p The plane flies by at some distance from the Sandinista camp, so low that the airman could not possibly spot the clearing. Even if he had, he will have seen nothing there, as the Sandinistas are fine camouflage experts. They have to be, to keep going. The moment the roar of the aircraft dies away in the distance, again the bonfire is lit—with no smoke, mind you—and again the guerillas huddle beneath the tree to proceed with their political education classes. The bearded comandante—he is huge, at least two metres tall— pads to and fro within the circle, with a soft, springy step, much like a caged tiger talking quietly all the while. Now and again he stops to heed a question, his beard sprawling over his chest as he doodles on the ground with the tip of his army boot. The submachine gun slung over his shoulder obviously gets in his way, but orders are orders, and in my head then go with a tilt, much like a piece of poetry, "Keep your gun by your side, keep you gun by your side”. I can’t hear what he is saying, except at the end, when apparently summing up part of his talk, he asks, "So what is our first and immediate task?" At once several voices loudly chorus, "To kick out Somoza!" The gangling comandante grins, lifting his face up to the sun. His smile is surprisingly childlike, radiant, defensive.
p “Let’s all give a shout so that the bastard hear it in his bunker!" he suggests.
p “Down with Somoza!" the guerillas roar, raising their submachine guns over their heads. "Down with Somoza!”
p In the intermission the bewhiskered middle-aged cook yells, "Coffee break!" A small queue lines up.150
p “Ten jumps on your hunkers,” the cook tells the first in line. Guffawing, the guerilla obeys, and though his boisterous laughter causes him to trip now and again, it is one more way of keeping fit.
p “Here’s your coffee.” Then to the next, "Ten push-ups!”
p Spaghetti tumbles flat on the ground. He is certainly no muscular type, and when you’re laughing fit to burst and are in tiptop spirits, that’s no easy thing to do. His glasses fall off as he plays the giddy-goat, and guffaws with the other guerillas. Pretending to be angry, the bewhiskered cook shouts, "Another five push-ups!" When Spaghetti is through at last, he pours into the stretched out mug a portion of very strong, very sweet, and very black coffee.
p I find it hard to believe it is these guffawing youngsters who that very day told me such nightmarish stories of all they had gone through.
p Indeed, only an hour ago one guerilla, sipping coffee from his tin mug with such pleasure, told me how before his eyes Somoza’s National Guardsmen had razed his native town. "Those bastards set fire to it when not a single Sandinista guerilla was left. On the 19th or 20th of September it was, after the Sandinistas had held the city for almost a fortnight. Clear that there were not enough provisions left, they decided to call an orderly retreat into the mountains. I wasn’t with them then, and stayed on. Only twelve hours after the Sandinista rearguard left, did the National Guard enter. However before doing that, they called in aircraft to bomb the city. Then Sherman tanks rolled in, firing their cannons at practically every house. Infantry coming on behind tossed hand grenades into windows, burst into houses firing submachine guns from the hip, fanning out the shots. They didn’t care who they hit, children or old people. That’s how most were killed. The International Red Cross collected all who could move into the building of the Santa Rosary College, some two and a half thousand of us. I was among them. We were warned not to go out of doors, as Somoza Guardsmen were hunting down all teenagers, even if they had 151 just turned ten, were gunning them downright in the street, pouring petrol over the dead bodies, and setting fire to them. They burned to death those who were still breathing, were still moving. I managed to get away, and now I’m here.”
p The transistor radio swinging from the branch above the kitchen broadcasts news from Managua, but the worst news seems to creep in of its own accord, and it is not the kind of news the transistor radio presents.
p Somewhat earlier, a schoolmistress wounded in the leg during the September events was discharged from an Esteli hospital. As her home had been destroyed, the Red Cross decided to move her to another place, where a school was still standing, for her to teach there. National Guardsmen stopped the Red Cross ambulance, dragged the woman out, and took her away. The next day her dead body was found by the roadside not far from the city. . . .
p In Leon National Guardsmen forced a group of women to “demonstrate” and carry placards that said, "The Communists kill our children!" and "The Communists burn down our homes!" Several newsmen and press photographers were invited to watch this “demonstration”. One decent newsman came up to one of the women, and said, "Why are you carrying these placards? After all, both you and I know that it’s Somoza who’s killing children and destroying your homes.” "They made us do it,” the woman said, breaking down. The newsman tore the placard out of her hand and tossed it on to the ground. National Guardsmen fell upon him, beat him up, and took him away. They also beat up the woman, but Jeft her behind. The Sandinista camp gained wind of that in a roundabout way only recently. They are now trying to find out who the newsman was. . . .
p Alvara Sanchez’s oldest son was arrested a month ago. At six o’clock in the morning National Guardsmen burst into her home on Managua’s outskirts, and took away her boy (he had still not turned 18). He was blind-folded, his hands were lashed behind his back, and he was shoved into a van and taken away. Note that the boy had never been a 152 Sandinista. Some time later she heard over the radio that National Guardsmen had found a dead “guerilla” outside Leon. He was described as wearing army jacket and breeches, and as having in his pocket a red-and-black bandana to cover up his face. The next day a Leon acquaintance who had come to Managua called on Alvara and told her she had seen the dead “guerilla”, who was really Alvara’s son. He had been murdered in prison and the ’“guerilla” story had been put out merely to throw a scaie. It had not been thought someone in Leon would be able to identify the young man.
p This is one of Somoza’s latest inventions. The butchers murder people in one place and show their dead bodies elsewhere, claiming that they were communist agents and guerillas. At night National Guardsmen fire into the air to make pretences of an ambush or exchange of gunfire. Then they burst into homes "to ferret out bandits”, and in the process rob, arrest, and kill. . . .
p On 2 November four young men and two girls were driving towards Managua. At half past six in the evening, they had to stop on the outskirts, because the engine broke down. Knowing that they still had an hour and a half to the eight o’clock curfew, they started tinkering with the engine. At that moment a National Guard patrol drove up, and without further ado, shot and killed one of the young men. They ordered another boy to drag the dead body into the bushes, and when he refused, shot and killed him along with the other two young men. After a huddle, they killed one of the girls, who was thirteen or fourteen at most, and took the older girl, who was sixteen, away with them. On the next day, her dead body was found by the roadside. She had been gang-raped and stabbed in the back. The story was related by the sole survivor, a thirteen-year-old boy, who when wounded had played possum. . . .
p This is all happening today. Statistics for the number murdered may already be compiled. Since the September events, Somoza’s butchers have been killing fifteen to twenty people a day in prisons alone. However, these statistics are based only on the number of dead bodies found in the most unexpected places, by a roadside, in a ditch, or in the street 153 of some small town. The bodies carry the traces of torture, with yanked-out nails, mutilated faces, and slit throats. However, it is anyone’s guess as to how many more have been killed, and not found, who have been “cremated” or buried in prison yards.
p When such news comes, there is no more laughter in the clearing, no more [horseplay. Spaghetti proceeds with still greater frenzy with his task, which it seems to me he will never complete, that of ramming cartridges into the cartridge belt. "Never mind,” he says, and I can’t really understand whom he is trying to soothe, himself or me. "We’ll make them pay for everything, down to the last nail. Put it all down, please!”
p I jot down every detail. I still remember the sessions of the International Commission of Inquiry into the crimes of the Chilean military junta and know that at some time in the future all these details will be needed, for sure.
p The year of the vigorous FSLN offensive action has already yielded its crop of heroes, whose pictures have every right to be pinned up in camp tents alongside that of General Sandino. When I tell Nora Astorga that, she laughs, thinking I’m kidding. Though Nora is dainty, fragile, the very epitome of femininity, she holds her submachine gun with the same nonchalant ease as she swung her handbag prior to March 1978, and her uniform is as becoming as the fashionable frocks lawyer Nora Astorga could afford before 8 March 1978.
p However, before telling you what happened on 8 March, I feel I must start with what occurred ten years ago, when Nora yet an undergraduate at the Catholic University, joined the Sandinistas. Upon graduation, she took up a law practice, and nobody had the slightest inkling that this merry, attractive, capable girl-lawyer was an agent and go-between for the FSLN. She did not take part in its raids, but served as a channel, at times the only channel to promptly pass on highly important information and other things. She was a very successful legal adviser at one of Managua’s biggest 154 building firms, indeed was doing so well that her company won the contract to build a house (for General Renaldo Perez Vega, a bosom crony of the dictator, who was Chief of Staff of the National Guard, head of the secret police, and a trusted CIA agent. Somoza’s second-in-command. The dictator relied heavily on this 56-year-old general, who ordered hangings, commanded punitive expeditions, and stage– managed political assassinations, such as of the opposition leader and progressive journalist Chamorro. Whenever Nicaraguans mentioned Somoza’s murderous regime, they often focussed hate on General Perez, whose arms were stained up to the elbows with the blood of countless victims.
p The first time Nora met the general was in Somoza’s notorious bunker in Bolivar Street, across the road from the massive Hotel Intercontinental. The general had an office in that bunker, and Nora had called to discuss the terms of the contract. Several more meetings were held to discuss business, and soon the general intimated that he would not be averse to dating Nora somewhere else. She told her Sandinista friends about this, and they decided that she get the general to visit a set place which Nora would indicate, but without bodyguard.
p This was a perilous assignment, as the general was clever, could sniff danger a mile away, while his profession caused him to treat everyone with suspicion. Then his network of agents might shadow Nora. At any rate, Nora told the general that he would not get anywhere with her until she said so, that she had to finalise divorce proceedings with her ex-husband. The general knew this was true, and discarding suspicions, agreed to wait. Finally, in February, Nora told the FSLN that the fish was on the hook.
p The operation was set for 8 March. The plan was to kidnap the general and notify Somoza that he would be spared only if the latter released political prisoners. However, it did not pan out that way.
p In the morning, Nora telephoned the general at the bunker. She was told that the day before he had flown North (to command a punitive operation against the Sandinistas). She asked that he be told that she had called. In but half 155 an hour, he called her back and Nora told him that if he wanted to see her, he could come that night—she had packed her two girls off to relatives outvin the country—as another time would be out of the question. The general said he would fly back to. Managua by chopper. "Only please come without a bodyguard,” Nora warned, "I have to think of my reputation.”
p When he arrived that evening at the hour stated, Nora led him into her room, where she had concealed two armed guerillas in a closet. A third guerilla was hiding next door. The first thing she did was to pull the general’s pistol out of its holster, and put it aside—not too far, to arouse no suspicions. He was absolutely sure of himself. Generally, he was no coward, and was quite certain that he had nothing to worry about. His chauffeured car was parked outside. As the general methodically undressed, Nora, believing the time ripe, gave the signal. At first, when the guerillas fell upon him, he thought they had both been ambushed, but when he saw Nora holding a revolver, he exclaimed, "And this is what I was waiting two years for!" Then he yelled for help. A muscular athletic person, it was no easy matter to truss him up, and it was still harder to gag him. Three times they stuck the gag into his mouth, and each time he continued to call to his chauffeur. Only after he was drugged did he subside.
p Wondering if the driver had heard the general’s shouts, Nora went out to see the man walking up and down by the car, and glance from time to time up at the window. She came up and said as calmly as she could, "The general wants rum, but I’ve only got scotch.” Without a word, the chauffeur got into the car and drove away. She ran back [into the house, to tell the guerillas that the coast was clear, and then rushed out again to get her car, which had been parked a couple of blocks away. Several minutes later, she drove into her garage, and strode into the house through the connecting side door. As the guerillas got into the car, Nora asked where the general was.
p “Let’s get going,” the commander said. "We had to carry out the sentence. We cannot let you run any risks.”156
p Later, Nora learned that when she told the guerillas that the general’s chauffeur had gone, they had thought he had gone for help. They had been ordered that in such a case, they must kill the hangman, so that Nora run no risk. They did that.
p About an hour later, they reached the Northern highlands. One hour after that, a Sandinista phoned the National Guard headquarters to say that acting in the name of the people, the FSLN had executed one of Nicaragua’s chief butchers, whose body would be found at such and such a place. He was not believed, and nothing was done till the next morning, when the general’s chauffeur phoned to say he had spent the entire night waiting for his chief outside Nora’s house. Only then was a detail sent. Somoza was furious. This had really cut to the bone.
p Several months afterwards Nora was transferred to the Southern Front and in September, as ja member of Penas Blanco’s unit, she took part in the fighting against the National Guard as an ordinary rank-and-file guerilla, although the entire country knew of her heroic deed from an underground Radio Sandino broadcast.
p When I asked her whether the 8 March, which is International Women’s Day, was a chance coincidence, or not, she chuckled. "It was,” she said, "but I’m happy that it worked out like that. And I’d like to tell your people through you that the solidarity of the world’s women will also help us to defeat Somoza. You can also tell them that my two little girls and my mother are safe and sound and are now outside of Nicaragua. Of course, I’d very much like to see them, but when duty calls. . . .”
p Several days before I visited the Sandinista camp, a Latin American cameraman acquaintance ran off for me sequences of an astoundingly emotion-packed interview he had had with a Nicaraguan woman refugee, the mother of three children. I saw the calm, regal face of a silver-haired lady holding back her tears as she told the story of her boys, two of whom are no longer alive. The middle son was killed by 157 National Guardsmen at the end of the year before last, the youngest quite recently, in mid-October. Only in November did she get the letter he had written shortly before he died. I saw her take out the sheet of paper and without looking at it—she had learned it by heart—read it. "I’m longing to see you, Mother, but can’t come. You know why. That’s most bitter, not to be at your birthday. I often think of what you mean to us, your grown-up boys, and always say that you mean everything, everything the most wonderful Mother in the world could mean to her children. You are our very heart. We have known you stern, and have known you tender, but always with love, always ready to sacrifice yourself for us, and never asking anything in exchange, never. All three of us think that of you. Eriberto thinks that, and so did our dear dead Enrique. Better times will come, and we’ll celebrate your next birthday together. Enrique’ll also be with us, because he never left us, he’s only gone for a time.” She said these words with difficulty, and her chin quivered. However, she regained her self-possession, and after a few moments suddenly seemed to recollect something. She unfolded the letter and carefully picked up the dry petals of a scarlet flower. Showing it to the camera, she said, "He always sent me a red carnation for my birthday. And this time too, even though he’s dead.”
p She looked straight into the camera’s eye and said firmly and distinctly, "I hope people in Nicaragua will see this. I want to tell the mothers in my country that though two of my boys have died tragic (deaths, I am proud to have a third fighting against Somoza. And if, God forbid,” her voice trembled, "my Eriberto. . .,” she could not say it, the horrible word, "I will take up his rifle and go off to fight with them.” Yes, that was what she said, "with them”. It was so natural, as a mother always thinks her sons alive.
p At the Sandinista camp several days later I told my new friends about this lady, this wonderful mother of such wonderful sons. This was in the store-room where were Comandante Jose and another five or six guerillas. As I finished, one of them jumped up, grabbed his submachine gun and stalked out. I could feel the tension in the air. The other 158 guerillas also said nothing for a while. Then one broke the silence to explain, "He knows her. He’s Eriberto, she’s his mother.”
p I left the camp late at night. Spaghetti went off somewhere and brought back as souvenir the Sandinista red– andblack bandana, which is usually tied around the neck, or covers the face up to the nose on missions.
p A young guerilla, no more than a boy, solemnly announced clasping his heavy submachine gun:
p “Now you’re a Sandinista!" "That’s so,” I said.
p “Look here, come with us,” the boy suddenly suggested. "Where to?”
p “We’re soon going to set out. In another couple of days. Mark my words. We’ll start swiping at Somoza again! So come with us!”
p “I can’t,” I said.
p “Why!" His surprise was sincere.
p “I mustn’t.”
p “Of course,” he said, disappointedly, "one’s got to be game.”
p “Can’t you see he’s a foreign newsman?" Spaghetti intervened, "a foreigner!"
p “So what,” the boy was obstinate. "That’s good! International solidarity!”
p He came up quite close and heatedly argued, "Lookit, this time we’ll soon get rid of him. You’ve seen what arms we have now. The moment they hear the name of Sandino, they’ll run like rats! This time it’ll take us four days, five the most! You just see! You’ve seen that we’ve got 70-mms against aircraft and bazookas against tanks now. We only look weaker, actually we’re stronger.”
p He poured this all out in a low voice as if confiding something he held nearest to heart. "That’s because the people are with us,” he said. "They’re not with Somoza. They’ll tell us where to go, they’ll give us food and water, and they’ll hide us if it comes to that. You’ll see, we’ll need only four days, no more, this time!”159
p How very much I wanted to feel as sure as he was. How very much I didn’t want to think that soon many of these wonderful people might no longer be alive. Would it be one out of three? Or, forbid, one out of two? Will you, my dear little desperado, still be alive? And you, my dear bumbling Senor Spaghetti? And you, Comandante Jose?
p We all want you so very much to go on living! To win, and to go on living!
p It’ll all soon be over. You say so. That’s fine. You are the wonderful sons and daughters of your country, and for you it will be a land of happiness.
p “We only look weaker, actually we’re stronger.” How very true! For that matter, what revolution, tell me, ever started out by having the edge?
p We left late that night. Again I saw in front of me only the light-toned hands of the man pointing out the way. Only several kilometres later did I find, as I harkened to my own footsteps, that I had now learned to walk without making a sound....
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