“We must avoid a civil war at all cost”
Doctor, combatant and member of the
Nicaraguan Resistance’s chiefs of staff in the 1980s,
and now representing it in the Broad Democratic Front,
the author shares some of his experiences in that war
and reflects on the dynamics of today’s conflict.
There’s nothing good about war. I experienced it for years and I’m increasingly convinced that nothing good comes of it. Now, thanks to what we’ve been going through in Nicaragua since April 18, we have an excellent opportunity to make a change without taking up arms for the first time in our history. I only hope we succeed. And I say that coming from the Contra. I say it from the heart, not out of fear.
When a sniper killed Alvarito Conrado on April 20, I was one of the first to be tempted to grab a weapon. And I still am at times. My blood boils seeing the repression this man is ordering. But no; I just hope this revolution remains civic.
War has always played
a part in our history
I’m from San Rafael del Norte, in Jinotega, an area that lived through Sandino’s war against the gringo Marines up close, as he moved his men through the pass in that mountainous area. My grandmother on my father’s side was the aunt of Blanca Arauz, Sandino’s wife. And when I read Sandino’s biography by Gregorio Selser, who was the best historian on that famous figure, I learned about a receipt Sandino wrote that said: “We took 30 mules from Mr. José Zelaya and will pay him for them when the revolution triumphs.” Well, that Mr. Zelaya was my grandad, my father’s father.
We Nicaraguans all have a distorted idea of the events of our history, in which war always played a part. I hadn’t been born when Sandino’s war was being fought, but I did hear what my relatives went through during that period, some for the good, others not. And if I hadn’t read about Sandino, hadn’t learned about him for my little brother Marlon and myself, Sandino would have remained just a highway bandit to us, like Pedrón Altamirano, such a bad memory for the people of Jinotega. But we educated ourselves and had to differentiate the barbarities Pedrón committed from what Sandino wanted to do. [US Marines considered Division General Altamirano “the bloodiest” of Sandino’s chiefs, while in 2011 the Nicaraguan Army awarded him the Honor of Military Merit Soldier of the Homeland medal posthumously for being “a man of moral and patriotic principles.” In an extensive list of positive qualities, the Army began by defining him as “characterized for his fidelity to the homeland, absolute loyalty to General Sandino and unwavering discipline.”
Not all soldiers follow orders
Sandino headed up that guerrilla army, but having been a member of an armed group myself, I learned that soldiers don’t always do what the chief wants. I also understood that Sandino wasn’t a peasant and didn’t know the mountains he was fighting in, as he was from Niquinohomo in the Pacific. He was taught by the peasants from the mountains of Jinotega and Matagalpa. And of course, not all peasants who accompanied him were the most upstanding; some were on-the-run horse thieves hiding out in those mountains.
So we shouldn’t be surprised when someone tells stories of cruelties committed by Sandino’s combatants. The same thing happened in the 1980s war I participated in, and I know that both revolutionary and resistance combatants committed atrocities. There were episodes of cruelty in Sandino’s war, in the Sandinista insurrection and in the war of the 1980s.
Who were better or worse? It’s not up to me to say. Today, after seeing what I’ve seen, I think it is fair to say that nobody can be such a goodie-goodie that they’ve never done anybody wrong, nor such a baddie that they’ve never done anything good for someone. I’ve also embraced the conviction that all Nicaraguans have the obligation to rewrite our country’s history truthfully, so we can leave the future generations a better path to follow.
What happened to my
brother infuriated me
Marlon Zelaya, founder of the Sandinista Youth, was my younger brother. We got into politics when the Somocista National Guard killed a boy they called “El Callado” [the quiet one] in a barrio of Jinotega. Marlon and I elbowed our way in among the Guards to see the dead kid. We didn’t have a clear idea why they’d killed him, but I think the seed was sown in us both that day: there were youths fighting for “something.” After that, our stepfather, who was in the opposition Conservative Party, was arrested.
In that environment, Marlon, who was 13 at the time, decided to join the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which was beginning to organize people around Jinotega into the anti-Somoza struggle. He, Ernesto Cabrera (“Cabrerita”) and some other kids got involved and Marlon later fought in the Southern Front. Once the revolution was in government he became an outstanding university leader in UNAN-Managua before fighting “the contras,” commanding the 30-72 Sandinista Youth Battalion.
In May 1983, I was studying medicine in the United States when I was told Marlon had died fighting in the mountains. The way the FSLN newspaper Barricada told it, his battalion had fallen into a contra ambush, there was crossfire and Marlon ordered his battalion to retreat while he covered them, remaining alone against the enemy troops, which shot him full of holes. A heroic scene.
When I returned to Nicaragua I already had my doubts about that version. I took charge of the burial and, against orders not to do so, I had the audacity to open the casket. I didn’t see any chest wounds, and when I turned him over I saw he had one shot in the back, with no exit wound. There were still traces of gunshot residue in the hole made by the bullet that had killed him. I deduced that he didn’t die from long-distance combat weapons, but from a bullet in the back shot at close range.
That was when my personal indignation with the revolution was born. When I later tried to say one of his own had killed him, it sounded like heresy, but I knew why I was saying it. My brother had always been self-critical. I’d already told him in 1980, “You’re in Managua a lot with your university roles, but you need to see what’s happening in the countryside,” and I took him to Pantasma, to Wiwilí, to various places so he could see and hear the peasants’ discontent with the revolution, the abuses the Army was committing in those areas.
The last time I saw him was in December 1982. I remember he told me that day that he didn’t agree with the revolution’s plan to impose the military service law and that Daniel Ortega should step down from running the country. He also mentioned to me worriedly that he was going back to the countryside with his battalion “to see if it’s true that we’re killing Somocista Guardsmen, or we’re really killing peasants.” It was only months later that Marlon died the way he did.
Barely two months after his death, the FSLN conducted an operation in Pantasma with genuine atrocities. They rounded up more than 5,000 peasants, confiscated their property and stole all their cattle…. Many of my own relatives were affected. They took the prisoners to Waswalí. When I see so many mothers today looking for their children in El Chipote prison or hear stories about imprisoned youths closed up in a hole for 50 days, I remember Pantasma. Back then, Waswalí was for the north what El Chipote is for the Pacific today. Fingernails ripped out, tortures of all kinds, hunger, illnesses, disappearances… Hundreds of those captured never reappeared. We lived through such cruelties there in 1983.
I don’t know what Marlon would have said had he known about the abuses they committed there. I believe they’d already decided what they were going to do and the FSLN leaders believed he would have been very critical and that his criticism would have influenced the youth in the university, so it was better to eliminate him and dream up a romantic story about his death, burying him as a hero.
How many cases like Marlon’s might there have been? We have no way of knowing. What we do know now is that the FSLN’s upper echelons have no compunction about eliminating their own cadres if they get in their way.
The horrors of war destroyed ideals…
The seeds of the counterrevolution were sown in Pantasma with the horrors those peasants experienced. It was people like Dimas Negro and Chele Douglas, who had enthusiastically received the Sandinista revolution, who founded the Contra based on what they saw there.
During the war years I saw many sons and brothers of Sandinista fighters against Somoza join the Contras, although many kept their connection a secret, just as I didn’t say that I was Marlon Zelaya’s brother at the beginning. They wouldn’t have accepted me; they first had to see me in the field. But later I told the story. For example, I met the brother of Pedro Arauz Palacios in the Contra in San Pedro del Norte and he himself told me he was Pedro’s brother.
Over all those years, they brought me so many wounded boys from the military service to operate on, to cure. Given the furor of battle, some combatants told me to “Kill that Sandinista,” but I said, “No, he’s a Sandinista like my brother was” and I attended to them the best I could. I saved a lot who are now war disabled of the Nicaraguan Resistance.
…and polarized people who
didn’t want to take sides
In the eighties, the peasant communities of northern and central Nicaragua were faced with a terrible dilemma: the Army or the Contra. If the Contra passed through and people were in their houses, they’d say: “If you’re still here it’s because you’re Sandinistas” and take reprisals. And if the Army passed through, the same thing happened but in reverse. One side would come through and ask for food then the other would do the same. We considered them Sandinistas if they gave the Army a chicken, and the Army considered them contras if they gave us a pig. We both put the peasantry in a life-or-death dilemma: either go with the Army or go with the Contra, and in either case they had to do the same thing: shoot at and kill other Nicaraguans.
An emblematic case
Disillusioned Sandinistas joined the Contra, as did other non-Sandinistas who were just peasants. Santiago Meza, or “Cinco Pinos” as he was called in the Contra, a boy who made himself both famous and feared, was from Yalí, where I participated in several combats. To this day people hide if I mention his name when I go to Yalí. But who was he? He was no Somocista Guardsman; he was a peasant kid being raised by his father together with his seven younger siblings, all boys. His dad had been just another farm laborer there, but he also had three and a half hectares where he grew coffee. One day the Sandinista Army showed up and decided he was a counterrevolutionary landowner because he had “so much” land… That idea must have come from the head of the Army in that zone, who was from the northwest, because in those departments of León and Chinandega that amount of land was considered a lot. So the Army grabbed the boys’ father and beat him until he spat up blood, then took him prisoner. All eight sons witnessed that abuse.
One day the Contra went through that area and came upon those eight sons looking for them. The oldest one broke our hearts. “I’ve been watching for you for two weeks,” he said crying, his nose running. He explained that he wanted to join us given what they’d done to his father. He wanted revenge. That peasant kid, humiliated so many times by people telling him “Get out of here, go on! You’re no good for anything!” turned into a spitfire in war, a daredevil. I finally even decided the kid was crazy. His resentment was so enormous it launched him into a lot of violent attacks against military barracks and cooperatives in the area. But who was to blame for his crimes? He was an easygoing boy working the family land with his dad and brothers. Why did the Army go after them, why attack them?
The war in the interior
didn’t stop in 1990
No one has paid for the crimes of all kinds committed by both sides during the war. In 1990 an amnesty was decreed that established a clean slate for everything anyone did in those years. We in the Resistance demobilized on the basis of that and other agreements. But the Army, employing the tactics they know so well, killed 400 or our combatants after they had demobilized, practically all of them peasants. We presented proof of these human rights violations to the OAS, which filed some complaints, but they just gathered dust, even though three consecutive Liberal governments were in power.
And it didn’t stop there. There has never been any cessation of the repression in the north and central part of the country against those who had belonged to or sympathized with the Resistance, or more recently have been suspected of supporting the politically motivated rearmed groups that began to appear in the mountains and have stayed there for the past six years in rejection of Ortega’s new government and his reelection. “El Flaco,” a contra soldier in the eighties, is one of them. He was a member of the Contra Medical Corps battalion I worked with. “Cabezón,” another guy who was there, is also in the mountains. After April, “Cabezón” headed the roadblock in Waslala and escaped into the mountains when they tried to take him prisoner. These two and some others know how to fight but they’re old now… Just since April 18, the repression in the rural zones has caused 2-300 civilian peasants to flee into the mountains to join them, although only some have taken up arms.
didn’t start on April 18
We’ve been victims of extrajudicial executions, of selective murders. The Ortega government’s repression in the rural areas didn’t start on April 18. We all remember very recent cases, such as Andrés Castro, a peasant from Ayapal who filed a human rights charge because the Army was hounding him, and three days later they kidnapped and pumped 42 billets into him. Let’s also not forget the backpack bomb that killed those peasants in Pantasma. Or doña Elea Valle, whose two children [a 16-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son] were killed in an Army operation in La Cruz del Río Grande last year and to this day she is still asking for their bodies so she can give them a proper burial.
All these actions were thought up and organized by the people in Army Intelligence. But to implement them they need peasants who know the mountains. And who do they look for? Former contra combatants who were bad during the war and continued doing criminal activities afterward, because they’re offered money, booze and women, a common enticement in all armies. These ex-contras are the ones who know the mountains, who can and are willing to shoot or take the peasants backpack bombs prepared by the Army, or become informers.
No one ever gives
the peasantry its due
When [OAS Secretary General Luis] Almagro came in December 2016, several nongovernmental meetings were held with him. They invited me to one with politicians. When it was my turn to say a few words to him, I told him what the poor in the countryside say: “Unfortunately no one has ever paid attention to the peasants in this country. Nor have they ever complied with what was agreed with us. In the nineties we laid down our weapons in exchange for democracy in Nicaragua. We turned in our weapons, but there was no democracy, so we declared that transaction null and void; we wanted our weapons back so we could go back to fighting for democracy.” Almagro smiled, but I found out that when I left they wanted to jail me for being a “warmonger.”
In all the revolts and revolutions we’ve had in our country, I don’t think we’ve ever given the peasantry its due. Never. Even now, the Blue and White National Unity isn’t giving the peasant movement the place it deserves.
We’re convinced Ortega
would like a civil war
What is Ortega currently doing in the northern zones? Just yesterday they sent me photos of San Pedro de Awasás and San Juan de Awasás, little towns around San José de Bocay. What are they doing in places like that? Fifteen to thirty well-armed paramilitaries come to town and show off so everyone watches them… and fears them. They steal a pig, eat a few chickens, frighten the kids and then leave. That puts the boys up against the same old dilemma: join those paramilitaries to feel safe or go with the rearmed groups the next morning.
The Army moving through certain towns suggests that it’s pushing for a military confrontation. On the one hand paramilitaries are being sent to zones that were pro-contra to encourage the youths to flee into the mountains, and on the other they’re acknowledging the existence of rearmed groups, thus giving the kids from those areas the idea of going off and joining them. That all feels like the Army is trying to trigger a civil war… or a massacre. It wouldn’t surprise me if those on the government side are even providing arms so they can demonstrate that those on our side are also doing the killing; that our struggle isn’t a civic one.
How do you convince desperate
people that war is senseless?
The truth is that the Nicaraguan people want to keep the struggle civic and peaceful, but they aren’t going to be satisfied with just getting rid of Daniel. They want much more than that and are determined to get it. I believe God is on our side in this unarmed revolution and believing that gives us an enormous strength to keep it that way.
A civil war has to be avoided at all cost. I never stop saying it to those kids. The problem is how to deal with the desperation of people in the countryside who are being hunted and have been hiding in the mountains for five months without seeing their wife and children, sleeping in the bush… In their despair they believe that going to war against that man is the only choice. I tell them it’s not the way, because changing from the unarmed civic struggle happening in the Pacific won’t convince anybody, particularly since that has gotten us so much international backing.
I tell them a war isn’t easy, and that the only thing it’s going to bring is more deaths. But when I say that they lash out, saying, “so how many more people is Daniel Ortega going to kill?” And they’re right. What more does this man have to do to get himself accused of crimes against humanity in an international criminal court?
I’ve virtually been the Resistance spokesperson. I go out there and tell the armed guys that this path isn’t the solution. But I don’t tell them to put their weapons away and go back to their towns because that would only lead to more prisoners, more deaths and more disappeared who would later turn up dead. It would be irresponsible to tell them to turn in their weapons. The only thing I tell them is to stay alive, try to survive and if they find you, there’s no choice but to respond, because it’s in your own defense. I also tell them not to commit any atrocity. And thank God they haven’t.
Creating an army
is no easy endeavor
Arming an army takes a lot of money. And young people. The combatants of the eighties have experience and the majority can lead, but they can’t fight; they’re too old.
A war also requires a lot of weaponry. We’re talking about armed people in the mountains now, but they don’t have enough weapons to wage a war, or mount any kind of sizable operation. What’s a soldier going to do with an AK 47 if he only has 30 rounds? What are they going to do with somebody who has an abdominal or head wound or a punctured lung? Where are they going to take him? How are they going to patch him up? Creating an army also means training a lot of people. We don’t have a friendly country to give us weapons or serve as a rearguard or provide resources for the wounded.
In the war of the eighties I operated on a lot of a lot of people and cured them, but I also saw others die. What I didn’t much like was talking to those who were going to die. I didn’t feel I had the spiritual stature to tell someone they were dying and to go in peace, but I had to do it. I have more than 2,000 messages written by dying young fighters to be sent to their mothers, who I still haven’t been able to find.
I believe in God, but I never said God was supporting the Resistance. Never. To the contrary, noting that there was always a huge downpour at the end of any combat I participated in, I’d always say to my soldiers: “You see? God is angry at us; these are his tears. He’s crying for all the dead on both sides.”
At one point we decided to organize a group of “chaplains” in each battalion. At first there was resistance: ‘We’re not here to pray, we’re here to shoot,’ they’d tell me. But they had to accept it because I was a member of the chiefs of staff. So we prepared more than 1,300 chaplains and they accompanied the wounded combatants who were going to die. When the war ended many of them became Evangelical pastors. One of my paramedics from San José de Bocay took the pseudonym “Hitler”… imagine what he was thinking at the time! He finally became a chaplain and the more he learned about the Word of God, the more he changed. Today he’s known as “Lazarus.”
We have to reengage each
other and be self-critical
We urgently need to find a way out of this conflict before desperation leads us down the tortuous path of war. It’s urgent that those who support us internationally act soon, setting aside the “politically correct” script in their declarations and resolutions, because this man isn’t going to get it until his own children are slapped with the Magnitsky Act, until he and his wife are being accused of crimes against humanity and find themselves persecuted internationally.
Sandino’s great success was that he had the backing of many intellectuals of his time. One of the great deficits of the Resistance struggle in the eighties is that we never had Nicaragua’s intellectuals on our side: they were all enemies of the Contra. A few words, a text, a poem, a song, have a lot of power. As I’ve said to Carlos Mejía Godoy, “Somoza’s National Guard killed five peasant women from El Cuá and you wrote the song ‘The women of El Cuá’ for them, while 10,000 women in the Contra died and you didn’t dedicate anything to them.” It’s very good for our blue and white struggle that Sergio Ramírez, Gioconda Belli and Carlos Mejía Godoy have all come out in favor of it, that the bishops and priests have made statements of support.
Let’s trust in God that this will end soon, so it doesn’t end up with either machetes or rifles being used. Let’s trust that bullets don’t have to fly in order to forge a vigorous homeland like the one dreamed of by Sandino; by so many thousands of Sandinista combatants who died fighting against Somoza; by so many thousands more who died fighting in the war of the eighties; and by the hundreds who have died since April.
We have to support the Blue and White Unity, but we also have to get it to listen to everyone’s voices: those of the peasants, the Liberals and also those from the Sandinista ranks, because I don’t think good Sandinistas are in agreement with the massacre the man is committing. I say that for my brother Marlon, who was a good Sandinista and today would be on the blue and white side. Knowing there are good and bad human beings in all groups, we have to understand that we’re diverse, we have to reengage each other and be self-critical to build a new country with the best people.