The Road to Pantasma

The Reagan Administration has convinced the Republican-controlled Senate of the legitimacy of its request for $21 million for anti-Sandinista rebels based in Honduras. The President might also succeed in winning House approval--in defiance of Speaker O'Neill's political will--unless opponents, including private citizens, can show a more complete picture of violence by recipients of this aid. Very few details have been revealed about the CIA supported forces, known in Nicaragua as "Contras." Many are former Nicaraguan national Guardsmen, whom President Reagan extolls as "freedom fighters." This respectful characterization, however, has no basis in fact.

The true character of the Contras was made painfully clear to members of my fact-finding group during a visit to the Nicaraguan village of Pantasma. Our journey began early Sunday morning January '15. The trek from Maltagalpu to the northeast province of Jinotega, took over three hours. As a driven rain fell. Oscar, our driver, skillfully maneuvered the bus along winding mountain roads. Armed peasants waved as we passed, and we questioned the kind of existence where people are forced to shoulder rifles while tending their fields and cattles. The booming voice of our escort--a campesino--explained that the bridge we were crossing had been blown-up five times by counter-revolutionaries.

During a security check at Mancotal--a strategic dam on the road to Pantasma--a boy-FSLN militiaman poked his head in to the doorway of the bus and smiled. In peacetime, he and thousands of other Nicaraguan youths might be playing soccer or baseball, but our government's backing of the Contras, makes this vision of childhood, especially for those who live close to the Honduran border, virtually impossible.

By late morning we emerged from low lying clouds that hung tenaciously to the lush mountain. We began a slow descent into the valley, surrounded by rows of corn, tobacco and coffee fields. Moments later we entered Pantasma. Thick forests stretched boundlessly. Through the lens of a MimiyaZE, it was a breathtaking experience, but for the inhabitants of Pantasma, the fertile forests and mountains of the region are the sites of kidnappings, ambushes and other wartime cruelties.

The worst act of terror occurred on October 18, 1983 when 250 to 300 Contras poured from the woods and launched an early morning attack on the sleeping village. Forty-seven people were massacred. The raiders set fire to the local agricultural cooperatives, the coffee storage office, the territorial and police militia posts, and cars and trucks used to build roads. After sacking a branch of the National Development Bank, they destroyed it, reportedly using American RP7 grenade launchers.

We stepped from the bus to examine the hull of the bank's burnt-out structure, which peasant and student volunteers were reconstructing. An International Harvester tractor rusted beside several new Russian counterparts. An elder bystander complained to me that he preferred the U.S. machine, but that Ronald Reagan blocks their import. I could not help but wonder how laid-off International Harvester workers in Rock Island. Illinois or Fort Wayne, Indiana would react if they were aware of this wasted opportunity.

Further down the road we surveyed the remains of a modern, privately owned lumber mill. Two small children played among the metallic ruins, as our escort explained how their fathers, and dozens of others, were left without jobs as a result of the Contra attack.

The full impact of the October 18th massacre was clear when we reached a school that was converted into a refugee center. Schools symbolize a key objective of the Nicaraguan Revolution. One of the first acts of the new Sandinista government following its victory over Somoza in 1979, was to launch a campaign to educate the country's illiterate, who then comprised 51 percent of the nation. A handful of the 185,000 young teaching volunteers from Managus and other cities went to Pantasma. Many of their students became teachers themselves. They were the first to die at the hands of the Contras. Some of them were beheaded, to serve as examples to others. "Their crime? The crime of these teachers is that they were trying to get people out of their illiteracy situation, which was inherited from the Somocista dictatorship," said Almado Felipe Guittieretz, one of three out of a total of 10 militiamen who survived the day long attack.

In the one room school house, he addressed a group of strangers, and dozens of noisy children and weeping widows. After some urging, several of the women solemnly stepped forward to relate their personal tragedies. Others turned their backs to us and cried uncontrollably, even though the object of their grief occurred four months prior to our arrival. All of the women testified to having been "humiliated" or raped by the Contras. Trinidad Garcia de Castro, standing with her children by her side, said that her 14 year old sister, a teacher, was kidnapped by the invaders from Honduras, 40 kilometers to the north. She did not expect to see her again. Her biggest loss, she said, was the murder of her father.

"My father was 57 years old," she said. "They killed my father because he grabbed his gun to defend us. We had taken refuge--myself, the women who's standing near me, my two children and a small child. My father had been injured in one leg, so he came and sought refuge with us, but the Contras came and took him away...He could not defend himself. He could not even walk. They hit the children...with their guns. They didn't even let the old man kiss his children. In front of the children they stood him up and shot him...They shot him in the mouth and the bullets came out from his brain."

Phillip W.D. Martin was part of an Oxfam-America sponsored fact-finding tour of Nicaragua in January.