Internationalists Caught in the War
"The internationalists. Some may consider them simply tourists. I don't know how they are looked upon in official US circles. Reagan calls them 'terrorists.' Of course, they do terrify him, and rightly so. The internationalists in the field of culture, health, construction, information... internationalists in solidarity, to put it simply. In the chapel in the little settlement of Santa Clara a Delegate of the Word defined them clearly: `The internationalists internationalize love.'"
—Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga of the Diocese of Sao Felix do Araguaia, Brazil, in his recent book, Nicaragua: Combate y Profecia.)
The counterrevolutionary war being waged against Nicaragua and President Ronald Reagan's dogged campaign to support that war as a "moral imperative" are well-known international events that have repercussions beyond the small country of Nicaragua. There are many reasons for this, but an important one has to do with the large and significant presence of foreign assistants, referred to in Nicaragua as "internationalists," who believe in Nicaragua's revolutionary process and have become part of it.
President ("I'm a contra") Reagan and his "freedom fighters" are also fighting these internationalists, as was shown once again on May 24. In the north of Jinotega—one of the areas most affected by the counterrevolutionary war—final preparations were being made for a vaccination campaign the next day. At 3:30 p.m. a civilian truck carrying l3 people was heading from San José de Bocay to El Cuá to get the vaccine. Near Los Cedros, about 6 kilometers from Bocay, a tremendous explosion was heard. The back wheel of the vehicle had touched a powerful US-made anti-tank mine. Of the l0 people who were riding in the rear of the vehicle, 9 died immediately, blown to pieces by the impact, and the tenth was seriously injured; the three who were riding up front suffered less serious injuries. A 33-year-old Basque-Spanish nurse, Ambrosio Mogorron, who had been working in Nicaragua since l980, was among those killed.
Ambrosio thus became part of the list of European volunteers who have been direct victims of the contras' terrorist actions. In l983, two doctors died at the hands of the FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic Forces). Pierre Grosjean from France was killed during the attack on the little village of Rancho Grande, Matagalpa. And a few months later Albert ("Tono") Pflaum from Germany was killed in cold blood during an ambush in the Pantasma (Jinotega) zone. In February l986, the Swiss agronomist Maurice Demierre died in circumstances similar to those of Ambrosio's death.
In addition to the killings, there are also kidnappings. As we go to press, eight German volunteers kidnapped by the FDN were finally set free after 3 weeks in captivity and were received by the German Social Democrat leader, Hans Jurgen Wischnewski, thanks to much international pressure and to the Nicaraguan government's efforts to facilitate the handover by the contras. The young people are members of a West German solidarity committee coordinated by the Information Office on Nicaragua, which has its headquarters in Wuppertal. They had been kidnapped on May l7 by the contras in the community of Jacinto Baca in the Nueva Guinea zone, where they were building houses for peasants displaced by the war. Four of those kidnapped managed to flee in the first moments of their captivity, when a group of Sandinista militia confronted the contras. Three other West Germans have been kidnapped and subsequently set free since the start of the war.
It is pertinent to recall here as well the massive kidnapping of foreigners carried out by ARDE in August l985, even though they were not specifically volunteer assistants. Thirty US pacifist Christians from Witness for Peace were making their way on the Río San Juan in a symbolic Peace Ship when they were taken captive by the contras, who held them for more than a day. The fact that they were American citizens made a great impact in the US.
In this article, envío presents some basic information about the foreign volunteers who are working in Nicaragua. Thousands of people from a variety of countries are present in all spheres of social life and work, especially in technical fields. With their experience and professional skills, they help fill in gaps in this underdeveloped country, allowing Nicaragua to have faster development and to keep many projects going in spite of the drain caused by the US intervention. This article is dedicated to all of them, who perhaps understand better than anyone else the international dimension of the Sandinista revolution because they have truly cast their lot with the Nicaraguans.
Tourists, volunteers, internationalistsThe expression "internationalista" has become very common among Nicaraguans. The word, practically unknown previously, came to life with the revolution. There is a tendency for the word to refer generally to any foreigner in Nicaragua, but the internationalist presence is much more meaningful and complex.
The Nicaraguan mass media also speak a great deal about "internationalism." Those that support the revolutionary process use the word as a synonym for "solidarity." In this context, internationalism may refer to a shipment of rice from China, a Swedish project to improve cattle, or a statement of support for Nicaragua from a Mexican or French tourist. On the other hand, when La Prensa passes judgments dripping with disdain on the "extravagant" clothing or hairstyles of some internationalists—which does stand out in traditional Managua—or suggests in a blazing headline that the way to rid the country of dengue fever is to expel all the internationalists, it too is making a political statement, albeit a disguised one.
In its campaign against internationalism the Nicaraguan opposition, both civic and armed, has made abundant use of an ongoing national chauvinism. On various occasions the hierarchical Church itself has employed this tactic to cast aspersions upon what it calls the "Popular Church," thus forgetting the universal meaning of Catholicism and the fact that four of the ten bishops of Nicaragua and most of its diocesan and religious clergy are not native born.
During the 1984 electoral campaign, the opposition parties made many negative allusions to the presence of the internationalists in Nicaragua. Independent Liberal Party candidate Virgilio Godoy said, for example, that, if his party won, one of its first steps would be to take all of them to the airport the next day to give them a definitive send-off, "with orchestra and everything." The Democratic Conservatives made similar promises.
For their part, the contras have frequently used their radio stations to threaten foreigners working in Nicaragua. Edén Pastora, who once kidnapped a West German and tried to present him as a "military advisor from East Germany," has also cultivated chauvinism. In its euphoric times in l983, ARDE put out this kind of message: "Nicaraguans: we must stick the dagger in Russian, Cuban, Chilean backs...." Recently, FDN spokespersons declared explicitly that "every foreigner who is helping with the reconstruction of Nicaragua is considered an enemy."
It is important to note that, while throughout the world the Reagan propaganda paints Nicaragua as both a hellhole of repression and a paradise for all the world's terrorists, the flow of foreigners who want to see the reality with their own eyes has been constant. This flow includes not only "internationalists," but also researchers who come to analyze various aspects of the country's reality, journalists of all kinds, and—why not?—just simple, curious tourists. Most of these foreigners are democratic and progressive in their outlook.
This influx has not slackened since the beginning of the revolution. On the contrary, according to the Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism, in the seven years of the revolution more than half a million people have visited Nicaragua, and the majority of them have been from the US. This is no small number if we take into account the limitations of all kinds that exist in the country, from the war situation to the shortage of almost all the traditional conveniences—adequate hotel facilities, transportation and supply system—which any country must have if it is to attract tourists.
NGOs: Solidarity conscience of the rich countriesThere is a certain difference between internationalists and tourists, even when they are "political" tourists. Nor is it enough just to be working in Nicaragua. To be an "internationalist" is to have an attitude that comes out of a personal option and a political conviction. Indeed, many foreigners working in Nicaragua are not internationalists, because their way of thinking is not that of internationalists.
In this article we speak of several groups: "cooperants" who come to Nicaragua through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); those who come through the structures of their countries' solidarity committees; and those dozens of "free-lance" internationalists like Ambrosio Mogorron.
Since we must set limits, we will leave aside detailed discussion of the kind of cooperation between governments that implies sending technical experts—for instance, from Bulgaria or from the European Economic Community—and may imply the cooperation of international institutions such as the United Nations, the Food and Agricultural Organization, or UNESCO. It must be mentioned, however, that this cooperation is priceless, and in the case of some countries is based on internationalist principles. Cuban internationalist cooperation, for example, has been the most constant and most generous of all and has been felt in the most varied areas of national life. This cooperation, even though it is between two governments, is carried out largely with Cubans who offer themselves as volunteers—teachers (until two years ago), doctors, technicians, etc.—who charge absolutely nothing and serve in the most difficult places.
As we go to press, the news has just arrived of the killing of one such technical expert—Belgian engineer Paul Dessers, who was an EEC technical advisor in road construction in the conflict-ridden zone of Waslala. On June 4 Paul was shot to death by a contra who had infiltrated into the Sandinista army and who was fleeing. In spite of the risks he faced on occasions, Paul had not wanted to leave the area. His Nicaraguan co-workers say that "he was not by definition an internationalist, but in his work on the land he showed that he was a revolutionary. And we will finish all the roads that we designed with him."
Regarding the NGOs, we note that dozens from Western Europe, Canada and the United States have been working in Nicaragua since l979. These institutions are a relatively recent phenomenon in the industrialized capitalist countries. They arose out of the growing consciousness of some sectors that their own country's development came about at the cost of the underdevelopment of other countries. After centuries of colonialism, of the genocide of slavery, of the super-exploitation of the so-called third world’s work force and wealth, these sectors of the first world have reacted. Today, the NGOs contribute in a concrete though limited way to opening paths toward the new international economic order, and with concrete actions they keep breaking that vicious circle of the old order that is still very much with us—the order of the transnationals, which always makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.
In some countries where the governments have refused to grant bilateral aid to Nicaragua or have stopped or drastically reduced it, the NGOs in those same countries continue to cooperate fully. On the other hand, they sometimes act as representatives of their governments in discussing certain programs of cooperation or in getting funds for them. In spite of this official function, the NGOs express the solidarity of the civil society or of the socially committed churches of the rich countries and thus constitute a bridge of independent communication and cooperation between the peoples of the world.
The NGOs’ position is that there’s no solution for the third world without changes in the first world countries. The most fundamental change they propose is the end of the arms race in the industrialized countries, thus linking the theme of development with that of peace. Logically, then, the NGOs view the international crises from a north-south perspective and reject the idea of situating third world conflicts within the ambit of east-west tensions, as Reagan propaganda constantly seeks to do. Thus the NGOs' commitment has a double aspect: a growing flow of economic and human resources to the poor countries of the South—Latin America, Africa, and Asia—and a high-powered campaign of consciousness-raising in the rich countries of the North.
Of all the recent third world revolutionary processes, Nicaragua's had unquestionably won the most sympathy among the NGOs. In Nicaragua today, more than fifty NGOs are working in agrarian reform, education, health, small industry, etc. Within the idea of a mixed economy that exists in Nicaragua, the NGOs, as instruments of direct economic cooperation between peoples and not only between governments, play an important role in carrying out a wide variety of projects of the revolution.
There are differences among the NGOs, mainly a result of the different regulations for such organizations from one country to the next. In general, we can speak of two kinds of NGOs, those whose contribution is mainly financial and those who additionally send qualified personnel to help local technical teams carry out the projects they are funding.
The former restrict themselves to periodic visits for technical supervision, and in this sense function in a way similar to development agencies, although the NGOs are based on concepts of democracy and liberation. These NGOs are found especially in some countries of Europe and North America, and most are connected to churches with a sense of commitment. The economic resources that they channel for programs come in part from funds raised by their own private activities—collections taken up by a church or solidarity group, for example—or, more significantly, from funds allocated annually by governments to carry out projects in developing countries. In most cases, it is the NGOs rather than the respective governmental ministries that present the projects and request funding for them.
The second type of NGO is defined as an organization of international volunteerism and cooperation. At present, Nicaragua is host to about 500 cooperants who belong to these NGOs. Before a cooperant comes to Nicaragua, the program must be approved and the needs for professional personnel assessed. This process is carried out in the first place by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Foreign Cooperation and secondly by the various ministries in the sending countries, depending on the kind of cooperation which is being offered.
The cooperants themselves sign work contracts that are usually good for at least two years and are renewable. They receive a salary from the NGO, which varies greatly from one organization to another and from one country to another.
In every respect the cooperation offered by these NGOs means a great deal for Nicaragua. Politically they represent a permanent open window to the world, to the various democratic and progressive forces of society in the rich countries. From a strictly economic point of view, the aid channeled by the NGOs amounts to tens of millions of dollars per year, and this significantly alleviates the difficult economic crisis caused by the war.* In a broader sense, the economic support also includes the work force of hundreds of cooperants, technically skilled in the different branches of production and in the social services. In addition to working, these people transfer their knowledge to Nicaraguans. The value of all this becomes incalculable when we consider the human support, the testimony of shared human experience, and the exemplary sacrifice of some of them.
*Because the counterrevolutionary war is characterized by indiscriminate attacks on the whole infrastructure insofar as it represents improvements for the people, several projects located in the high-conflict zones have had to be abandoned, and the movement of personnel has had to be restricted on occasion for security reasons.
A Recent Case: MauricioMaurice Demierre, a 29-year-old agronomist and volunteer member of the Swiss Christian organization Brothers and Sisters Without Borders, worked in the agricultural cooperatives in the Somotillo zone, north of Chinandega. As a Christian, he also took an active part in the work of the Delegates of the Word of the Inter-community Network for Christian Welfare. He was aware of the risks he was running by working in this border region, and always said that if he died he wanted to be buried among the peasants where so many have been savagely killed by the contras.
On February l6, l986, Mauricio was driving a pick-up truck, returning with a group of women and children from a peasant Way of the Cross. This was one of the religious events that took place throughout Nicaragua in response to the Way of the Cross for Peace and Life, led by Fr. Miguel D'Escoto, which brought out thousands of Nicaraguans in a two-week procession from Jalapa to Managua. On the road to Jinocuago Mauricio's vehicle touched a land mine. The passengers were only injured by the impact, but the contras, who were waiting in ambush, killed some of them, including Mauricio, two old women and two girls.
Jacqueline Demierre, Mauricio's mother, wrote this open letter to all Nicaraguans:
Bulle, April, l986
To My Sisters and Brothers in Nicaragua Under Martyrdom:
Yes, I am still grieving for my son, Mauricio. Yes, that death has stricken my heart as a mother and has broken my whole body. He offered himself to work for the poor, for freedom, peace and love, in the name of Jesus Christ.
I too offered him. And I am still offering his sacrifice, which ends in resurrection. So that his killers may understand. So that the whole world may wake up and take action and shout out the truth.
I feel very close to all of you in your suffering, to all the mothers of Nicaragua, and to the families of the mothers who died with him. Very close, also, to the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross. The Virgin and her Son are with us. They are the force that will make the seed grow. They are the salt of the earth.
Don't lose heart. Continue your struggle more than ever before, united. For your families, in the name of peace and love. Thank you for loving my son Mauricio and for making him one of yourselves.
I embrace you,
Jacqueline Demierre, Mauricio's mother
The wide-reaching experience There is another type of volunteer: those who come to Nicaragua through the organized solidarity networks. For example, many solidarity groups in Europe and the US organize assistance brigades each year. The majority of participants in these brigades are young people, without technical skills, who come to Nicaragua to dedicate their vacations to construction, coffee harvesting, etc.
of the solidarity brigades
This category includes a wide gamut of people. In general, the goal of these groups is to underscore the political aspects of solidarity, even if they are centered on very specific events or periods. In this sense, the principal field of action is not in Nicaragua, but in their respective countries. It is there, through various activities, that these committees collect funds for different projects in Nicaragua as well as organize the work brigades. Economically speaking, the support given by these groups, although significant, is much less than that of the NGOs.
The volunteers in such solidarity brigades are only in Nicaragua for a few weeks, but the importance of their solidarity rests above all on the broad scope of the experience. Hundreds of volunteers come to Nicaragua each year to build schools, health centers and houses, harvest coffee and cotton, etc. They stay in humble homes, enjoy the hospitality of Nicaraguan families and have the opportunity to get to know the revolutionary process at the level of its grassroots base.
In Nicaragua these volunteer groups are coordinated by the Nicaraguan Committee of Solidarity with the Peoples (CNSP) and, in the case of some projects, by the Augusto C. Sandino Foundation (FACS), a Nicaraguan NGO that maintains close relations with the revolutionary government and works with several of the NGOs in Nicaragua. Some church organizations function in Nicaragua similarly to NGOs. Among them are the Antonio Valdivieso Ecumenical Center (CAV), Association for the Development of the Peoples and the John XXIII Institute. They channel projects and finances from NGOs in Europe and the US and assist in implementing these projects in Nicaragua.
The Nicaraguan NGOs met with the international NGOs in Managua for the first time in 1983. The meeting centered on the many new possibilities that could arise from mutual cooperation. If the NGOs are a new phenomenon for the developed countries, they are even more so for Nicaragua.
"Free-lance" volunteersAlong with these NGO cooperants in Nicaragua are many independent internationalists, volunteers who don’t belong to any organization. Most are Latin Americans—many of them exiled from the dictatorships that plagued Latin America at the time of the Sandinista triumph—or, among the Europeans, they are principally Spanish. (There are no national NGOs to speak of in Latin America, and, due to the effects of the Franco period, there are still none in Spain.)
The integration of these "freelance" volunteers into Nicaragua's social and productive network depends largely on their professional qualifications, previous personal contacts and the capacity of Nicaraguan institutions to assume the responsibility of hiring them. These volunteers are paid in córdobas, the Nicaraguan currency, at national wage rates.
For many of them, a decision that initially might have been viewed as a temporary experience has become a life's calling. For others, Nicaragua is an important phase in a longer journey, as this verse reflects:
I confess, Father
to loving a country that is not mine.
My confession is a long
list of sins:
wanting to steal the dusk
the smile of a child,
the old women of the countryside,
in Chinandega the light of dawn on the lake,
the volcanoes and the cotton fields...
I confess, Father
to wanting to steal this whole country.
I want to make a package of this Nicaragua
and take it with me
to console me in another exile.
—Paulina Herrera, Chilean, December 1980
Ambrosio, a living symbolAmbrosio Mogorron, an independent volunteer, is a symbol of international cooperation with Nicaragua. His six years in the country summarize the essence of "internationalism" that has accompanied the Nicaraguan revolutionary experience.
Ambrosio arrived in Nicaragua in 1980. He was born in a poor little town in the Spanish province of Cuenca and emigrated with his parents to Bilbao, in the Basque country, seeking work in the mines and the blast furnaces. He worked as an agricultural laborer in France and studied nursing in Madrid, continuing to work to pay for his studies. At 27, with a fresh diploma, he offered himself as a volunteer for the Nicaraguan Literacy Crusade. He was assigned to a health brigade that was assisting the teachers in the mining area of Bonanza (Zelaya Norte). At the end of the campaign, he was offered work in a health post in the town of San José de Bocay, in northern Jinotega. This mountainous jungle region is one of the most forgotten, backwards, poor and isolated areas in Nicaragua. The bus takes a whole day to cover the 100 kilometers between the town and the departmental capital. Even at that time, late 1980, Bocay was becoming a theatre for the counterrevolutionary war; it was one of the first zones in which the incipient Somocista bands tried to set themselves up.
Ambrosio accepted the challenge and went to live in a house as poor as the other peasant houses. "Doctor Ambrosio" quickly won over everyone in the area, making himself indispensable through his deeds and his character. "If we had had two doctors, they would only have gone to him," says Orlando Rizo, regional health director in the region.
It was the first time in their history that the people of Bocay had a permanent healthcare worker. Ambrosio's diploma as an assistant health worker did not make him a full doctor, but this was no obstacle. He was intelligent and had initiative. He sent for textbooks, even one on psychiatry, which he studied and gave to those who worked with him, "so we could train ourselves," recalled Rosa, one of the nurses from the mountain health post. "When he came," added Orlando, "he sent for books on dentistry and began to pull teeth. This gives you an idea of the stuff Ambrosio was made of." He built a small room for tooth extractions and with an armchair and a simple instrument that he brought from Spain, he became a dentist. He was the first dentist the peasants had ever seen; no others had ventured so far into the mountains.
Ambrosio arrived as a simple nurse, but became dentist, midwife and epidemiologist. Perhaps his greatest scientific contribution came in the field of epidemiological investigation.
In the literacy campaign Ambrosio had observed the high incidence of "leishmaniasis," known to peasants as "mountain leprosy." It is the third most common disease in the Bocay region, after bronchitis and gastroenteritis. It is estimated that 50% of the 12,000 inhabitants of the zone suffer or have suffered from leishmaniasis. Lack of attention due to the war has led to an even higher incidence of the disease, which is also affecting many Sandinista soldiers operating in the mountainous zones.
This terrible disease was masterfully described by Omar Cabezas in the following excerpt from his book, La Montana es Algo Mas que Una Inmensa Estepa Verde, which was translated into English as Fire From the Mountain, and has since been translated into several other languages. The excerpt is taken from Fire From the Mountain, translated by Kathleen Weaver and published by Crown Publishers, Inc., New York.
“I should mention that in Waslala about fifteen days before we got to Modesto's camp, I had noticed a small white spot on the calf of my right foot, and on the calf of my left foot another tiny white spot, like a mosquito bite. But since your hands are all covered with mosquito bites and gashes, with hundreds and thousands of bites that go away, then you're bitten again and it's bite on bite, gash on gash, scratch on scratch, that's normal—and sometimes the bites get a bit infected, so you go around with your hands all bitten up and oozing with pus. You apply alcohol if you have it or Merthiolate. The bites heal and you're bitten again, and so on. But I noticed that these little bites were turning into little white dots on both calves, and around the white dot it was red, red, red. A deep, deep scarlet on both calves, and slowly, as days passed, it grew to the size of a 10-centavo piece. I squeezed it, then it was like a shilling piece, then a 50-centavo piece. Then it started to hurt. It hurt like hell. I could see it was oozing pus, and I figured that when we got to Modesto they would give me a shot to knock it out, because they had a fair supply of medicine.
“I said to Flavio, our guerrilla doctor, ‘I'm all screwed up—here, on my calves.’ ‘What you've got there's an infection.’ This so-called infection started growing then like crazy; it was as big as a córdoba piece. It hurt so much I couldn't sleep. I had to fold over the top of my rubber boot, since if it even touched my skin it about killed me. They had given me some antibiotic capsules to knock it out, but I said to Flavio, ‘This bullshit isn't going away. Flavio, I'm starting to smell something bad, this shit's really starting to stink.’ Flavio leaned over for a whiff. ‘You're right, brother, this is putrid.’ He smelled the other one. ‘Ugh...I'm going to give you a shot of benzetacil.’ That was my first shot of benzetacil, 2,400,000 units of penicillin in my hip.
“I spent four days crippled, off my feet. We were all of us weak, just skin and bones; a shot like that just wiped me out. Four days passed and they began my treatments. It was horrible, because they stuck pincers wrapped in cotton right in the open sore and dug down into it with the cotton swab. Then the other one. I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists...aiii, brother! I yanked back my foot, and Flavio sat down on it and kept hold of me.
“Finally, when all the pus was out, there was a huge ulcer, and that stench... They bandaged up both the lesions where you could see the raw flesh. Forget walking—I had to sit all the time. Since it still didn't heal, he gave me another shot of benzetacil. Remember, that kills your red blood cells. We were undernourished and reduced to shit. I had to stay off my feet, and the treatments continued every day because every day there was pus, and the ulcer got bigger and bigger. He gave me three benzetacil shots, and the thing was getting worse; it was eating me alive, and that pain... I couldn't get up, not even to go get my food. It was all I could do to get up and go shit, or take a bath. That was a real sacrifice, because I took a bath every day. Do you know what that's like to strip naked in a stream, in the iciest, iciest water, every morning and sometimes twice a day, so I could wash? And still the thing wasn't clearing up. I could see that Flavio was worried, because other compañeros were starting to get the same thing on different parts of their bodies, tiny spots. Mine were the biggest. Flavio was worried; he could see it was no infection. I'd already been flat on my back for a month, full of antibiotics, and they were still growing. Huge, round ulcers. Growing and eating away from inside; you could see the bone.
“It took three people for my treatment. A compañero would cut a couple of branches. They put one in each of my hands and another in my mouth so I wouldn't yell out when they started swabbing out the holes in my legs with gauze. I could feel them digging right down to the quick. A hideous, indescribable pain shot to my brain. I snapped the sticks in my mouth, it hurt so much. I was like an animal. It tore me completely apart. I would not wish that pain on anybody except Somoza. I almost fainted when that guy dug down with those gauzes, and what a stench! The gauze came out all covered with pus and blood and chunks of flesh a bit bigger than a bean or a kernel of corn. I was losing little chunks of flesh. Now I just have the scars, but the lesions were much bigger, about 5 inches in diameter, the size of your hand, and all eaten out inside.
“To top it off, in Waslala I had started having pains in my appendix. So the appendicitis was all mixed up with the other trouble. Poor Flavio was always in his hammock, depressed because he couldn't figure out what it was. One afternoon he came running up: ‘It's lesymanaisis, lesymaniasis!’ Like somebody crying out, ‘Land, land!’ ‘What's lesymaniasis?’ ‘Brother, it's what you've got, it's mountain leprosy, that's lesymaniasis.’ I remembered in a course I had taken before coming to the mountains we had studied tropical medicine; ‘That's...that's...Repodral, Repodral! That's the cure, Repodral.’ Do you know what it means to send down to the city for Repodral? When would it come, would it even get past the roadblocks of the Guard? I went five months like that. I kept putting on more and more bandages; sometimes I got up to go get firewood, or they put me on sentry duty.
“The thing is, I asked for work, so as not to be doing nothing. Anyway, that leprosy was toughening me up; I was getting hardened.”
Awarded for his work on leishmaniasisAmbrosio had been collecting data on leishmaniasis since 1981. It was virtually the first time this kind of work had been done in Nicaragua. When in 1982 his relation with the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health was formalized, Ambrosio had already compiled documentation on 1,200 cases, with photographs and statistics. In 1983, more Nicaraguans and foreign volunteers joined him in this invaluable research. One of them was the French doctor, Pierre Grosjean, who was murdered by the contras in the place where he was just beginning new research on the disease.
Ambrosio accumulated data on the symptoms of the disease, treatment with medicinal herbs and the insects that transmit it. Using all the collected documentation, he put together an audiovisual presentation for the region's health workers. By the time of his death, he had analyzed some 2,500 cases.
For the work that he and his team had done, the Nicaraguan government in 1985 awarded Ambrosio the Order of "Comandante Jose Benito Escobar." He is the only internationalist to have received such high recognition.
His friends have many stories about him. They relate, for example, that, faced with the lack of funds for acquiring the traps used to collect the insects that transmit leishmaniasis, Ambrosio would wait for them to land on his body and just before they would bite him, grab them.
A Uruguayan priest who worked in Nicaragua with Ambrosio recalls: "You would show up on whatever day, with the same old shirt, over the same old pants and worn out boots ('but they're still good...'). And the house was filled with the humble and peaceful joy that you always brought. You'd start telling about 'The problems with the rain, the road and the contras who took 15
peasants, and several communities are threatened and how last night they brought a very sick woman, six hours on their shoulders and in the rain and with the river swollen and we saved her! No, no I didn't come sooner because of this problem with the Miskitos. I had to organize the camp; we have almost finished the latrines.' You knew how to raise people's awareness, Ambrosio. You didn't say that the latrines have to be made, but instead you grabbed the pick and the shovel and you made the latrines."
Ambrosio didn't like the city. "When he left here, from the city of Matagalpa," recalled Senia, a nurse who had known him since 1980, "he took loads of medicines and other things so as not to return for three or four months. And when he returned, it was only to attend to problems."
Friendly, funny, unpretentious, well-mannered, Ambrosio was well respected by the people of the zone. "He used to tell jokes and remain serious, nothing more than a smile. That's what made us laugh the most," remembered Senia. "He felt like a Nicaraguan, like any peasant from Bocay. He wanted to become a Nicaraguan citizen. He was an authority. He had an important role in the community, also in the provisioning, in price controls, so that the prices would be reasonable and the speculators couldn't take advantage of anyone. He was always the first to offer to go to remote areas, saying that the people that are far away can’t come. When he went to give consultations, he would always bring candies for the children and stay to play with them. He succeeded in convincing the people in a simple manner. I remember when a group of reactionary evangelicals, who did not want their children to do patriotic military service, came. He knew how to respond to their 'religious' arguments. When he went to Spain one time, everybody missed him. They constantly asked, 'What happened to Ambrosio? '"
Senia was the last person to see Ambrosio alive and the first to arrive at the site of the tragedy. It was only by chance that the jeep she was traveling in missed the mine. A few minutes before the explosion, the two vehicles had passed each other and Senia and Ambrosio exchanged a few words.
"When we brought the bodies to San José de Bocay," related Senia, "it was already dark. The people refused to believe it was Ambrosio. They lifted the lid of the coffin to see if it was truly him. And they cried a lot. They brought him all sorts of flowers. If the contras' had any support in the zone, it collapsed with Ambrosio's death."
“Yes, he was what you could call a popular leader," assured Orlando Rizo, "I don't think that you could say the contras respected him. They don't respect anything. What's more, the Somocistas' Radio '15 de Septiembre' had threatened him. But it’s not unlikely that he would have attended to family members of the contras as a doctor. In some zones, we regularly attend to their family members, if they come in for a consultation. For us Ambrosio was a symbol of life. He had three qualities: A profound conviction in the cause of the people and in what it meant to work, to live and, if it came to it, to die for this cause. Secondly, he was brave; he worked for six years under very difficult circumstances. And, finally, he was humble. He was an example for all of us."
In the counterrevolution's sightsCould Ambrosio have been targeted by the contras? Yes and no at the same time. It is meaningless to ask if the mine that destroyed the truck in which Ambrosio and 12 Nicaraguans were traveling was destined precisely for him. The very nature of the counterrevolutionary war—which the Pentagon euphemistically refers to as "low intensity"—makes the question irrelevant.
Looked at from this perspective, the terror imposed by the contras upon the civilian population only appears indiscriminate. It is widespread, insofar as the Nicaragua people massively support the revolution. The terror is designed to hit, destroy, murder everything that represents or could represent an achievement of the revolution, whether it is a concrete material project or consensus and support. If it is a cooperative on which the peasants produce and defend their harvests, the contras attack it because to work like that implies an acceptance of the agrarian reform project. If there are engineers and workers that steel themselves to construct the highway that joins the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the contras kill them—they’ve killed 30 of the people working on this project—because the highway will permit new stages of development. If it’s only a question of humble peasants who, rain or shine, flag down a state truck for a ride, the contras also attack them.
For them and for everybody, the contras, by ambushing and planting mines in the roads, have a message, and it is this: It’s dangerous to associate with the Sandinistas. This is the precise object of the contras' terrorist campaign. The CIA manual is quite instructive in this. The "civilian population" must be separated from the Sandinistas, not just from the army. Nicaraguans must be alienated from all that the revolution had achieved and meant in these years.
They must also be separated from men like Ambrosio. It is in this sense that Ambrosio and many other internationalists are the targets of the contras' bombs, mines, mortars and calumnies.
"Ambrosio represented the health care that the revolution brought. And in a certain sense he was their enemy," said Orlando. How can he be replaced? Ambrosios are not to be found just anywhere or anytime. How can the example he gave be replaced, the services he offered, the image he presented of the revolutionary government among the population? It's not a question of creating myths after death. But, possibly we won’t be able to replace him. It’s very difficult."
Upon hearing of Ambrosio's death and still with the shock of the kidnapping of his compatriots fresh in his mind, a German internationalist summed up the situation: "They don’t want the world to participate in the reconstruction of Nicaragua. The counterrevolutionary war is a war against the world."