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!

December 21, 2002    Yali, Matagalpa

Including stories about or testimonies from: Bismar
k, Carmen, Rene.

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

Dear Friends,

We send each of you warm greetings from Matagalpa. We hope you are enjoying the holidays and the accompanying festivities and sharing. We’re enjoying a slower day in Matagalpa before we head east to Rio Blanco and Bocana de Paiwas - very small towns near the center of Nicaragua.

I need to apologize for my level of typos, etc. I’m often using a computer key board without letters...and sometimes have to actually punch the space bar to get it to work.  That is my excuse...but really I should just be more careful at proofing!!!! One error in the Jalapa update I wanted to correct...when we talked about sitting with Lorenzo and his family. The report said we wanted him to "feel our souls" when what I had meant to type was we wanted him to "feed our souls".  Yet again the Nicaraguans are taking care of us!!!

We spent much of last week in Yali - a conservative town of about 7,000 in the hills of Jinotega. Rich coffee land!

Soon after reaching Yali we were informed the police chief wanted to talk with us, not exactly what we felt like doing after a long bus ride!  But we scurried over. He questioned us and briefly looked at some of the pictures, mainly showing interest in the prints of contra.  Turns out he fought with the contra for more than 8 years, and maintained that the contra never committed atrocities and never kidnapped anyone. Of course, Paul gently showed his photos of Richard Boren and Paul Fisher being led by the contra. Both were Witness for Peace workers, kidnapped by the contra in different years and each held for over a week. Both were released to Paul. Our welcome to Yali was a little unsettling!

We are told that during the war there was significant support for the contra around Yali.  Denis, a former contra leader, said Yali was THE heart of the contra effort. This may or may not be true, but it’s clear there was strong support. We felt we witnessed more contra bravado there, and still there was strong reconciliation.

Noel, former Sandinista municipal worker in Yali, knowledgeable, gentle, helpful, reported that the police chief was a huge help to the community - and treated people fairly. It seems there are "hot heads" in Yali on both sides, but most just recognize the tragedy of the war, never want another war, and want to move forward.

People in Yali are struggling to survive. While we were there the Catholic Priest was in Costa Rica looking for markets for Yali´s produce. If they could market their goods directly they might actually be able to survive.  As it is now the growers sell their coffee beans to buyers for 540 corobas for 100 pounds - that´s 37 cents a pound.  They end up getting 12 cents a pound for dried red beans and 4 cents a pound for dried corn seeds.  Hearts break when we think of the work involved for 37 cents! Cultivating the coffee bush for 5 years before production, picking each bean by hand, removing the pulp, washing the beans, spreading them in the sun to dry (being careful to cover them when it rains), removing the shells, loading them into bags of 100 pounds each, and hauling them to the market.

One of the main reasons we came to Yali was to find Bismark and we did find most everyone but him. Just before leaving we did learn he was working for the police in Esteli and we even got his address.  Trying to not feel too optimistic we headed back to Esteli.

In the 1980s, Bismark (born around 1978) and his family lived in the Sandinista coop, Las Colinas, north of Yali.  Earlier Bismark´s mother, Celina, had unsuccessfully tried to get her older sons to Honduras to avoid the draft.  Las Colinas was a coffee plantation that had been legally purchased by the Sandinista government and turned into a cooperative for the otherwise landless people in the area.  During the next 10 years, the coop was attacked and burned 4 times, Celina’s husband and son were killed, and Bismark, at age 10, was severely wounded in a contra ambush.

After a day in Esteli we discovered Bismark did NOT work for the police AND the address we had was wrong.  But with Paul’s keen detective work (that would call for a separate report) we found Bismark and his mother, as well as 2 brothers and a sister.

They live in the outskirts of Esteli, in a rough area; one of the areas that is hassled by gangs and really isn’t safe, especially at night. With the high unemployment, increased cost of going to school, lack of opportunity and increased extreme poverty, more and more young boys are turning to gang life. It’s a serious problem though out Nicaragua.

Celina, now 58 and looking at least 68, welcomed us with open arms, smiles and jubilation; full of love and appreciation. And yes, she has forgiven all sides of the war. She lives with her daughter, her daughter’s husband, and their three children in a tiny, bare two room dirt floor wooden structure. No electricity, no running water.

On March 23, 1990, about 1 month after the elections that removed the Sandinistas from power and during the agreed upon cease fire, Bismark, at age 10, caught a ride in a military vehicle from Las Colinas to Yali where his brother lived.  North of Yali the military jeep and large truck were attacked by the contra. The fighting lasted for about 2 hours with many being killed. Bismark received a FAL bullet (large!) into his abdomen, damaging his kidney, abdomen, and lung. Celina reported that some of his intestines were outside his body. He reported that he didn’t know he had been hit, but that his stomach really hurt.  Some how he got out of the truck before the contra set it on fire. He played dead and when the contra kicked him in the head he didn’t make a sound, and thereby avoided being shot again.

Later Noel helped carried the injured to the hospital, but Bismark was loaded on a truck of corpses since someone had determined he was dead.  Later, when the bodies were being unloaded, someone noticed he was still breathing!  He spent the next three months in the hospital.  By age 10 he had survived 4 attacks on his community, the loss of his father and brother, and one horrible mutilation.

Paul had especially wanted to find Bismark because he had met with Bismark a year or so before the ambush and Bismark had drawn Paul a picture of one of the attacks on Colinas. Later Paul and his son, Patchen, had lunched with some of the men that were killed days later in the ambush.  Paul and Patchen also arrived at the ambush scene early the morning after the attack, while corpses were still being identified and trucks were still burning. Later Paul and Patchen visited Bismark in the hospital.

While talking with Bismark’s mother we learned that Bismark had been senselessly attacked by one of the roaming gangs in their community. One day last May, in the afternoon, he was sitting by the roadside enjoying a mango. He saw a group of boys coming, but he wasn’t worried, just sitting and enjoying the mango season. Then he noticed some of the boys had rocks, but he still wasn’t worried. Then he got bashed in the head.

As the ambulance carried Bismark and his mother to the hospital in Managua the attendant determined that Bismark had died. The driver wanted to turn around and take Bismark back to Esteli so his mother could bury him there, but Celina asked that they continue to Managua.

At the hospital they determined he was alive after all!  His heart did stop one more time, but he was shocked back. In Nicaragua medical treatment is now privatized and many just aren’t receiving the treatment they need. Thanks to the help of a former employer, a pharmacist that very much appreciates Bismark, he received care and the medicine he needed. Now Bismark, earning 400 cordobas ($28) a month and his wife are trying to pay off the bill.

Bismark is now working for his father-in-law in a small furniture making shop (about the size of a 1 car garage). We were thrilled to finally see him. So handsome!  He’s now 24 and reminded us of many of the young men on the ski slopes in Montana. Paul took some pictures of him working and we arranged to meet him that night at his mother’s house. After seeing him, so full of life, we felt optimistic for him.

But when we met later that night our optimism faded. He’s weak from the damage done to him in the 1990 attack, and now has headaches and dizzy spells from the May attack.  When we felt his head we were absolutely shocked by the depth of the shattering - a large broken up mangled area indented more than half an inch. His skull had been, and is, shattered.

He doesn’t much care about politics, just wants to figure out how to stay alive and help with his 3 young children. He, like his mother, is warm, welcoming, and forgiving. Each of you would hunger to make life right for him.

We’ve had some amazing contacts and interviews since we last wrote, but I’ll just briefly mention two more.

Carmen lives in the small town of Consuelo, Jinotega and in 1986, at age 19, was traveling in a truck carrying farm products and civilians when her truck hit a contra-placed, US-made, anti-tank mine. Beautiful Carmen lost both legs. Some of you might remember Carmen from a WFP poster showing Carmen in a hospital bed with bandaged stumps. The poster heading was - STOP THE CONTRA.

After the attack, with the help of Don Mosely, Carmen came to Georgia and had surgery on her stumps so she could be well fitted for prostheses. She continues to live in Consuelo with her brother, because she likes the slower pace. But she takes the 6 hour bus ride to Matagalpa about once a month to stay with her mother. She hasn’t married, lacks 4 years of high school, and has never been able to work. She would very much like to be able to work!

Carmen has problems with her prostheses. They are supposed to be changed every 2 years and she’s had the last pair for 5. As we say in most of our reports, the medical system is privatized and just too expensive for poor families.

Now at least one stump, if not both, hurts, bleeds, and gets infected. She reported that she hurts up to her waist. She can’t get fitted for new prostheses until her legs are operated on again, and she can’t afford the surgery. She does walk, slowly with a crutch, grimacing at every step.

She says she needs help, expresses no anger, and looks peaceful, beautiful. OAS is doing some excellent work in Nicaragua with land mine victims. She said she did contact them several years ago but they indicated they could only help demobilized soldiers. When we’re back in Managua we’re going to contact them.  We’re hoping the policy has changed!

And now Rene.  He, too, could be a full report. He lost both legs in a contra attack. Our strongest memory of our meeting with him is when he said he tried to stand up after the attack but fell down. He then reached for his foot, pulled his leg out of his pants, and tossed it aside. Later in the hospital his other leg, badly mangled, had to be removed.

Rene now lives in a tiny dirt-floor wooden structure on the edge of Managua, one of the poorest settings we’ve seen. He looks physically fit and seems to be in no pain. He has a wheel chair and, when he can get a ride into town, plays on a wheel chair basketball team.

Rene reports that he’s not had a depressed day in his life. Not one!! When he lost his legs he mainly felt sad for his mother, because mothers depend on sons to help them out. He said the staff at the hospital didn’t want him to leave because he was such good therapy for the other patients.  Amazing human!

We continue to sit with heroes.  And again, we thank you for traveling with us.  

In appreciation,

Pam and Paul

P.S. ....forgot to mention that the people at Las Colinas had to leave their land in 1990.  It was legally theirs, but the contra continued to threaten them, so they left with only the clothes on their backs and no place to live.