Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 98 | Septiembre 1989



Rebuilding the Río Coco: An Odyssey

Envío team

When the first truckloads of displaced Miskito Indian families pulled into Waspán, on the Río Coco, in mid-1985, they hardly paused to contemplate the destruction. Whooping and laughing, children and adults raced down into the shining river, splashing each other in the current. Some even filled jars with the nearly mystical waters of the "Wangki"—as the river has always been known to Miskitos—to sprinkle on those still waiting their turn on the caravan of trucks under military guard. It was the first moment of real joy they had experienced in over three years.

Some 9,000 people had been evacuated from the river communities in early 1982, after contra attacks turned serious during the previous months. Another 10,000 or so had fled across the river to Honduras, fearful of the Sandinistas who, inexplicably to them, were forcing them out of their villages and burning down their houses to prevent their use by the contras.

"They'll never forget the evacuation," says Mother Maureen. A member of the Sisters of St. Agnes, she has worked on the river since 1978 and accompanied those evacuated to the resettlement known as Tasba Pri. "Every village they walked through had been burnt. All their sewing machines, farm tools, livestock, everything, was lost."

With river travel dangerous due to the attacks from Miskito fighters on the Honduran side, they had walked to Waspán, a still-thriving commercial town dead center along the river. From there they had been taken the 40 miles inland by truck on the only road that leads from the river. Pulling out of town they passed well-built government buildings, the September 11 Teachers Institute, the cinema, the bank. The last structures to slip from sight were the water towers and the lacy concrete steeple of the Catholic church.

The plan had been to evacuate Waspán's 7,500 inhabitants last, but it became unnecessary. Ministries moved their personnel to Puerto Cabezas and merchants, seeing their supply and demand quickly evaporating, dismantled their own wood houses and left to set up shop elsewhere—Puerto Cabezas, a town on the Pacific side, even the United States. By May of 1982, the only people on Waspán's streets were Sandinista soldiers. The whole river zone had been militarized and Waspán was the main base.

When the euphoric returnees finally surveyed the scene in 1985, however, Waspán looked like an archeological ruin. What had not been taken by departing townspeople had rotted under three years of rains and thick jungle vines had grown over the rubble. The water tanks were still on their stilts, but perforated with more than a hundred bullet holes. The church steeple, too, was still standing, but much of the church itself was collapsed, presumably mortared from the Honduran side of the river. The mortaring would continue for at least a year after the return of the first civilians.

Starting again ...and again

The returnees quickly set to the task of rebuilding their lives. It would have been an overwhelming task under the best of conditions, and in 1985 conditions could not have been much worse. Although the government had conceded to their demands to return and pulled its troops out of the zone after signing the first cease-fire accord with a dissident group of indigenous fighters who agreed to help protect the civilians, the war was still raging. Food was scarce since widespread fighting had brought agricultural production on the coast to a virtual halt. Building materials were just as scarce; international aid agencies, leery of the military situation, initially hesitated to help finance the reconstruction.

Clearing a hole in the vegetation, families constructed makeshift shelters in Waspán and the nearby village sites—those further up and down the river were still too dangerous. Soon lean-tos with black plastic walls and zinc roofs brought from Tasba Pri dotted Waspán's riverbank. Then in October the Miskito contras destroyed a strategic bridge on the road up from Puerto Cabezas, making it nearly impossible to deliver the internationally donated supplies beginning to accumulate there.

Some people turned back to wait for better times, but most stuck it out—only to be uprooted once again in April 1986. That time it was the armed Miskito organization called Kisan that coerced them to leave. Claiming that the Sandinistas planned to invade their villages and take them back to Tasba Pri, the Kisan contras herded the villagers across the river into Honduras where they promised that plenty of international aid was waiting. But it was all lies; the exodus was part of a propaganda ruse to push Congress into approving a pending request from President Reagan for $100 million in contra aid. It was also a means of securing a new source of recruits. The ranks of fighters were beginning to dwindle as more and more small groups joined the dialogue with the government in response to the pleas for peace from their civilian relatives.

It was a costly tactic. The new refugees' brief stay in Honduras was not a pleasant one. It served to strengthen not only their desire for peace but also their incipient sense of Nicaraguan nationalism. Their support for the fighters, already shaken by the destruction of the bridge, crumbled almost completely. So did the faith they had long placed in the US government.

Esmerita, a Miskito woman who has been a health leader and agricultural producer in her community of Wasla for 25 years, was in Puerto Cabezas the day her community crossed into Honduras. A sharp-boned women in her 50s with long crinkly black hair she wears pulled back in a severe bun, Esmerita has seven children, a droll humor and a seemingly fearless attitude. "When I got home and found everybody from my village gone," she explained during a recess in a recent health refresher course in Waspán, "I crossed over to Honduras and hunted for a few months till I found them. They were just huddled in this refugee camp; they weren't allowed by the Honduran government to do anything. They couldn't clear land to plant or work. But they were afraid to come back because of all the stories they'd heard about the Sandinistas, and there had been fighting with the contras near Wasla a few days before they left. I just told them it was all nonsense, our village was still there and there were no more soldiers. So we went home." With a firm nod of her head to punctuate the end of her story, she put her arm around another health worker from Wasla and the two women walked off.

Relative stability at last

With three more years now passed, conditions have improved significantly on the Río Coco. All those who went to Honduras in 1986 are back, together with another 26,000 who had left earlier. The UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) says that under 9,000 Miskitos remain in their camps in Honduras; an undeterminable number are still in contra-run camps or have settled permanently in the neighboring country.

More than 80 villages have emerged again along the southern banks of the river and the fertile savannah behind it. With each passing year the government has gained access to more villages toward the extremes of the river, where indigenous contras still operate with near impunity. Most villages, even those still dominated by the fighters, have elected a Peace and Autonomy Commission. Some of these commissions are still dedicated to securing peace and dialogue between the government and the fighters, but others are well along in the transition to community development structures.

With only 300 to 500 indigenous fighters in the area still allied to the FDN, the main problem now is not the war but the economic situation and the rains that continually wash away the crops. National and international aid agencies have been working alongside the government in the area for several years to provide immediate assistance to the repatriating Miskito families and stabilize the communities. Schools and health posts are being rebuilt, bilingual teachers and volunteer health leaders and midwives in all the communities are offered periodic training workshops like the one Esmerita was attending, and seeds and basic farming implements are provided to dozens of farm collectives organized in the villages.

A recently approved assistance plan called PAR (Program of Attention to the Repatriated) is being coordinated by the Nicaraguan government and supported by the UNHCR with funding from the European Community and United Nations emergency assistance programs. PAR workers now run the refugee crossing at Leymus, upriver from Waspán, where an average 100 people still return by boat each Friday, receiving health check-ups, vaccinations and emergency supplies of food, clothing and cooking utensils. The government provides each returning family with food subsidies for six months, until their first grains harvest. PAR also provides zinc roofing for housing; it is up to the government and the communities to supply the wood and see that the work gets done.

One still serious problem, says William Watler, recently appointed mayor of the municipality that encompasses Waspán and all the river communities, is the long distances and the dispersion of the population. The rain-rutted dirt roads mean early retirement for the few trucks in the region and the traditional cargo boats, vital to supplying the outlying villages and commercializing their produce, have not been replaced since they were lost to the war.

It is hard enough getting food and medical supplies to the outlying villages; the quantities of cut lumber needed for housing becomes a major problem to deliver once the war-damaged sawmill manages to get a load cut. Watler says that chain saws are not the answer either. They are easily damaged by amateurs and neither spare parts nor fuel are easy to come by in the region. He would like to see a few portable sawmills strategically dotted along the river.

Another current difficulty is that the communities have been lucky even to achieve self-subsistence crops; unusually heavy rains the past two years have destroyed much of the rice and bean harvests. Producers have also had to share what little they salvaged with those newly returning, particularly the many war widows who are overwhelmed by the task of building a home, tending a crop and caring for their young children alone. Nonetheless, Ministry of Agriculture figures indicate a doubling of the harvest this year over last.

Waspán rises again

Despite these problems, the communities are now sufficiently stable to permit the government to turn its attention to the rebuilding of Waspán. The town’s current population is 2,800, many of whom are from way upriver and still afraid to go back. "A few of them have been killed trying," says Mayor Watler, adding that some are getting accustomed to living in Waspán after three years of waiting and may not go back.

"Waspán people still living in Puerto Cabezas keep asking us when there will be electricity and water," says Watler. "When we get those installed and the airstrip reactivated, the merchants will start pouring back. Then you'll see production figures along the river begin to climb."

Norwegian governmental and nongovernmental agencies are funding the reestablishment of water and power services in Waspán, but the going is slow. "We had to solder up all the bullet holes in the water tanks first," Watler explains, "and we're still waiting for the arrival of the PVC pipe before we can give direct service to homes." The pump is already working, broken pipes have been bypassed, and nine public taps operate twice a day. The water comes from two artesian wells, so is potable.

Electrical service is also delayed due to typical problems of underdevelopment. "It's the posts," muses Watler, with philosophical patience. "We have plenty of pine forests, but no way to treat the wood, so it rots in just a few years. We first ordered the 170 posts we needed from Honduras, but after a few months they admitted that they couldn't meet the order either, so we had to start all over again with Costa Rica and now we're eight months behind. And, of course, delays cost money, which cuts into our budget."

"Food is still really the main problem though," the mayor continues. "We're planning to reactivate the ENABAS expendios [grains supply stores subsidized by the state food agency]. With all this people will return, because it's cheaper to live here than in Puerto Cabezas." A characteristic of the river is that teachers and health workers also grow crops and raise pigs and chickens in their spare time, which means that they can get by on their meager salaries. In Puerto Cabezas there is no nearby agricultural land.

Watler, a Miskito raised in Waspán who might be in his early 40s, was a professor of natural sciences and math at the Teachers' Institute before the revolution. Like many others, he went to Puerto Cabezas in 1982. In 1986 the regional government appointed him as its delegate to the 12 communities around Yulu in the savannah southwest of Puerto Cabezas—the first peace zone.

He has only been at his current post since April, but gives the impression of having done it for years. With no hesitation he details all the aid projects, the state of their development and the problems they are grappling with. Asked if the revolution was taking advantage of the "clean slate" in Waspán to redesign its urbanization scheme, he quickly grabs a sheet of paper and begins blocking out areas—urban expansion here, industrial section there... "Our plan was to put a sawmill, a rice thresher and the mechanic and carpentry shops back where the Brautigans used to have their operation." The Brautigans, he explains, realizing the familiar surname might need explanation to an outsider, were a Creole family from Pearl Lagoon linked to "the fruit company"; they bought and shipped bananas and wood until 1976, "when old man Brautigan died and his sons had no interest." ("The fruit company"—said in English even by Spanish speakers like Watler—refers to Standard Fruit, which directly controlled banana production on the coast until the 1930s, when the crop was devastated by disease and the company had had enough of Sandino's harassment. From then on it limited itself to the more profitable international marketing aspect, leaving local administration to the Brautigans.)

Lost in his vision, Watler silently adds details to his sketch, then suddenly looks up with a twinkly-eyed smile. "But the people have their land signed in titles so we have to respect that, even though many have settled elsewhere. Everybody knows who lived where, so we can't change anything. People just come back, throw up their houses the best they can and that's it. All we can do is try to make it look nice."

Asked about the differences in his job between Yulu and Waspán, his eyes twinkle again. "There I worked alone; here I have a team." In 1987 the Peace and Autonomy Commissions were asked to elect 10 people to a new Municipal Council. Each is responsible for six to eight communities and acts as intermediaries to coordinate work between the mayor and the commissions; this system exists only on the river and in the mining region. Watler meets with his council once a month to discuss issues of health, production, education, community development and the specific needs and problems of each sector. He reviews similar concerns directly with the hundreds of commission members themselves in a big assembly every three months.

New people come to each of these assemblies. "Some are changes, some are additions," Watler says, "and some, we know, are contras who come to listen. But that's fine with us because they learn that the people in the communities are telling the truth, that the commissions aren't just Sandinista fronts where they get filled with propaganda. It's better that they participate; it helps bring peace."

William Watler, who sports one of the pins awarded to dedicated revolutionaries during the tenth anniversary celebrations, stresses that he was appointed by the regional government. "In February next year people will elect who they want for mayor." Asked if he plans to run, he just smiles modestly, but his eyes twinkle again.

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