction that this time they'll make it to the top.
Leonardo's life wasn't always marked by difficulty. He was born 37 years ago on his parent's small but lovingly worked farm. The land was full of trees and in their shade sang rippling brooks whose waters fed the rich earth, winter and summer, providing abundant harvests. And the generosity of the fruit trees was nature's recompense to human effort.
But under Somoza, it wasn't good for a peasant to have a farm that looked so nice. It was taken away from the family, and that's when the problems began. Leonardo's parents and all his brothers and sisters went from pillar to post in search of their daily bread.
Some cousins who had moved to San Salvador offered Leonardo a job, so he went, partly to see if he could earn something to help his parents, and partly to relieve them of one more mouth to feed. His cousins had a photography studio, and soon he learned the profession.
Six years later, the 21-year-old budding photographer with a small nest egg returned to Nicaragua, still ruled by Somoza. He came with his whole life ahead of him and plans to open his own photo shop and help his parents. But he had barely set foot in Managua when he sensed strange movements by the National Guard.
One of his brothers, the one who looked most like him, had joined the FSLN, and those were the days when the guardias shot first and asked questions later. "When I realized what was going on," recalls Leonardo, "I said to myself, 'Why let them kill me for nothing? Better to go all the way.'" So he joined the FSLN too.
He was underground for three years. Combats, struggles, fear, wounded once, but nothing serious. During that time, he learned to love the people who risked their lives to protect him without even knowing him. Then the triumph.
Leonardo got a job in the Ministry of the Interior. His work took him all over the country, always struggling for a cause that was now his. He ran a thousand risks, but seemed invulnerable: not a scratch. Until one day in 1986, when he was on the easiest mission of his military life, a few miles from his house. The vehicle he was riding in went into a ravine the hard way.
It was a year before he could walk again. His wife—because by now he had married—was having serious health problems and was hospitalized during most of the same period. Their children were scattered among relatives and friends, and their half-built house was broken into in their absence.
Finally Leonardo was able to begin his life and his photography business again—and again, and again. On the first occasion, business was so good that the owner of the space he'd rented decided to keep it all; on the second, it flourished so much that it attracted thieves, who stripped the place clean of its cameras and lab equipment. Now he's on his third try, with IHCA's help.
"Let's see if the third time's the charm," he says with a sigh, "because this is terrible." It surely will be. His children, after the difficult experience of their parents' hospitalization, are growing happy and healthy; his wife is much better; and even his parents have recovered their farm, although, to make more money faster, the old "owners" cut down all the trees to sell the wood, so the network of streams dried up. But, no matter, Leonardo and his brothers are reforesting the old wooded areas, and in the shade of the young trees, the brooks are reappearing and beginning to sing again.
The strength of convictionsWhen a person suffers an injury such as those suffered by these veterans, the best support is strong convictions. Among those whom IHCA is helping, those who have suffered least are precisely those who have a firm grip on their faith.
Marvin Carballo and Jaime José García find the energy to meet the test in their religious faith; Francisco Calero in his political faith. Marvin is by tradition a cabinetmaker; it runs in his family.
His father and brothers have all worked with wood. But a war injury left Marvin's arm shriveled and stiff. Being unable to stretch one's arms makes it kind of difficult to do cabinetry work, but not impossible. Besides, Marvin has help from his family and its furniture shop got an electric saw with help from IHCA, which facilitates the work. Now the shop can do more, and more quickly, leaving more time for finishing.
The economic crisis has unquestionably affected business; it's harder to sell the beautiful, practical and resistant furniture that the family makes, but God hasn't abandoned them. There's always something to do, because there's always some small order to help make ends meet. It's never enough to get them out of poverty, but it provides enough to eat, and in these golden times that's about an one can ask.
And in his daily prayers, Marvin and his other brothers in religion and in disability who go to the same church, support each other and give each other energy. Marvin asks God to keep things at least as they have been up to now, and, if possible, let them improve, but that, in any case, that he do His Will.
Jaime, like Marvin a Protestant, is the same. The difference is in their activity; Jaime is a farmer. With his magical hands, a little land, water and sun, he transforms tiny seeds into giant, succulent cabbages good enough for the best salad. They are God's miracles in which human beings collaborate a little.
Jaime's three small sons are another miracle; they are growing day by day into responsible and kindhearted adults like their father. Because the life of a man of faith is a daily miracle, even when it seems that nothing is changing and when life is made very difficult by personal physical problems and the economic problems of society as a whole.
Francisco Calero's faith is political. He's convinced that human beings can and should work to improve the world, so that all of us become brothers and sisters, with no more wars like the one that left him disabled—but not invalid, because a human being is always valid. Is there a faith more religious than such a political faith?
Francisco sells products in the Jinotepe market that he gets in places far from home. At times he travels to other countries to find articles no one else sells, at better prices. And with better profits.
He's used to struggling. He started participating with the FSLN during the struggle to overthrow Somoza and stayed in the struggle afterward, too, until he received a stray bullet. He isn't staying just with his own struggle even now; he helps other comrades with disabilities who have buried themselves in the depths of their fears to go back out into life. Given his courage, his way of facing a life that isn't easy for anyone, and certainly not for someone with a disability, he's considered an authority in his community. Not a man with power, which he doesn't have, or need or want. But an authority. His word is listened to like the word of biblical patriarchs, despite his youth, because he preaches through examples.
Crossing borders with loveBecause IHCA is an institution linked to the Society of Jesus, it could recreate variations of its work the length and breadth of Central America, where several countries have had traumatic experiences similar to Nicaragua's.
Now that peace accords have been signed in El Salvador, there is a good possibility that the work beginning there will be able to continue and the religious workers involved will be able to carry it out without complications.
Omar Serrano, a Salvadoran Jesuit who recently returned to his country, initiated this work in two sectors of the Chalatenango parish, called Arcatao and Las Flores. But the work there has very different characteristics than in Nicaragua, especially in zones under FMLN influence for a long time, such as Chalatenango. The defense needs there imposed a very specific way of life.
"One big problem is that the inhabitants of these zones in general, and those with disabilities in particular, haven't come down to earth yet," explains Omar; "they're still doing somersaults. And it's not surprising: ten years of war and persecution that ended like shutting off the tap generates a completely abnormal normality."
When a powerful enemy attacks human beings collectively, their natural tendency is toward collective defense. This tendency multiplies and extends to all spheres of life when the coordinator of the defense is a guerrilla organization like the FMLN, in which everything is proposed collectively. It thus isn't occurring to anyone to organize family micro-projects, even ones linked together and organized among themselves to resolve everyone's problems. They think only of big projects that involve the collective whole. "This is super costly," says Omar, "and there's no tangible government project for the recuperation of these compañeros. It's known that, theoretically, $10 million has been assigned to this zone, but no one has seen it nor does anyone know what projects it will be invested in."
Long years of living under siege have created tremendous solidarity, but some customs of the modern world have been forgotten, such as the use of money, for example. Limited to a situation of strict survival, these communities long ago abandoned the glitter of commerce; their needs are minimal, but now difficult to satisfy because there's nowhere to buy anything.
In the district where Omar works, there are 50 people with war disabilities. Half of them are originally from other areas, and were sent here recently, after returning from Cuba, where they received treatment and rehabilitation. They came full of expectations, thinking they'd have a good chance of being taken into account because there were so many of them, thinking they must have been sent there because something big was in the works. But the days passed and nothing happened.
In charge of two zones with more than 400 families, Omar feels that the only thing he can do is accompany them, keep their spirits up and spread the word far and wide about what is happening. It's the hope of someone shipwrecked on a desert island who throws a bottle with a message into the sea.
And one more problem: most of the 25 disabled from the zone don't have prostheses, and are in need of physiotherapy and rehabilitation. If they don't receive it, it will be almost impossible for many of them to begin an activity of any kind.
He can at least help heal wounds of the soul, always more serious. "Those who just came back from Cuba don't know each other nor do they know the others who were already here. So, on top of all the other problems, you have to add loneliness, isolation, distance from their own families and, often, no knowledge of what has even happened to them."
"The majority of these brothers are peasants, and they'll come up with a way to work it, despite their injuries. And they need a house. Of the 190 families that live in Arcatao, 175 don't have housing.
"They're all from there and had a house once, but the war turned everything into rubble. And they don't dare invest the little they have in building, because they fear they'll be thrown off the land from one minute to the next." But, says Omar, they don't lose their good humor, despite the desolate reality.
"There is a lot of work here," says Omar. "These people even need to be taught again to call each other by their real names, because until just a few months ago they only used war pseudonyms. They need to be helped to trust in themselves outside of the organization, to be shown that they are very valuable people, because they have great courage and tremendous values and, above all, because God loves them."
IHCA wants to dedicate a lot of its work to youth born and bred in a war, who have barely begun to savor the silence of the weapons. And it will do it, because there are plenty of young Jesuits eager to work in such a human and divine project. But even if there weren't, the Salvadoran youth is spilling over with love and generosity and could continue the work with lay Christians.
Under the blue skies, there's always room for hope.