The Nicaragua Photo/Testimony Project
Paul Dix and Pam Fitzpatrick
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The letter below is one of a series written by Pam Fitzpatrick and Paul Dix during multiple journeys they took to Nicaragua between 2002 and 2010 to locate people who were the subjects of photos taken by Paul in the 1980s (during the U.S.-sponsored Contra War). Pam and Paul's goal was to document and share with the people of the U.S.—through photographs and testimonies in Nicaraguans' own voices—the horrific long-term effects of the Contra War and ongoing U.S. international policy on the lives of ordinary Nicaraguans.  To see a list of all of the letters and their topics, visit the Letters page.  To learn more about the Nicaragua Photo/Testimony Project, see About the Book and About the Authors.

In 2011 Pam and Paul published a beautiful 220-page book of photographs and testimonies, NICARAGUA: Surviving the Legacy of U.S. Policy. Order it here!

April 7, 2003    Managua and La Chureca dump

Including stories about or testimonies from: Rafael, Joselilla, Marisol, Luis, Maria. 

Note: To see some of Paul's professional photos taken for the Photo/Testimony project, visit the Photos and Stories page.


Managua--Here in Nicaragua we walk in a sea of "anti-US-war-on-Iraq" sentiment. When the bombing started it seemed everyone mourned for the babies, the children, the women, the old people. They mourned those who would die, those who would lose their legs, those who would lose their arms, those who would be burned, and those who would lose their families. War has no glory for the people of Nicaragua. A recent poll reported that 82% of the people of Nicaragua oppose the war; this figure actually seems low.  And of course, no one here doubts who will win the military war.

An April 2nd internet check of US newspaper coverage of the war showed headlines about troops moving into Bagdad and each paper carried a large color photograph of US tanks in action. The same day in Nicaragua, a review of the two main newspapers covered a different aspect of the war. El Nuevo Diario had large headlines declaring "Another Massacre, More than 30 Civilians Dead" while La Prensa said "Bomb kills 33 Civilians". Both newspapers carried a large, color, top half of the front page photograph of Karem wailing over the open coffins of his 6 children, wife, 2 brothers, and parents. This is the reality that the Nicaraguans remember and this is the lens through which much of the world views the US.

Managua (La Chureca)--Tuesday and Wednesday Paul and I finally spent time at La Chureca, a huge old and still functioning dump in Managua. La Chureca is home and a place of survival for too many people.  Smoke rises from the slow, continuous combustion. Add to this blowing dust and grit and flocks of diving vultures. And then add mobs of people raising long poles tipped with metal claws, hacking through the pile of new garbage, searching for something that will enable them to survive one more day.

Three or four trucks rush in at once, and the mob rolls from one area to another: children, teens, adults, the old and feeble. It's eerie and it's heartbreaking. My friend Jenny's comparison of this scene to Dante's INFERNO captures the mood.

Buyers line one side of the active dumping area. A young boy, looking panicked, rushes to a buyer with a can and a fork. The can is tossed on the ground; the fork is purchased for half a cordoba.  It's a perfect setting for fights, and they happen frequently. Plus, in the rush to reach a dumping truck, people fall. Once an older woman, searching for cooking wood, fell, and a tractor ran over both her legs.

Rafael, 20, gathered scrap metal for his subsistence. One day he took a bag of metal scraps home, poked through it with a metal rod, something exploded (grenade from the war?). He died, leaving behind a young, pregnant wife.

Communities line the edges of the dump, and other homes sit right on top of the dump. They all are exposed to this constant smoke and grit.

Joselilla, 48, has lived on the dump for 20 years. He and his teenaged sons collect rebar. He pays a truck driver to dump the cement/rebar mix near his house. His sons sledge hammer on the cement all day, in the hot sun. Joselilla straightens the rebar and hopes to find a new buyer. As it is, he says that after he pays the truck drivers he's only left with work, no money.

Marisol, 31, lived on the edge of the dump all her life until she lost her house several months ago. Now, she, her husband, and their 3 year old son live right on the dump on land she purchased for 900 cordobas (less than $63).  Her husband works as a guard, Marisol collects clear plastic bags from the dump. To get the higher price of 1 cordoba a pound she washes and dries this plastic.  She was embarrassed to say she sometimes has to do "night work" to help support the family. Sweet, gentle, hard working, intelligent Marisol’s dream is to one day have a bakery business.

A recent health study reported that 88% of the children who live in and near La Chureca have respiratory problems, 42% have skin problems, 62% have parasites, and more than 12% of those tested had blood lead levels 3 times higher than the acceptable level. According to the report, this meant that if they did not leave the area immediately they risked death. For sure the vast majority have lead levels high enough to reduce their mental capacities. How can their bodies fight this lead exposure when they don't even have enough calories, much less nutrients? Half a million people in Nicaragua live on less than 50 cents a day. We visited some of them at La Chureca.

Managua--Later Wednesday we met with Luis. Paul had met with Luis several times in the 80s, had photographed him and a school where he had taught. Once Paul had brought him a pair of blue jeans from the US.  As a young teen, Luis joined a group of 1,250 Nicaraguans that went to Cuba for training as teachers, medical workers, engineers, farmers.  He said it was an amazing experience. The classes were excellent and the people wonderful. The Cubans opened their homes to the Nicaraguans and covered all their living expenses.

When he returned to Nicaragua, trained as a teacher, Luis was placed in rural southeastern Nicaragua.  Contra activity prevented him from even starting to teach classes at his first placement. Then he was moved to Santa Isabel, a 3 to 4 hours horseback ride from Los Laureles. He met with the community, gathered materials, organized the classes and taught for 3 to 4 months. But contra activity increased and late one night he wisely left. By morning the contra had attacked, burned the farm, and killed many of the people.

Then he was placed in San Pablo where he went through the same process of meeting with the community, gathering materials, starting classes. This time there wasn't a school so a community member opened his house to be used as a school. Again Luis was forced to leave after a few months.

Finally Luis was placed in Paraisito near Nueva Guinea. On June 11, 1985 his luck ran out and 19 year old Luis was kidnapped by the contra. He was forced to walk 15 days to a contra camp on the Punta Gorda River. During his time in this camp he never knew if he would live or die. They'd force him to his knees, a rifle to his head, a pistol in his mouth. Some of the other kidnapped Nicaraguans were taken, one by one, to La Gloria, which Luis thought was a nearby town, but later learned was code for death.

At night he was tied up, hands behind his back, and forced to lie down on the muddy ground with standing dirty water. He has vivid memories of snakes slithering by and mosquitoes biting him from head to foot.  During the day he was forced to carry a back pack filled with rocks up and down hills. His back was "killing him". When not carrying rocks he was chopping wood or hauling water. He did this work on a diet of yucca since the contra refused to feed their enemy any of the other food they had.

After about 4 months in this contra camp he was taken to the Alba Peral "Refugee" Camp in Costa Rica. He said this "refugee" camp, however, was pure contra and totally controlled by the contra. He couldn't leave and he couldn't speak freely. He was told exactly what to say to visiting dignitaries, delegations, and the press.  Some how, however, he managed to get word to his parents back in Nicaragua, and after about 5 months in this camp he was released.

Many kidnapped young teachers were not so fortunate. We tried to meet with Maria who, along with 4 other young teachers, was kidnapped by the contra on September 28, 1984. She managed to escape from the contra camp Las Vagas in Honduras and is now working in Costa Rica, trying, like many Nicaraguans, to survive.  Recent press reports indicate the bones of her 4 friends may still be in a former contra camp in Honduras.

Luis returned to Nicaragua, tried to calm himself, tried to rest, and tried to start teaching again. But this time the Sandinista government wouldn't work with him. They no longer trusted Luis.  In order to survive Luis had signed two blank sheets of paper the contra had given him. These had been used to prepare statements denouncing the Sandinista party, attributed to Luis, and read over the radio. He had also said whatever the contra told him to say to visitors while he was in the refugee camp. He stayed alive!

Luis did finally get a teaching job at a private school and taught for 10 years, until soon after 1996 when Arnoldo Aleman became president (US supported candidate, of course) and the school began firing teachers who did not support Aleman's PLC party. In spite of his difficulties with the Sandinistas, Luis had continued to vote for the Sandinista party. He was again without a job.  Then he helped a church organize a school. His initial pay was 40 cordobas a month (less than $3), and while his salary did increase, it never reached a level that could support him.  Now Luis has a tiny stall in the Oriental Market selling shirts. Luis, the talented, caring, well organized teacher is now trying to sell shirts to a market that seldom buys.

Somehow the people of Nicaragua continue to be generous and forgiving. We feel fortunate to have been able to walk with them these past 6 months. We also know we have much to learn about forgiveness.

Paul and I fly back to the US on April 10th, hope to have an exhibit ready by late August, and hope to be traveling on speaking tours by the fall. We are anxious to re-unite with our US friends but we dread living in the sea of pro-war sentiment that each of you has, in your own way, tried to calm.

We appreciate each of you. Thank you!

Fondly,

Pam and Paul