The “Freedom” Fighters’ Dirty War: The Testimony of a US Nun
On January 8, counterrevolutionaries laid several ambushes near the town of San Juan de Limay, in the department of Estelí, killing 11 workers. The following day, at their funeral in Estelí, government leader Carlos Manuel Morales emotionally referred to the contras in the following manner: “The trained dogs of the US government are the murderers of our peasants, teachers, workers, young people, engineers…” The President of the United States does not call them “trained dogs” but rather “freedom fighters.” He has even said that he is “proud” of them. In the last three months, while hoping to receive more funds from the US, the contras have intensified their attacks on civilian objectives, especially peasant cooperatives, perpetrating vicious murder.
As a result of the ambushes in the San Juan de Limay area on January 8, Nancy Donovan, a US nun who does pastoral work in the region, was held for several hours by the contras. The Central American Historical Institute had the opportunity to speak with her and hear her straightforward account, which provides important facts for a better understanding of the war being waged on Nicaragua. Although, from a US perspective, this war is described as one of “low intensity,” for Nicaragua, with its limited human and material resources, the intensity is extremely high.
Nancy Donovan is 52 has been a Maryknoll sister for 35 years. She has worked for 29 years in Central America, the last three and a half of which have been spent in Nicaragua in the rural parish of San Juan de Limay. She and another US churchwoman carry out most of the functions of a priest, represent the Bishop, and do various kinds of pastoral work: organizing and accompanying Christian base communities celebrating the sacraments, teaching catechism, holding Bible studies, and visiting outlying communities. She is very familiar with the area and its people.
“On January 8, I left Limay early in the morning to travel to Estelí for a meeting with our Bishop, Rubén López Ardón. I had to hitch a ride because transportation’s very bad in the area. On December 9, the counterrevolutionaries had burnt the only remaining public vehicle in our town. Some people would’ve said that the old bus was like a cattle truck, but for us it was quite useful, and it was all we had. They ambushed it, kidnapped several of its passengers, and burned it. While it was flaming, other buses were on their way down from Estelí, carrying workers and their families who had been making visits. They also ambushed those buses, abducted some of the passengers, and murdered four others. None of them were members of the military, and none of them were carrying weapons. They were all civilians, and they killed them.”
Nicaragua’s highways are few and bad, and secondary roads are usually in even worse shape. Transportation is a serious problem that is aggravated by economic restrictions, which make it increasingly difficult to obtain the needed spare parts to keep old vehicles running. To travel from one place to another, people have to take advantage of any vehicle going their way: private vehicles, which are always overloaded, military vehicles that pick up civilians, or state vehicles used by government employees performing tasks in fields such as health care, construction, communications, and agrarian reform. Indiscriminately, the contras have made all these means of transportation their targets, ambushing them, destroying them, and killing or abducting their occupants.
“On the morning of January 8, I was given a ride by a peasant family that was moving its scarce belongings to Estelí in a pickup truck. They were refugees. They had lost their house when the counterrevolutionaries attacked the small community of Platanares on December 27, and they were terrorized. They also gave a ride to a boy about 18 years old.”
Counterrevolutionary terror has caused approximately 150,000 Nicaraguan peasants to move away from their homes. These “refugees” are usually from remote mountainous areas. Following contra attacks or acts of vengeance on community members involved in work identified with the revolution, they flee to larger towns or to the capital of the department. Taking care of these thousands of families is an extra burden imposed by the war.
“About six kilometers from Limay, before reaching the new highway to Estelí, we saw a tractor that was stopped in the middle of the road. Five men in blue FDN uniforms appeared and made us come to a halt. They forced us to get out of the truck and put us with 25 other people in a gully. Ten minutes later, they allowed us to continue on our way, but we didn’t know what would happen to the other people that they kept there.
“We pulled out, but I began to worry about all the other people that had left Limay that morning and would be stopped by the counterrevolutionaries. I imagined that there would be more of them along the road and that the best thing would therefore be to try to return immediately to Limay and warn people of the danger. Four kilometers down the road we came to El Pedernal, and I asked the driver to drop me off so that I could attempt to make it back to Limay and inform people of what was happening. I went to four houses, trying to find a horse, but nobody had one, so I decided to go by foot along a familiar path that would take me from Platanares to Limay.
“I walked for two kilometers, and after I passed the houses in Pozo Colorado, two armed men from the FDN stopped me. They told me that I couldn’t continue. Then, after speaking over their walkie-talkies, they took me to a place where there were 20 more men wearing blue FDN uniforms. They also stopped some peasant farmers who were passing by. I didn’t have a watch, but I would estimate that it was about 8 o’clock when I began to hear shots coming from the direction of the road where they had stopped our pickup truck. I could also hear heavy artillery fire. I began to pray for the lives of those who were surely being ambushed.”
How can the contras operate so freely in certain areas? What kind of support do they receive from the population? Sister Nancy gives the following explanation for the Limay region: “Counterrevolutionaries are settled in two or three of our communities. They have won over some people who don’t understand much about what’s really going on. The contras talk to them about communism and give them things that are scarce. Sometimes people get involved because they have family contacts. So the contras live in these communities with their families, and the community serves as their base when they go out to take part in an ambush. Some people are only used for occasional activities by leaders who live somewhere else. Once they’re outside the village, they put on their uniforms. The leaders are better trained, and they keep in contact with leaders from other areas. They have very good communications equipment. This situation, which the armed forces cannot completely control, has created insecurity and a great deal of distrust among people from different localities. People wonder who’s providing the contras with food, who’s doing spy work for them, etc. Even though we try to explain the problem, our communities have been divided. This war, which has been imposed on us from outside Nicaragua, has turned people into each other’s enemies.”
“After communicating with their walkie-talkies, the counterrevolutionaries lined up all the civilians they had been stopping and made us start walking. I heard one of them say: ‘There’s a woman here.’ Some of the counterrevolutionary peasant farmers knew that I was a US nun. They soon separated me from the rest of the group, and three of them took me in a different direction. I don’t know what happened to the rest of the group; I didn’t see them after that. In a short time, we met with another 20 contras and, about a kilometer farther on, with 20 more. Some were wearing Sandinista uniforms. Then, we walked on for two kilometers until we reached Santa Ana. I kept insisting that they allow me to return to Limay, but they refused. We continued to wind through mountainous territory and reached Los Encuentros. There, under a mango tree, there were 20 more of them. That made a total of approximately 60.
“As we were walking, they told me that, if I wanted, I could speak over their radio, the 15 de Septiembre, which operates out of Honduras. With the equipment that they have, I could have spoken directly from where we were, but I didn’t want to. They also talked about how successful they’d been with their ambushes. That was the shooting that I’d heard, but I still didn’t know what had happened.”
Some of Sister Nancy’s conversation with the simple peasant counterrevolutionaries illustrates the kind of arguments that they use:
- You people always complain that, with the revolution, there’s a scarcity of certain things; so, why did you burn our vehicle?
- Because it belonged to the state.
- Ask the people from Limay, and they’ll tell you: that was our bus.
- No, that bus didn’t belong to the people. If it had, nobody would’ve had to pay.
- Why do you kidnap and kill people?
- We only do that with Sandinistas and the ones who belong to the army.
- But we weren’t with the army.
- You’re all Sandinistas.
- Are you going to let me go?
- Is this the first time you’ve had any contact with us?
- I bet you thought we were no good.
- It’s not up to me to judge anyone. All people have their own conscience. What’s important are their acts.
- We only harm the Sandinistas. The revolution’s evil; it’s communist and atheist.
- How do you know that?
- Before we never had to line up with a card to get sugar. That’s communism.
- And how do you know that the revolution is atheist?
- The nine comandantes are against religion.
- But have you people had any problems practicing your religion?
- No, not us.
- Well, I’m a nun, and the only problems I’ve had have been with you people, in places where you’ve been.
“The counterrevolutionaries who were holding me had very good uniforms. The majority of them had the letters ‘FDN.’ One had ‘US Army’ on his arm, and another ‘Soldier of Fortune, Second Convention.’ Everything they had seemed quite new. One of them said to me: ‘There’s a plane that comes by very quietly in the night and drops us really good provisions.’ ”
The counterrevolutionaries’ capacity to survive without major difficulties and set up operations in remote areas of the country is due to more than the support that they receive from certain peasant farmers. For several years, aircraft—often belonging to the US—have been taking off from Honduras and Costa Rica and violating Nicaragua’s air space in order to provide the contras with supplies. Nicaragua does not have the means to intercept these flights, although many of them have been detected.
“Four FDN members, who were obviously leaders, began to interrogate me under a tree. They wanted to know who my contacts were; they searched my bag, went through my address book, and wrote down the addresses of some people from Limay. I could tell that they were leaders who had undergone training; they weren’t peasants. They were very abrupt and bossy. Later, in Limay, people told me that they were the kind that received training in Panama. They knew who I was, and that’s why they didn’t harm me. After a conversation with their walkie-talkies, they le me go. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon.
“I walked to Santa Ana, where a family gave me food and coffee. Then a farmer took me on horseback to La Grecia, about three or four kilometers from Limay. From there, I walked to Limay, where I arrived at approximately 6 o’clock. I must have walked about 18 kilometers that day.
“When I got to Limay, I found out what had happened. The counterrevolutionaries had murdered 14 people, all civilians, in two separate ambushes along the road where I had passed. Two days later, some people found another corpse: it was Freddy’s. Those were the results of the shooting that I’d heard.
“They killed a lot of people, and some of them were friends of mine. Nine of the 15 were technicians and workers from the Ministry of Construction; two were workers from the Institute of National Resources; one was the tractor driver; and there were two boys who’d been picking coffee. They also destroyed four tractors, which I saw later.
“I spent that night and the following day washing the corpses, consoling the families, praying with them, and burying the dead who had lived in Limay. We were late in reporting on what had occurred because the counterrevolutionaries had destroyed the telegraph and telephone a month earlier.
“They killed the son of Tránsito Calderón and Conchita, two delegates of the Word: he was the 18-year-old boy riding me in the pickup truck. They’d pulled him out of the truck after I got down. His corpse was found only two days later: he’d been brutally tortured. The couple has five children, and all five are very Christian, very revolutionary, and very good people. During the funeral, one of the brothers said: ‘I promise to take revenge.’ His mother hugged him and said: ‘We’re Christians, my son, and we can’t speak of revenge.’ Right there what both parents did was to encourage the four remaining children to be faithful to their revolutionary commitment.
“They also killed Paco’s son. Paco’s over 60 and looks old and worn out, but he hasn’t stopped working. He’s presently building houses for a new cooperative project. He leaves for work early in the morning and comes home late and very tired. His 18-year-old son was working as a tractor driver for the cooperative. They killed him in the ambush. Paco was holding back his sorrow; his only consolation was that his son’s corpse showed fewer sings of torture than those of the other dead. The counterrevolutionaries don’t only kill; they do terrible things to people before they finish them off. They cut off arms and hack their victims with knives all over their bodies. So, when the families receive their corpses, there’s more than the grief of seeing a dead child: imagine what it’s like to see the body completely disfigured. I haven’t seen the CIA manual that they give the contras, but I know that their orders are to kill, terrorize, and do all the harm they can.
“But they hadn’t just killed people in the ambush; they also abducted ten people, whom we still haven’t heard from.”
Following ambushes or attacks on cooperatives or communities, the contras kidnap certain people, some of whom are women and children. The usually take the youngest and strongest men and boys so that they can be used in armed combat or to carry equipment; they also force the women to work as cooks. Many kidnapping victims succeed in escaping during the night or in the midst of an encounter with the Sandinista forces. Those who have fled have provided a great deal of information on the way the counterrevolutionaries live, but many kidnapped Nicaraguans never return.
“I couldn’t even say how many people from Limay have been abducted, but there’ve been lots. Tranquilino, a delegate of the Word, has three sons who’ve been kidnapped. The first time, they took his 15 and 18 year olds. Then they abducted another one the time they burned the public vehicle. No one has heard anything about any of the three. He’s a man whose ideas are very clear about what’s happening, and he’s suffering terribly. Then there’s the woman from Platanares: they took away her husband and one of her sons a year ago. Just recently, on December 27 when they attacked her community, they abducted the oldest son, who’s 14 years old and was working for the co-op. She’s in very sad shape now, all alone with five young children.
“Since December, they haven’t given us any respite. The suffering’s been awful. Christmas time was very difficult. On December 27, they attacked Platanares, where there’s a cooperative. They surrounded the village, machine-gunned the houses, and forced some of the people out of their homes. Some of them were still sleeping. A small number of men had weapons, and they tried to defend the community. Six of them died. They kidnapped women, killed some people inside their houses, burned houses, and pillaged them, robbing money and even children’s clothes. Now no one lives in Platanares. Who’s going to harvest the coffee and corn? We’re going to lose the little bit that we’ve got.
“On the 28th, we celebrated the First Communion of 40 children, but the celebration was short; we had to get the children out of the church because the corpses of the peasants killed in Platanares were at the door. So many people have been murdered that we’re lacking coffins, space in the cemetery, and sheets to wrap the bodies.”
IHCA: Sister Nancy, what would you tell the President of your country if you had the chance to talk to him?
Nancy Donovan: Mr. President, the people you call freedom fighters are committing a terrible crime in Nicaragua, not just because they cause suffering but also because they represent the spirit of evil acting in this country. Someday you’ll have to answer to God for all this: just like you should already be answering to your own people for the diabolical acts that you’re sponsoring. If you want to help the Nicaraguan people, be assured that this isn’t the way. And if what you want is to spread terror, be careful because you may be sowing stronger determination. Many US citizens who are aware of what’s happening in Nicaragua have sent you letters that say: “This has to stop.” That’s also my message to you: We’ve had enough!
Ambushes, kidnappings, and attacks on civilians Ambushes and attacks on civilians in November and December were principally aimed at sabotaging the coffee harvest. Following the significant military offensives launched by the Sandinista army toward the end of December, the ambushes and attacks became desperate terrorist reprisals as the contras retreated in defeat. Nevertheless, the results are always death and destruction.
from November 1984 to January 1985
2: Contras ambushed a vehicle carrying election material between El Cua and San José de Bocay. All six occupants were killed, including two military officials, a nurse, and a teacher.
2: Contras kidnapped 18 peasants in Casa de Tabla, 9 kms southeast of Nueva Guinea.
5: Contras attacked and destroyed the ULI cooperative, 7 kms east of Siuna.
5: Contras attacked the communities of La Fonseca (19 kms southeast of Nueva Guinea), José Benito Escobar (20 kms northeast of Nueva Guinea), and La Esperanza (10 kms northeast of Nueva Guinea), killing four campesinos and wounding one.
7: Contras attacked the El Hormiguero agricultural cooperative, 12 km west of Siuna.
14: 300 contras attacked the state coffee farm of La Sorpresa, 35 kms north of Jinotega. They killed four women, two infants, and eight other peasants and kidnapped five coffee pickers, including two Miskito Indians. The contras burned the coffee processing facilities and the peasants’ houses, causing 2.5 million córdobas in material damages. The mother of one of the murdered children recounted the “freedom fighters’ warning to her: “If we find any more harvesting coffee, we’ll hang them.”
15: Contras ambushed a jeep en route to survey the damages al La Sorpresa, killing all seven occupants: a little girl, a journalist, the manager of the National Development Bank, three FSLN representatives from that region, and the driver.
15: Contras attacked the Ernesto Acuña farm cooperative, 10 km northwest of La Dalia, Matagalpa, killing four peasants who tried to fend off the attack. (Some farm co-ops are called “self-defense cooperatives.” Their members are armed to defend the community against possible contra attacks.) The co-op is the home of 42 peasants.
16: 150 contras attacked the Bernardino Díaz Ochoa coffee cooperative, 16 km northeast of Waslala, killing three children and three peasants and kidnapping a young woman. The contras burned the installations to the ground, causing the community 258,000 córdobas in material damages.
25: Contras attacked the Las Mercedes state farm, 16 kms southeast of the El Cua valley in Jinotega.
1: Contras attacked the El Floripón farm co-op, 16 kms southeast of Siuna.
4: 200 contras ambushed a truck carrying 31 volunteer coffee harvesters between Telpaneca and San Juan del Río Coco. The attackers murdered 29 of the workers, burning alive and slitting the throats of 17 of them. It book days to identify the disfigured bodies. The majority of the victims were state employees and telecommunications workers who had taken time off from their jobs to help bring in the harvest. The magnitude and barbarity of this massacre spurred the first official denunciation of counterrevolutionary military aggression by a Nicaraguan Catholic bishop. The statement was issued by Bishop Rubén López Ardón of Estelí on December 14, 1984.
4: Between El Regadío and Limay (Estelí), contras ambushed a telecommunications (TELCOR) vehicle that was transporting technicians to inspect the area’s phone lines. The contras murdered four of the workers, wounded one, and kidnapped four.
7: Contras ambushed a vehicle 26 km east of Nueva Guinea, killing three workers and wounding three others.
9: Contras ambushed a vehicle belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture (MIDINRA) in Los Altos, 8 km west of San Juan del Río Coco, killing ten youths who were on their way to pick coffee.
9: Contras ambushed a MIDINRA pickup truck in El Pedernal, near San Juan de Limay, killing the driver.
9: Contras ambushed a vehicle belonging to the municipal government of Limay, killing all three occupants: a worker, an engineer, and a policemen.
11: Contras attacked the La Mancera farm co-op, 16 kms southeast of Waslala, killing seven peasants.
12: Contras attacked the small community of Raitipura, 2 km west of Laguna de Perlas, Zelaya, killing four and wounding one.
13: Contras destroyed houses on three private coffee plantations, as well as a warehouse and a medical clinic in la Pita El Carmen, 22 km south of Wiwilí.
13: Contras ambushed a MIDINRA pick-up in Quebrada Honda, 13 km north of Yalí, killing nine of the passengers (five militiamen, three technical workers, and one Ministry of Education official) and wounding four.
15: Contras ambushed a MIDINRA pick-up truck on the El Dante bridge (Nueva Guinea), killing all five passengers: two peasants, one child and two technical workers. All five were on their way to the annual conference of cocoa cooperative farmers in that area.
20: Contras kidnapped 16 campesinos near Macuelizo, 16 kms west of Ocotal, and another 5 in El Naranjito, 5 kms southeast of Wiwilí.
20: Contras ambushed a Nicaraguan Red Cross ambulance on the road between Puerto Cabezas and Matagalpa, killing the already critically ill patient and wounding four paramedics. The ambulance was severely damaged.
26: Contras ambushed a civilian vehicle in Zompopera, 16 km southwest of Wiwilí, killing six passengers—two of whom were children—and wounding two others.
27: Contras attacked the Quebrada Honda cooperative, 12 kms west of Estelí, killing seven peasants and wounding two.
3: Contras attacked the La Llave cooperative and the La Fonseca community, 18 and 12 km, respectively, from Nueva Guinea, leaving the communities partially destroyed.
4: Contras attacked the Valle Santa Cruz community, 17 km southeast of Quilalí, destroying four houses.
4: Contras ambushed a pick-up truck in Cerro Verde, Jinotega, killing four passengers, two of whom were teachers, and wounding 2 others.
5: Contras attacked the San José community, 26 km from Nueva Guinea.
5: Contras attacked the Rancho El Espino village, 17 km northeast of Macuelizo, Nueva Segovia.
5: Contras ambushed two trucks from the Ministry of Construction in Corre Viento, 14 km northeast of Quilalí, burning the vehicles and torturing both drivers.
6: Contras attacked the Caño Monte Cristo community, 18 km east of Atlanta, Zelaya, killing a little girl.
7: Contras kidnapped six peasants from La Paz, 7 km north of San Rafael del Norte.
8: Contras ambushed four tractors belonging to the Institute of Natural Resources and the La Reforma Coffee Company, 5 kms northeast of San Juan de Limay, killing the four drivers and causing 800,000 córdobas in damages to the tractors.
8: Contras ambushed a Ministry of Construction jeep and pickup truck carrying eight workers and technicians en route to set up a road project in Loma Atravesada, 12 km outside of San Juan de Limay. The driver and all eight passengers were killed.
10: Contras kidnapped 60 peasants (men, women, and children) in the localities of Santos and Caracita, near Nueva Guinea.
11: Contras ambushed a MIDINRA pick-up in Fila Teotecacinte, 8 km from La Concordia, Estelí, killing four of the occupants.
11: Contras attacked and burned the San Antonio grain plantation, 11 km from Jinotega.
11: Contras attacked and burned the Naswalí coffee plantation, 7 km northwest of San Juan del Río Coco.
11: Contras set fire to the Filadelfia Farm, 35 km from Nueva Guinea.
16: Contras ambushed a truck between the communities of Yolaina and Serrano, Zelaya, killing the driver and stealing his 40,000 córdobas.
25: In the area of El Naranjo, Waslala, contras ambushed a truck carrying widows and children orphaned by the war to a regional meeting in Jinotega. A mother and a little boy were murdered, and two mothers and a little girl were seriously wounded. The two men accompanying them have not yet been found.
26: In Rama Cay, Zelaya, contras kidnapped the assistant dean of the National University’s medical school, a medical student and two health workers.
28: Contras ambushed a pickup truck in La Rica, near Yalí, killing two peasants who were private producers and wounding three MIDINRA technicians.
28: Contras ambushed a pick-up truck in San Pablo de Kubalí, 17 km northwest of Waslala. They killed four of the passengers, one of whom was a child, and wounded the other three, one of whom was also a child.
28: Contras attacked the village of Wasallamba, Zelaya, kidnapping two peasants and destroying two of the community’s tractors.
Note: All the information contained in the above chronology was taken from Managua newspapers.