The lasting imprint of pain and indignation
Last month we offered our readers the first half of Chapter Eleven of the GIEI report,
dedicated to giving voice to victims and their families. Here we offer the second half,
in which theGIEI team spoke with women, children and Monimbó+’s indigenous population.
After collecting stories full of anxiety and uncertainty, commitment and determination,
they concluded that the wounds and the imprint of both pain and indignation
that remain as a result of this violent period will be very difficult to heal
unless Nicaragua decides to undertake a process of transitional justice:
to know the truth, ensure justice is done, guarantee reparations
and avoid repetition of tragedies like this one.
Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI)
There are many cases of family members of April’s victims being subjected to revictimization. One exam¬ple of revictimization in found in the consequences people suffered in their fight for justice and getting at the truth. Filing claims with those responsible, organizing politically or talking to the media caused those affected to suffer new violence such as threats to their personal safety and stigmatization. “They call us terrorists for demanding justice. They don’t provide us with any security.”
“We are poor, but proud”
Another example concerns the visits by public officials to people’s homes offering psychological care, financial compensation or even a new house. Besides the fact that people harbored deep mistrust of the state entities, the offer of care was linked in some cases to signing a form officially withdrawing their charges, thereby abandoning any type of investigation: “You can have a new home, just sign this statement and the State will help you,” they were told.
It must also be noted that, at first, the health minister herself went to visit some family members, which was seen as a kind of intimidation. Likewise, officials from the Family Ministry and mayor’s offices made visits offering money in exchange for “not following up on the complaint and leaving the bodies to rest in peace.”
Later on, public health services personnel, such as psychologists, also made home visits to offer care. This could have been an act of recognition by the State of responsibility for the abuses and of reparation for damages, but it became yet another occasion for threatening and harassing the families: “The government wanted to wash its hands of the murder it had committed. They were sent for that purpose. But the government’s role was to protect life. Doesn’t the health minister say she protects life? Yet the hospitals denied care to the kids.”
It is important to note that in such cases the goal is to revictimize certain actors and collectives to weaken them, dominate them and break people’s will, forcing them to abandon their demand for their rights and, in the worst case scenario, erase—either individually or communally—those who disagree with the government. Thus we can see how people whose rights were violated were revictimized on several occasions, causing profound indignation: “We are poor, but proud.”
“Even dying is expensive”
Since the majority of those who died were male adolescents or young adults, they held a particularly important role in family incomes. Moreover, many of the affected families were economically vulnerable and lived in shacks or basic housing. In these cases, the families found themselves in material difficulties after the death, in a precarious state and even facing food shortages. In some even more serious cases, the deceased was the sole income provider. The surviving partner, who had previously been a homemaker, had to take on work selling goods on the street or other types of informal work in addition to caring for their children.
Due to the pain caused by their son’s death, many mothers spent a time without leaving the house for work, or reduced the frequency of their work, generating an even more delicate financial situation that in some cases meant suffering hunger. These families have had to depend on the solidarity of neighbors, bosses and other acquaintances who helped them financially. The loss of a son was compounded by the need to find ways to survive.
The families of the deceased many times didn’t even have the economic means to pay for the coffin and grave site, which added unforeseen costs. These families too relied on support from neighbors, friends, social movements and organizations to cover the costs of the wake and burial: “Even dying is expensive. But people came together to help out with economic support. I had to buy a plot in the cemetery to bury the body. I thank God I got that help.” “We had to buy the coffin, too,” one mother told us.
The economic cost of exile and prison
The displacement of family members has also meant heavy additional costs, since travel to other countries depends on several types of transportation and on the participation of many people who charge for these services.
These costs lead to financial complications for those who leave—because they go into exile with little or no money—and also for those who stay in Nicaragua, since they invest what little they had or take on loans so their family member can reach the other country and save his or her life. Often the relatives who stay behind have to send money periodically to cover the living expenses of the person who left, since their irregular migratory situation makes it impossible for them to work in the other country.
The reduction in family income also puts education at risk or hampers its continuity for children and teens, according to some people interviewed. University education or foreign language courses were no longer a priority for families when lives were in danger or when the family didn’t even have money for food. The GIEI heard stories of young people who were close to finishing their education but had to drop out due to economic problems.
In the case of relatives of those imprisoned, going repeatedly to incarceration and legal facilities, delivering food and other needed items, and doing other activities necessary to support the detainee generate heavy economic costs for family members who often come from other cities.
Economic impact is thus a factor that people have to contend with in the context of the human rights violations in Nicaragua since April 18.
“I can’t find peace”
“Maybe you’ll see my tears falling. I’m going through a pretty rough situation psychologically. I haven’t been able to sleep either during the day or at night, nor find peace due to Nicaragua’s situation.” This was how the interview began with one person who had been detained and tortured and is now displaced as a result of the violations and threats received after release.
The incarcerations between April 18 and May 30 [the period of the GIEI study] were used to punish those who had participated in the protests. The arrests were part of the strategies developed to instill terror and demobilize people who were organizing to protest the government. Beyond the immediate demobilization, the arrests many times meant cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment for those detained and/or facing court proceedings. Throughout the GIEI’s work it was possible to see the effect of detention on those who were jailed and on their family members.
Arbitrary and humiliating detentions
It can be said that the main characteristic of the detentions, from the perspective of their effect on both family members and detainees, is their arbitrary nature. This arbitrariness characterized the period of investigation as much as the moment of arrest; it has been present throughout the whole process. There have been detentions that do not comply with the minimum standards of respect for people’s rights and dignity, and which, by not respecting legal procedures, generate feelings of hate.
The first moments of detention are marked by the practice of stripping, harassing, torturing and humiliating, whether in the street, at houses where the detained were irregularly held or at El Chipote prison. The objective of such practices is to destructure the detainees to dissuade them from further political participation, force them to give the names of others involved in the protests, and also subjectively break them to then declare them guilty of the crimes attributed to them.
Detention conditions described to us included cells in precarious conditions, dirty and lacking mattresses and ventilation. People were held in detention in their underwear, unable to change them for months.
In several stories family members mention that even though people got sick during and after the detentions as a result of these conditions, they didn’t receive needed medical care. In the case of women, there are stories of gynecological illnesses provoked by the absence of minimal hygiene standards. There are also cases of people who need to take medicine regularly for some chronic health problem, but the penitentiary neither provided the medicine nor allowed family members to procure it.
Other practices mentioned include isolation in individual cells or under humiliating conditions, and the use of insults and threats that produce significant psychological damage due to the suffering they cause.
The pain felt by prisoners’ families
Legal hearings have often taken place behind closed doors at unusual times—or the trial time is changed at the last minute—so the families cannot attend. The detainee is kept isolated from his or her loved ones and does not have the time and space necessary to coordinate with a lawyer, which is a violation of the right to defense.
Lack of information about the detainee and the limited contact during family visits provoke extreme anguish in people. It is very difficult for those deprived of freedom to also be blocked from communicating with their family members to let them know about prison conditions, make health requests and seek other necessities.
Families that receive no information about the detainee live with a constant effort to overcome institutional barriers to learning about the conditions in which their loved one is kept and what his/her needs are. Most family members have been unable to make direct personal contact with the detainee, since visits are limited and very short, generally taking place in booths via telephones and separated by glass. There are reports of packages with food and clothing not being delivered to detainees.
Furthermore, many family members—especially those who live in other regions—spend day and night on the street in front of the prison in the hope of finding out something about the detainee given the absence of information and limitations on the visits they make. These same relatives receive threats and are commonly called “terrorists” or “coup-mongers” by officials or other government sympathizers. These extremely humiliating conditions increase the feelings of hate and rage against state institutions.
Beyond the costs imposed on the families who have to travel to Managua or Tipitapa, where El Chipote, La Modelo and La Esperanza jails are located, to bring food, clothing and other necessities, the mothers and wives of detainees are left in charge of the children. Along with visiting, making sure the packages are received and fighting for their rights, these women must also sustain and care for the family.
As a result, some display frequent psychosomatic disorders: severe headaches, lack of sleep, upset stomachs... Psychologically, many people have shared with us in interviews and workshops their constant fear and nearly permanent sense of danger and persecution.
“What’s worse than
leaving your country behind?”
Since April 18, 2018, the climate of insecurity and threats has forced many Nicaraguans to leave their homes and move to other neighborhoods, towns, regions and even outside the country in search of refuge and to safeguard their own lives and those of their relatives: “They would either kill us or throw us in jail.”
In this context of terror, hundreds opted for internal displacement while thousands more fled the country to safeguard their lives, their freedom and their personal safety. Costa Rica alone received tens of thousands. According to an Inter-American Court of Human Rights press release, “when the visit was made (October 2018), a total of 40,386 people who had demonstrated the need for international protection in Costa Rica was recorded.” Forced displacement was the only solution they found: “What’s worse than leaving your country behind?”
In many cases people feel guilty for leaving the country during a difficult situation, which intensifies the emotional impact of displacement: “This sense of abandoning a bloodied homeland was immoral to me, but when my name came out on a capture list, I went to a safe house and then had to flee.
I decided to come here; I had to leave my granddaughter and my son behind.”
The process of leaving and arriving in another country was extremely painful and wearing on people. Due to the level of threats, many had to leave with just the clothes on their back, hiding during the day, moving at night, avoiding checkpoints, crossing rivers, paying bribes and, on top of it all, facing the risk of being arrested or ending up dead: “We had to travel hard through underbrush; we suffered hunger, thirst and sun, and some got sick. We left through the mountains; some of us had to walk for eight days, others for twelve. We were forced out; the police and paramilitary forces chased us, but we made it. We made contact with people who knew the border, because we couldn’t go through where Nicaraguan authorities were present. This cost us a lot of money. Some in large groups, others in small groups, and some arrested by the police.”
The displaced also talk about the presence of people connected to the Nicaraguan government who are in San José and other parts of Costa Rica looking for those who fled. Thus, even as displaced persons, they share that their lives are not safe, which often means they spend a large part of the day shut in where they are living or avoid going out at night. Some distrust even other displaced Nicaraguans, remaining isolated from groups and collectives. In the most drastic cases, people use false names to avoid being identified.
“You wander around like a lost dog”
Many of the individuals and families that had to leave lost the little they had. They took refuge, mainly in Costa Rica, in precarious conditions due to their scarce economic resources. In some cases they have found support in shelters or religious centers that offer them a safe place to live, food, productive activities and psychological care. Costa Rican nongovernmental organizations have also provided aid but they don’t have enough resources to offer emergency humanitarian aid to the thousands of people living in the streets without support.
Their lack of legal refugee status makes it impossible for these people to work and find a stable job, so they must seek informal work day by day. This generates intense anguish among the displaced: “Doors are closed to us because you can’t work in the area you prepared for.” People feel disoriented and lack the reference points needed to bring order to their lives: “You wander around like a lost dog.”
Hunger is a part of daily life for many displaced people. Often they don’t even have enough money for three meals a day: “Yesterday I didn’t eat breakfast. I ate at 7 p.m. This morning too I came without having any breakfast.”
In the case of university students, many are unable to continue their education because they don’t have the necessary documentation at hand. Nor can they work in their chosen field because they can’t document their prior studies. This situation means they take on survival jobs, with limited resources to cover their basic needs.
Living through the loss of everything that holds meaning for people—their loved ones, their land, their homes, their customs—deeply affects their emotional life. They have to reconstruct themselves in unfavorable circumstances.
“I cry every day,
each and every one”
The displaced are emotionally torn. One person interviewed told how he suffers from the conditions he finds himself in: “My mental health is in critical condition because I don’t sleep. I can’t fall asleep thinking about my family, about the time I’ve lost, not knowing about my family, not knowing if this whole struggle has had any effect, the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen.... I’m afraid of never returning to my beautiful homeland, Nicaragua... I cry every day, every single day, each and every day. It’s not because I’m a child, it’s because I miss my homeland, my family, my free movement, all that was taken from me, my freedom.”
The abrupt departure to ensure safety and the arrival in another country where they live in very precarious conditions have forced people to establish social support networks, starting with the assistance they receive from the people they meet along the way. The difficulties encountered feed the desire to return to their home country, which they never wanted to leave. But the risk is too great: “Survival is very difficult here. But it’s more difficult knowing that we can’t return to our homes, because if we go back, they’ll kill us.”
“I really want to take my little suitcase and go back... but it’s not a good idea,” said another person in reference to the danger. While they can’t return, the displaced find ways to survive and confront the difficulties they encounter. Many of them were already organized in civil society movements and organizations. Even so, displacement has given rise to the need to be even more connected and to strengthen the level of organization.
Meeting other Nicaraguans is noted as an important element that strengthens and provides solidarity, as it allows them to assess common needs and find shared solutions. From the outside, they find pathways and conditions to denounce what is happening in Nicaragua, as well as in exile. They thus go on building support networks among Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans, sharing safety measures and information, and developing strategies for returning to Nicaragua.
“We couldn’t hold a wake for
our dead, and we couldn’t plant”
The human rights violations particularly affected indigenous populations. The impossibility of conducting funeral rites in their tradition due to the presence of police and violent pro-government groups laying siege to the population in Monimbó (Masaya) has made it impossible for the dead to rest.
“The rite for the dead is something else that hit us hard. We couldn’t conduct the rites for our dead as is our custom. We hold activities at night, in the morning and continuous prayers during the week, and we couldn’t do this because of the siege we were under. People go to wakes from 6 at night to 2 or 3 in the morning and a spiritual guide is called, but people didn’t even want to go out due to fear. Many people believe these spirits, these souls, are not at rest, that they still roam about suffering... These spirits have not had peace and are coming and insisting that they want peace, they want to sleep, and we have to give them rest.”
The presence of police and violent pro-government groups also affected the farming activities of this indigenous population, with consequences for the food security of the people of Monimbó: “The feast of San Isidro, which we celebrate on May 15, was impossible to hold. It opens the farming year. We barely held one Mass. The procession and the viewing of the seeds couldn’t be held either. For this reason too many storms came that year and damaged the crops. Next year, according to what the elders say, we’re going to lack a lot of food and suffer hunger. This is the elders’ prediction.”
There was also fear of tending the fields, because police forces and violent pro-government groups spied on and intimidated people in rural areas: “Some were able to sow, but not everyone, because some decided it was better to survive on what they had. Of those who managed to plant, some lost their crops because they didn’t care for them out of fear, because paramilitary forces came to those rural areas and sometimes shot into the corn fields. That made them afraid. The paramilitary gangs were so paranoid that they took the safeties off their weapons. They went around thinking there were young rebels everywhere.”
“La Manquesa was revived with Monimbó”
In Monimbó’s indigenous community, beyond the threatening presence of police forces and violent pro-government groups, prohibitions block the conducting of traditional activities, subjecting these rites to political decisions: “On November 2 we hold a celebration at 4 in the morning, and these celebrations have been forbidden. The police have prohibited any kind of celebration that doesn’t have their permission. So to celebrate something, we have to go get permission from the police. And if it’s not endorsed by the neighborhood’s political secretary or by someone from the governing party, it can’t be done. This has been a tremendous blow to us. We feel all tied up.”
For Nicaragua’s population as a whole and for the indigenous population in particular, all this reminds them of what happened in the revolutionary period and during the war of the 1980s. For older people, these memories cause worry: “The elderly are really frustrated because they feel like history is repeating itself and this time it’s going to be worse. The feel frustrated because they thought that the war wasn’t going to come back and now they’re thinking it could return. And they’re thinking that hunger could come back, too.”
Nonetheless, some people from Monimbó feel that this context revived their resistance strategies and solidarity among nearby populations: “This area used to be called La Manquesa. We were all one: Monimbó, Niquinohomo, Masatepe, Nandasmo, Diriamba. It was called La Manquesa because we spoke Mangue. And it was funny how once again, in the first weeks of the repression, La Manquesa was reactivated for everything and we here in Monimbó got support from all these brothers. They really supported us in the conflicts, when it came time to bring food.”
The pride of being from Monimbó
This context of the struggle is also strengthening indigenous identity and helping recover traditional culture through the generational rapprochement experienced in the trenches and in protests.
“The trenches facilitated more contact between the elders, an elderly person, and a young person... Starting a 6 pm the elders got in the trenches, they would cook in that trench, something that is really our style because we have lived in community. And a lot of conversations took place about culture, about tradition, about what the war was like, how they, too, had taken cultural symbols as part of their fight... I think these talks helped young people incorporate elements that were our own, the community’s, and also absorb how we lived the revolution of the 1980s... Here the old market was ransacked and many traditional masks were left on the ground. So they took these masks and when they were in combat with the police they would put them on. It was to mock the powerful... In the community, women didn’t have the right to either touch the staff or play the drum. But they did it. Women playing the drum, women taking hold of the staff: for me that was like a revolution. They always talk about how Monimbó, the indigenous community, is a rebellious community. And now they’re talking about Monimbó again. All this talk about Monimbó pleases the young people... Now everyone feels like Monimbó. I think our young people’s pride has grown in saying ‘I’m from Monimbó, I’m indigenous.’”
The impact on children and teens
The violent events lived out in Nicaragua specifically affected children who experienced everything directly and up close, since the human rights violations happened to members of their family and in their communities.
Children who lost a family member feel that loss every day. It manifests in asking for pictures, in making drawings that express the pain and in questions about the deceased: “He shuts himself in his room, takes his brother’s things and begins to cry. They shared a lot together. They would go on the internet, they watched television together, they talked. Now he doesn’t have him nearby.”
These losses damaged the children psychologically by stripping them of their most important connections. Their socioeconomic development was affected. They were left without identification and reference figures: “Her uncle would sit with the girl to teach her. Now she doesn’t have an uncle to turn to anymore. This has had a psychological impact on her life given her young age. It’s not the same as with an adult. It’s harder for a child.”
Some children were direct witnesses of murders and other violent acts, an experience that is seared in their memories and will brand them in the future. They were in the midst of the repression, had to protect themselves from gunshots and have seen their family members dead in the streets, or with serious wounds, waiting for medical care.
This impact can also be seen in children’s games, which reflect the social polarization, the weaponry and the conflicts they have seen. In the interviews and workshops conducted by the GIEI we have been told about many children and youth who play with bits of sticks and say they are mortar throwers, imitating what they saw every day. “As a child I didn’t play that way. And seeing the children, my cousins’ children, my neighbor’s children, playing with stick guns saying ‘you’re the police, the killers’ and ‘we’re blue and white,’ it’s going to have huge repercussions in these children’s growing up.”
Fear of the “men in blue”
A deep fear also marks children’s lives. It appears when they hear noises in the street, especially at night. As a result, children have lost interest in their daily activities, school, games and outings to the park. Their family members are also afraid that something could happen to them on the way to school, and often prefer that the child miss the school year rather than take risks in the street.
The participation of police and violent pro-government groups means that children are afraid of these people when they pass by specific locations where there had been repression. They hide when they see someone in uniform. Children live a paradox, since the attacks and threats come from the very institutions that are supposed to protect the population. We heard stories that point to how many children felt safer when there were roadblocks in the cities and neighborhoods than after the “clean-up” operations, when the areas started to have a much greater presence of police and violent pro-government groups: “It’s strange, the children played more when there were trenches than now that the trenches are gone. The children even felt safer with the trenches than now that they’re gone. Hearing children say ‘Police kill’ is something that can cause long-term problems among youth, for new generations.”
According to information provided by the Coordinating Body Working with Children and Adolescents (CODENI), an undetermined number of children and teens have been physically and psychologically affected not just by having lost family members, but by themselves being wounded by rubber bullets, lead shot, mortar throwers, bullet fragments and combat ammunition. They have been exposed to tear gas and fires in their home and were subject to harassment for months.
The traumatic violence experienced in children can damage their healthy development. The aftereffects caused by violence in the population appear not just in those who experienced it directly or indirectly, but are reproduced in following generations. We can thus say that the impact simultaneously affects several generations and results in conflicts between generations. Its effects reappear in different forms in the following generations.
“Will I continue studying next year?”
In the first three months of the crisis, the insecurity and the presence of violent pro-government groups in the streets forced families to keep their children out of school. In other cases schools were closed by authorities: “Masked men still go around looking for people from the roadblocks. It’s better to miss the school year and start over next year.”
Children heard by the GIEI said they didn’t want to go to class for fear of the “men in blue” who could look for them at school. Their family members indicated that children still react to seeing Hilux pick-up trucks such as those used by police and masked men: they shriek with fear and wet themselves.
In several schools teachers have had to reduce the school day for security reasons. They develop strategies for children to keep up with the school year through virtual classrooms on line. In these cases only the teachers went to school, although with great fear and insecurity, to avoid even greater harm to the children.
Changes in the schools and the danger of walking on the streets have meant children and teens have suffered changes in their routines. They have started spending a lot more time at home, bored and unable to share with their friends. In the absence of their parents’ permission to go out, they don’t know what to do: “I feel like I’m in a jail.”
In the schools there are children whose fathers and brothers are or were jailed, or had to leave the country. These experiences affect them a lot. They feel like everything they had came tumbling down. They had the experience of having friends, independent of their parents’ party affiliation or political opinions, while now, with the deep political polarization, children suffer because they feel they have lost friends. Although one might think that children don’t understand what’s happening in the country, they are indeed aware of the seriousness of what has happened: “People think I don’t know, but I do know what’s happening,” said one boy to an official at his school. They also show a lot of frustration and rage with everything that’s happening, feeling themselves powerless: “I’m full of anger and I don’t know what to do.” They are worried about the well-being of their country and of their families: “Mom, we don’t want you to suffer anymore. We want to see you happy, for there to be peace in Nicaragua!”
Children in schools feel like their future is uncertain: “Will I continue studying next year or not? Will Nicaragua change or not?” Above all, teens suffer from the uncertainty of the coming years, and they are thinking about alternatives, including outside the country. They don’t know if they’ll finish high school and if they will be able to enter university, which dashes their life plans and projects.
The experiences of violence have also awakened in them feelings of solidarity and the capacity to resist: “Teach, what will we do? We’re going to help out at the roadblocks!” Alvaro Conrado’s death, in particular, has caused them sadness and anger, but also the desire to do something: “He went out there to defend me; and me, what will I do?”
“It always falls on us
women to take over”
Nicaragua’s feminist movement has a long history of defending women’s rights. It is composed of a diverse group of organizations that work in different areas, with the same focus on women’s rights.
This has enabled them to work as a consolidated network, with the capacity to act in coordination when circumstances require, become a political actor as much in the fight for women’s rights as for the defense of citizens’ rights. They have headed significant protest marches in past years with the capacity to question the State and Nicaraguan society, particularly with regards to control of their bodies, defending the original text of Law 779 against violence toward women, and the legalization of abortion.
Women are also an active presence in land defense. Peasant women have been very active in the fight against the inter-oceanic canal, for the titling of ancestral territories, and against mining and oil operations in legally protected areas. The indigenous defenders of the Center for Justice and Human Rights of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast (CEJUDHCAN) have been accompanying leaders in the communities affected by violations of their rights in the indigenous territories of the North Caribbean Coast.
Women in the front lines
of activism and support
Women of all ages actively participated in the social protests: university students, human rights defenders, feminists, health professionals, etc. As a result of this participation, many defenders and students in different parts of the country were threatened or arrested, both historical feminists and young women who are known as “self-convened.”
Their children and families were also threatened as a way to get to the women. Via the system of local vigilance, the women were identified and reported, in many cases by their own neighbors and even by family members connected to the government. This makes them feel spied on, generating unease.
Women have also had to take a leading role in different resistance fronts. While it’s true that men make up the majority of people killed and arrested, women have developed an essential role in supporting the struggle through organizations, logistics and demands for justice.
Women were present in the organizing of committees to support protesters, providing food supplies, water and medicines and meeting other urgent needs of the young people in the streets, universities and roadblocks. They have also played an important role in the forced displacements, both during flight and in seeking support and humanitarian aid.
When the repression became more selective and both persecution and jailings intensified, women were also at the head of the organizing and maintaining of safe houses, ensuring that people could avoid detention.
In the fight for justice women are also mainly the ones organized in movements, associations and groups demandng the liberation of detainees, accountability for the deaths and reparation of damages.
In workshops conducted by the GIEI we found that many health professionals were providing volunteer support to family members of deceased and detained persons. They do this work often taking on risks for themselves and their families, as well as being subject to intimidation and harassment in their workplaces. They undertake what they call “clandestine psycho-social work,” which they themselves acknowledge as a contradiction because reparations for victims and the possibility of overcoming their experience presuppose a social process of recognizing what happened.
In some cases, providing medical care to protesters—out of respect for the Hippocratic Oath—or expressing a criticism of the government, has come at the cost not just of losing their jobs. In many cases they too had to leave the country to protect their lives.
These situations keep them alert, constantly developing security measures, which also leads to tiredness, exhaustion, anger, frustration, incessant worry and difficulties concentrating.
“The strong woman has to be there,
but she collapses at night”
Given how the violent acts continued in Nicaragua, the emotional impact heightened, overburdening those who work with victims and the individuals and institutions monitoring human rights violations. “How many dead are there this morning?” people would ask each other at the beginning of each workday.
Women also pointed out to us that for security, not everything they do can be shared with their families, who often do not know what they are doing. This also increases the anxiety, fear and indignation they feel based on the different forms of violence they experience directly and hear from the people they accompany.
Despite the enormous impact these women suffered due to human rights violations and their responsibilities in defending life, they have managed to put their capacity for resistance into action, often at a very high cost to them. “Seeing this pain in the mothers moves me. My body hurts at seeing their children sentenced, I well up with tears. The strong woman has to be there, but she collapses at night.” As the people heard by the GIEI told us, it is a “paradox between our public image of strength and our vulnerability.”
Likewise, the conditions and the number of roles women take on can turn into risk factors that affect their overall health if they don’t have spaces to process the painful experiences they live day to day: “If we don’t take care of ourselves and strengthen ourselves, we’ll end up mentally torn apart.”
But they are looking for the means to care for themselves: “We tried to set up a self-care network, which at first was geared more toward others, but now we have begun to turn it inward.” Thus they seek, create and re-create original ways of caring for themselves and dealing with facing the demands made on them every day by the context they’ve lived in for the past months. The crying appears in moments of solitude, when they have time for themselves. At other times dancing or exercising allows them to discharge their feelings, process them and keep moving forward: “I put on Santana at full volume and I begin to dance. It’s an incredible feeling of power, and I take it with me everywhere.”
“We care for one another”
These experiences have helped the women discover strengths and abilities they had not previously identified in themselves. The women found meaning and a social explanation for the experiences they have lived. They have taken on a leading role, which also fulfills a reparative function in the face of so much pain. According to people who participated in the GIEI’s activities, interesting initiatives for healing are arising in different territories, along with memory processes, becoming unparalleled opportunities for undertaking a task that has never been done in Nicaragua.
In addition to the significant psycho-social work that various professionals are doing in Nicaragua, the organizations of family members are, despite difficult circumstances, meeting and developing essential support, containment, political connections and strengthening work for the people affected by violence. It is important to mention the work developed by the Mothers of April Association and by the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, which organize and conduct informational activities, workshops and visits to the prisons; prepare and present paperwork to authorities; and hold press conferences where they present their demands for truth, justice and reparations.
According to the people interviewed, participation in family member groups and movements helps them deal with their grief and pain. Thanks to the trusting and empathetic relationship they have developed, meetings among victims are another way of supporting one another and venting: “We take care of one another.”
The new roles women have taken on in this context may represent development opportunities not just for them. They are also contributing to the development of a more just country: “We don’t want to go back to the same machista situation as before. We want to head toward a more equitable society.”
In addition to aiming for the possibility of a more just country in the future, some of the results of this strengthening work can already be felt in the people heard by the GIEI: “I feel like another woman after April 18. I feel more powerful, really different, more conscious of my citizenship.”
The lasting footprints
The violence unleashed in response to the social protests that began on April 18 has caused a deep injury to families, communities and Nicaraguan society as a whole. It has damaged co-existence, changed daily life and deepened social polarization.
It has left deep imprints of pain and indignation, which are entwined with the prints left by prior confrontations, producing a distancing from and mistrust of state institutions among broad sections of the population.
The wounds will be very difficult to heal if they are not cared for in a holistic manner, with truth, justice and reparations for the people who have lost loved ones, the wounded people who have been left with incapacitating consequences, the disappeared, detainees and displaced persons, for all who have suffered violence and been injured as well as all those still facing persecution and threats merely for being family members.
The Interdisciplinary Group of independent Experts (GIEI) is a four-member team mandated by the Inter-American Commission on Human rights to investigate the crimes that occurred in Nicaragua specifically between April 18 and May 30, 2018, the day of the infamous Mothers’ Day march massacre. Its members were scheduled to present their 400+ page report in Nicaragua last December 20, but they were abruptly expelled from the country the previous day, so the debut presentation was instead to the Organization of American States in Washington on December 21.