Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 144 | Julio 1993



The Unending Calvary of Mothers of the Disappeared

Raquel Fernández

The war that devastated Nicaragua during the 1980s left more than 150,000 victims, including dead, disabled, widowed and orphaned. But there are still other victims, who left behind them only a trial of silence and emptiness: those are the disappeared. The number of disappeared in Nicaragua has never been precisely established, but estimates range in the thousands.

Between the end of 1989 and the middle of 1990, the Association of Mothers and Relatives of the Kidnapped and Disappeared of Nicaragua (AMFASEDEN) had compiled precise documentation on 867 people kidnapped by the contras as well as trustworthy information on another 5,000 cases. Other sources have statistics that bring the total to more than 10,000.

The enormous difference between statistics is not surprising. Communication is very difficult in an underdeveloped country without efficient telephone or mail services--worse still in wartime. Furthermore, the theater of war was almost exclusively the country's most isolated areas, where the population is highly dispersed and civil registries and other mechanisms for keeping social statistics are seldom used. In may cases, the first official manifestation of a citizen's existence was the nes of his or her kidnapping.

A significant percentage of direct participants in the conflict, however, were young draftees from urban and rural zones of the Pacific region, where there is more social organization and better communication opportunities of all kinds. The statistics thus range between the precision of the best-documented cases (the minority) and the presumption of the rest (the majority).

"In Nicaragua, it's very difficult to speak in statistical terms," says Sergio Caramagna, national coordinator of the Follow-up and Verification Program (PSV) of the ORganization of American States' Verification Commission (CIAV-OAS). "Not only are population statistics unreliable, but so are other general statistics such as infant morbidity or mortality rates. There are few statistics available for social researchers. It is even worse in the case of a war, where a single family finds itself involved on both sides; or where, now that the war is over, there are people who don't want to return to their families because they have opposing beliefs and don't want conflicts."

The Most Tragic Chapter Of the Drama

The drama of the kidnapped-disappeared has a long history in Nicaragua. During the Somoza dynasty, many citizens disappeared without a trace, especially during the roundups that followed events in which the particular Somoza in power at the time felt threatened.

With the increase in revolutionary activity during the 1960s and 1970s, disappearances increased; in most cases, however, the cadaver of the missing person appeared a few days later, with clear signs of savage torture. There were two places in Managua to which families of disappeared individuals, especially mothers, would trudge each morning on their sad pilgrimage, two places where the National Guard had dumped the bodies from their trucks during the night--and "dump" is the word, as if these people were garbage. One was along the shore of Lake Xolotlán (or Lake Managua) behind the Rubén Darío Theater. The other was on the downhill side of a steep stretch of isolated road above the Asososca Lagoon known as the Cuesta del Plomo (Slope of Lead), which later became known as the Cuesta de los Mártires (Slope of the Martyrs), in homage to those assassinated.

For a brief joyous period after the overthrow of Somoza, it was believed that Nicaragua would be free of warfare and the drama of the disappeared would never again be repeated. But it was actually in the 1980s, during the prolonged war between the Sandinistas and the contras, that the worst nd longest chapter in the tragedy of the disappeared was written.

The voices of the mothers of those who disappeared during the war engendered nothing like the attention given the mothers of those killed or disabled. In fact, during the first few years of the war, the problem of the kidnapped-disappeared remained largely in the shadows. It was not until 1985, when the mothers of 17 young teachers in the "50th Anniversary" Brigade who had been kidnapped decorously took over the Red Cross headquarters in Managua to demand their children's reappearance, that the issue caught the country's attention.

The "50th Anniversary" Brigade had been a dream that rapidly became a nightmare. After six months of intensive teacher training in Cuba, 2,000 Nicaraguan volunteers had been sent out tso the country's least accessible areas to replace the Cuban teachers working there and to consolidate the achievements of the National Literacy Crusade. At least 17 youth were kidnapped by counterrevolutionary forces, and their mothers united to fight for their return. When they failed to get much response, they launched a hunger strike in the Red Cross offices. Unfortunately, these were not the last mothers whose children were kidnapped. The number of kidnapped-disappeared grew over the years throughout the war zones, and other mothers and relatives began to join forces with these first 17.

The Torture of Hope

The glimpse of peace that appeared with the first rounds of the Esquipulas talks in 1987-88 brought new spirit and hope to the mothers of the disappeared. At every opportunity, they insisted that President Daniel Ortega make demands on behalf of their children, and it seems that, on a few occasions, the list of their names was on the negotiating agenda. In fact, in the Sapoá accords, the representatives of the Nicaraguan Resistance (contras) agreed to hand over those who had been kidnapped--but they never did. Conditions were not even in place at that time to insist upon the contra's disarmament; the 1990 elections took place with them still armed and fighting. What hope was there for demanding the return of the disappeared?
The late Carlos Núñez, then president of the National Assembly, was one person within the state apparatus who showed genuine interest and compassion for the kidnapped and their families. At his initiative, a human rights commission was formed within the legislative body and assigned to collect precise documentation on the disappeared so as to coordinate efforts with the parliaments of the neighboring countries in whose territories the kidnapped were presumably located-particularly Honduras and Costa Rica. The commission would meet with the mothers once a week to take down their testimonies, duly documented before a notary public. The National Assembly gave orders for these notary services to be free of charge.

This work generated hope, but threatened to be very slow, since the number of cases grew weekly. Núñez thus directed that inquiries begin as soon as possible with the information already in hand, to try to resolve at least some of those cases. "Let's see if this Christmas, at least a handful of mothers will be able to celebrate with their children," said Núñez at the end of September 1988.

But the work was interrupted by Hurricane Joan, which, on October 21-22, cut a devastating path directly across the only two densely-populated cities on the Atlantic Coast, including the port city of Bluefields. The demands of this national emergency also devastated the hopes of the mothers and family members of the disappeared.

The Snaggle of Statistics

The mothers never gave up hope, however, even when te statistics held by different groups grew increasingly divergent and nonsensical, thus threatening to discredit their efforts. During the Sapoá talks in 1988, for example, while the mothers were demanding the return of over 6,000 disappeared, General Humberto Ortega, who played a key role in those negotiations, stated his willingness to insist on the return of the approximately 1,000 who, according to the army's information services, were the truly disappeared.

At that time, the Resistance claimed to have only 66 people in its different camps or jails--a statistic the mothers considered an insult. But even when the Sandinista government demanded the return of at least those 66, the contras still did not comply.

At the same time, the National Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (CNPPDH) had collected concrete documentation on some 900 cases. The Red Cross had another 500, and the army 90--all of the latter specifically its own officers. There was thus a total of about 1,500 cases with at least some precise date and documentation, and another 5,000 with fairly reliable information.

The Contras' Demobilization

After the FSLN's electoral defeat and the end of the war in early 1990, there was another, far greater, burst of hope that the disappeared would finally turn up: either freed from prison or converted into contras who were demobilizing. At the very least, the possibility arose of finding their graves and giving them a Christian burial.

With the help of the CIAV-OAS, commissions of mothers traveled several times to the demobilization camps. Father Alvaro Argüello, a Jesuit priest, joined them on one mission to the El Almendro camp in Jun 1990. "The mothers went in search of their sons, because it was said that many of those kidnapped had joined the contras; they wanted to see if their children would be among the demobilized or, at least, if someone could give them any information," recalls Argüello. "As a priest, I went with them because the mothers felt that negotiations with CIAV would be more effective if persons like myself participated in the commission. All of the mothers went fully prepared with identification and pictures of their children."
The El Almendro camp was almost four hours by four-wheel drive vehicle from Managua, in the bend of a large river. The demobilization took place in the middle of the rainy season, and the road was sticky, deeply-rutted mud. In the pasture land outside of the small town, CIAV had installed some tents that served as offices and storage areas, and the demobilizing contras hung out in town after they arrived and turned in their weapons, waiting for their papers to be put in order.

"It was a great bustle; people coming to demobilize and trucks driving off to return them to their places of origin, all in the pouring rain. The mothers checked out every youth they saw, those who were disarming and those going home after demobilizing, to see if they could recognize any of their disappeared children. That was the psychological environment: they were very anxious, full of anguish," describes Father Argüello.

The mothers were told that two copies were being made of all the registries of demobilized; one was in CIAV's possession and the other personally held by contra commander "Franklin." In an interview the mothers had with "Franklin" on that trip, however, he said he was willing to help but did not have his lists with him; they were at general head-quarters in Honduras. These documents never reached the hands of AMFASEDEN, but it lent its own lists of disappeared to CIAV, which did, in fact, check them against its copy of the registry. At least 100 names were identical, leading some sectors of public opinion to jump to the simple conclusion that none of the kidnapped-disappeared had ever really disappeared, but had all joined the contras.

Diego Beltrán, now coordinator of the CIAV program along the entire Pacific area from León to Granada, was at that time traveling through the hottest demobilization zones in the interior. He explains that a lot of work was done to try to find the 100 people whose name appeared on both lists, but that, when they were contacted, in no case did the person on the CIAV list turn out to be the same individual as the one on the disappeared list.

Those Who Never Came Home

Father Argüello had an opportunity to chat with some of the young people demobilizing as he made arrangements for the mothers. "All were very young, between 17 and 22, and all were peasants. They all wanted to go home, to find a way to return. That's what I remember most from those informal conversations: that all of them very much wanted to go home."
However universal that desire, a number somewhere between 1,500 and 6,000 neither went home nor ever gave any sign of life to their families. "And that is worrisome," says Aragüello, "so much so that it would lead to us to conclude that their disappearance is definitive. There's no other explanation, because if they were alive, there would be some indication. It could be that a very small percentage prefer, for different reasons, not to return to their families; but when so many people have given no sign of life, it's evident that they are dead."
Diego Beltrán confirms that, during the search for the 100 names, he did detect handful of people who seemed not to wnat to contact their families. "It's a sad situation. It's an infinitesimal percentage, but it seems that it does exist. Probably political or other problems led them to estrage themselves from their families."
CIAV officials are familiar with numerous other variations that explain at least some of the permanent "disappearances." A common one is the young Sandinista soldier o civilian who, once kidnapped (and, according to personal testimonies, often tortured), feigned that he was joining the contras to save his life and await an opportunity to escape. But, due to inexperience and impatience, he did not wait long enough to inspire his kidnappers' trust. The result: a bullet in his back when he thought he was just a few yards from freedom. Another is the draftee who, after being kidnapped, became genuinely convinced to join the contra ranks, and was later killed in combat.

There were also more scheming examples, which shed more light on why the highest figures of "disappearances" were not necessarily matched by participation in AMFASEDEN. Some people living in Sandinista-controlled areas who wanted to join the contras made an arrangement with some contra leader operating in the area to get themselves "kidnapped," with lots of "violence." Later, their families continued the charade to a void Sandinista reprisals, even though they were aware of the real situation.

All of these variations on the theme aside, the most common end for those kidnapped by the contras was to be killed soon afterward. If they were staunch Sandinistas, they were probably killed for ideological vengeance. In other cases, it came because they were a burden that had to be disposed of when the retreating contra troops ran into an ambush or otherwise delayed their return to camp. In any case, few apparently ever made it as far as the contra base in a neighboring country.

The Contra Disappeared

Not only Sandinistas disappeared, but also at least some contras. According to information provided by Rodolfo Ampié, executive director of the National Center for Planning and Administration of Development Poles (CENPAP), the contras' date base showed more than 1,000 disappeared from both sides (he did not offer separate figures), of which 600 cases were resolved. He also said that they no longer work on this issue because there are other priorities and emergencies. Ampié claimed that the contras have no organization similar to AMFASEDEN "because, under the Sandinistas, organizing was prohibited."
Nor can Violeta Guevara, of the Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association (ANPDH) give even approximate figures on the number of disappeared contras because, according to her, the number changed every day: new people were kidnapped, while others turned up. It is not clear whether the Resistance is doing nothing to verify the location of its disappeared, does not want to provide information on the issue, or simply did not suffer the same drama of kidnappings.

Neoliberalism vs. Solidarity

After the expectations awakened by the demobilization, inquiries into AMFASEDEN's cases languished. The affliction of the mothers was replaced by another, more immediate one: the neoliberal economic assault put an end to solidarity, mutual support and even some friendships.

The FSLN, which had never been overly interested in this issue, forgot it completely. Immersed its own internal contradictions, it had no time for compassion for or solidarity with the disappeared and their families. When the "proof" emerged that some of those who were kidnapped had actually joined the contras, it seemed to justify forgetting the fate of the rest.

During the First FSLN Congress in July 1991, only one voice raised the issue, demanding that investigations into the disappeared continue. But that voice fell silent when it received no support. No commission came out of that Congress with a mandate to seek the thousands of disappeared, dead or alive. That humane issue was no longer of interest--even though the mothers, as always, were waiting outside the door.

During the lame-duck period after the electoral defeat, the National Assembly's legal advisers had helped the mothers get legal standing. Later, once the FSLN was a minority opposition bench, it received information that the mothers were traveling to Honduras, Costa Rica and northern Nicaragua. Since then, it has given AMFASEDEN no support or follow-up.

"Unfortunately, the new economic and political situation has meant that a veil has been draped over this issue, and now very few people still try to remember and revive all that pain," says Jorge Samper, legal adviser to the Sandinista bench. "But even though the Sandinista bench is not taking action in this area at this time, I think the relationship with the mothers should be reestablished and the work continued."
AMFASEDEN had to face another problem besides political mistrust. It was rumored that some of its members were making the search for family members a modus vivendi, and were even getting rich off of it. Given that the people carrying out this search have no resources of their own, and abandoned everything to undertake this struggle for their and others' relative, it is not surprising that they have received economic support. But getting rich would be somewhat miraculous. The aid their association received was never much, and its members are so poor that aid is divvied up too quickly for any one to have been able to accumulate anything. There is neither room nor the raw material for disproportionate personal enrichment.

Forgive and Forget?

The economic situation and social indifference almost destroyed AMFASEDEN. In March of this year, the association was even nearly evicted from the tiny office that serves as its meeting room, office, archives and kitchen for heating the food the mothers bring from home to help them through a full day of machinations in the search for their children. This, of course, is when they have food to bring, since sometimes there is not enough to eat. But there they remain, stomach empty, in case there is news of their children.

When they saw themselves about to be thrown out in the street, the mothers turned to the FSLN for help for the first time in a long while. FSLN general secretary Daniel Ortega promised to assume the rent payments for their office, so at least they no longer risk being chased out of that tiny corner. For his part, Victor Hugo Tinoco, FSLN coordinator for the Managua District, who also helped the mothers avoid eviction, believes that it would be difficult to take up the search for the disappeared again; he says some feel it would interfere with reconciliation efforts, which must still be consolidated, and with the policy of forgiveness that many say should be implemented.

But is possible to pardon someone who does not want to help find the truth? Is it possible to build reconciliation on a lie? It is easier to reconcile with and pardon the known murderer of a family member than someone unknown, who may have been a murderer, jailer, torturer or accomplice.

Some say the past must be forgotten. But to forget, you must first know. A dangling subject that involves thousands of suffering human beings cannot be tabled by saying that it is no longer important, that there are other priorities.

For now, the mothers continue seeking their children, writing to international human rights organizations and eating less to pay the postage. And that is not an exaggeration. They are also still trying to raise the awareness of religious, humanitarian, party and government organizations--on foot, dragging with them their rheumatism, their aches and pains and their grandchildren who do not know whether they are orphans or not. These are mainly elderly women who do not have enough money for bus fare. Even writing letters has become difficult, because AMFASEDEN is running out of stationery and doesn't have enough money to buy more.


In the interview with CRIES researcher Angel Saldomando, titled "USAID's Strategy in Nicaragua" and published in the May 1993 issue of envío, references were made on pages 29 and 30 to the organization CARE. We would like to clarify the following points, and express our regret about any interpretations that may have resulted from our imprecision:
1. The information refers to CARE International in Nicaragua, which is under the direction of CARE Canada and not CARE United States.

2. CARE International is a nongovernmental organization independent of AID and works with funds from various sources.

3. CARE International in Nicaragua has indeed executed projects in Nicaragua with the Managua municipal mayor's offices with funds from AID, but CARE officials say that this has not involved any direct money transfers or the existence of confidential accounts with those offices. That information came from sources in the municipal structures themselves.


"We have a debt to the families of the kidnapped-disappeared, but there is currently no concrete activity to resolve this problem. The truth is that it's almost impossible to effectively clarify everything that happened, because there has been an attempt to pull the covers over all that were and are attacks against Sandinismo. Sandinismo, though it didn't lose military, lost the war in deeds, as a result of US pressure and through the electoral defeat. It's already well known that the one who loses the war has less possibility for seeing justice done or seeing the justice of its struggle vindicated."
(Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, CENIDH.)

"Under any circumstance in which a disappearance takes places, it is one of the cruelest forms of torture; it not only affects the one who suffers--the one who loses the right to freedom, life and even a dignified burial--but also violates the rights of that person's family members, who will live the rest of their days with that eternal unresolved anguish. We've received testimony from mothers who said they didn't even sleep, because every time there was any slight noise at the door they thought it might be their son, who had come back hidden, clandestinely. It's a human drama which is harad to imagine, that only those who have suffered it in their own flesh and blood can understand".

(Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, president of CENIDH).


"When talking about the disappeared, we have to recognize the extraordinary abnegation of Nicaraguan women. If it weren't for their special and extraordinary cultural characteristics, it would be very difficult in some cases to speak of a nuclear family in Nicaragua. Women assume full responsibility for the home, its coherence, and for maintaining the children, both emotionally and economically. there is in all this a warrior archetype that, unfortunately, many have adopted and which will have to be overcome to reach peace. For the young, the behavioral model is still to make war. This is what gives them relevance and social importance. Less is said about the immense role Nicaraguan women play in war and in peace. It's an anonymous role, quiet, never yelling, never expressing itself loudly. We have proved that when we're able to involve women in a project that supports the post-war population, that project progresses exceptionally, because their capacity to work, their energy and ability to organize and dedicate everything to collective and community coexistence are extraordinary."
(Sergio Caramagna, national coordinator of the Follow-Up and Verification Program of the Organization of American States International Support and Verification Commission, CIAV-OAS).


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