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!

January 6, 2003    Bocana de Paiwas, Rio Blanco

Including stories about or testimonies from: 
Cristina, Carmen Mendieta, Yamileth, Catalino.

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


Dear Friends,

The New Year has begun!  We hope you are, each day, finding even more ways to live your life in a manner that feeds your soul.

We were fortunate to spend Christmas and New Year in Bocana de Paiwas.  Paiwas is a small, one phone town of about 1,000 in the middle of Nicaragua, nestled in the crook of 2 joining rivers.  It’s a hilly, tropical lowland.   In the 1980s, going from Managua to Paiwas was a tortuous trip, mostly on a dirt (can have incredible mud since Paiwas gets more than 8 months of rain in a normal year) road, which was actually just a linking of huge pot holes.  Me? I never traveled it, but I sure heard the stories!

During part of the war, Witness for Peace workers drove the ambulance from Paiwas to Rio Blanco, or if need be, on to Matiguas. An amazing journey for the driver (much of the time a WFP woman, Ann) and doctor (sometimes WFP Ed Myer from Seattle) and even more amazing for the person with the bullet in the gut or the mangled legs or all the above. Can you imagine the pain as the ambulance bounced and swayed the distance?

Now the road from Managua to Boaco and on to Matiguas and Rio Blanco is paved. And the dirt road from Rio Blanco to Paiwas has been graded (but bouncy by U.S. standards), but the 16 mile trip still takes 2 hours by bus and 45 minutes by pick up truck.

We arranged to be in Paiwas for Christmas because Cristina now lives and works in Costa Rica, but had plans to return for the holidays.

In 1984 eleven year old Cristina and her family lived in Guayabo, a small 21 family resettlement cooperative a day’s walk from Paiwas. Her father, Isabel, was active with the health clinic.

On September 2, 1984 Cristina was visiting her aunt, Maria, in the center of the cooperative when word came that the contra were coming. Maria gathered up the children and sent them off toward a safer house. The contra came at about 11 am, raped and killed Cristina’s Aunt Maria, her Uncle Lino, and her 2 cousins. The head was removed from one young cousin and placed on a fence post. Before the contra left, seven people had been killed.

Cristina ran toward her home, saw the contra coming toward her and fell down. The contra shot her four times. One bullet entered her torso through her back and exited from her chest. Another split her skull and sliced the edge of her brain. The third went into her hip and the forth shattered her right hand and wrist. They left her for dead.

Cristina remembers nothing from that moment until her father found her about 6 hours later. He had been told she was dead and was coming to recover her body. But she was alive! He loaded her on his horse and carried her home.  Cristina remembers unbearable pain and excruciating thirst.

The family didn’t feel they could stay in their house with the contra nearby, so at 1 am they left, walking and on horseback, for the home of the godfather of Cristina’s mother, a tiny house that was already overcrowded.

They stayed in this house for 8 days, three times a day washing each of Cristina’s five wounds with gasoline. Can you imagine the pain? Maybe the gasoline kept gangrene from setting in. I certainly have no idea, but I have been amazed in earlier reports by the speed of onset with gangrene.

At one point during these 8 days Cristina remembers taking what she thought was her last breath. But she later resurfaced to the sight of her father giving her her last rites and the rest of the family crying around her bedside.

After 8 days the family felt they could not stay with the godfather any longer. It was too crowded, there wasn’t near enough food for everyone, and the other family was frightened by having Cristina’s family in their house. They felt that with Cristina’s family there they were clear contra targets.

So they made the long journey back to Guayabo. After a total of 14 days of 3 gasoline burnings each day, and no other medical care, Padre Jaime (US priest from Paiwas) arrived on horseback. He had heard of the attack and came to help Cristina get medical care. After all she’d been through Cristina had zero interest in moving her body again!

But at 1 am Cristina, her father Isabel, and Padre Jaime headed out on horseback, then to a canoe Padre Jaime had arranged, then to a truck to Rio Blanco. In Rio Blanco Cristina got injections (antibiotics I’m sure) and then they drove her to Boaco and finally Managua.

She and her father spent the next 27 days in the hospital. Back at home her mother was busy caring for the other younger children, planting crops, and birthing a new baby.

Cristina and Isabel returned to Guayabo but after 8 months the family felt they couldn’t risk living there any longer. They left their house, their food, their crops, their animals - everything - and walked to Paiwas where they had absolutely nothing, but felt somewhat safer. (This story was repeated again and again with different families in the area during the 80s and Paiwas actually became quite large.)

On April 20th, 1985 Isabel told Paul, "We have had enough sadness for lack of peace and we hope peace can come. We hope the U.S. can understand the sorrow we go through - how much we pray for peace."

At 30, Cristina reports she suffers from frequent migraine headaches and that, with age, they have become more frequent and more painful. Her shattered wrist is locked at an angle and she has some use of her fingers, but any real use of the hand causes incredible pain. The bullet to her hip and the one through her torso didn’t seem to do any lasting damage. Amazing!

At 20, Cristina fell in love and married. Her husband was also from a poor family and about 5 years ago he snuck into Costa Rica to find work. Luckily he was there during a brief amnesty period and he was able to become legal. Now he, Cristina, and their 2 children live in Costa Rica. He works in an Argentine owned food processing plant making $225 a month. The cost of living is much higher in Costa Rica than Nicaragua so it’s hard to picture how they are surviving. They desperately want to purchase a tiny house of their own, but have to borrow ahead each month just to cover the most basic expenses. But Cristina reports that in Nicaragua she was skinny skinny skinny and the kids were always sick. Now, at the very least, they have enough to eat. She’s sad she doesn’t have enough money to help her parents, who are still struggling each and every day.

Many uneducated strong young men in Nicaragua do machete work (the work Cristina’s husband first had to do in Costa Rica). That means they stand in the hot sun all day swinging the machete to clear a field. For this they are paid 30 cordobas a day ($2), a figure we’ve been quoted in many different areas of Nicaragua. Last week I bought 1 roll of toilet paper in Bocana de Paiwas for 10 cordobas, today I bought a 4 pack of the very cheapest for 14 cordobas.  OK, one doesn’t have to use toilet paper. Today a quart of milk was 8 and a half cordobas, a pound of the cheap cheese was 29 cordobas, just to give a few examples.

Carmen Mendieta was a beautiful, tiny, powerful organizer in Bocana de Paiwas, madly in love and the mother of 7 children. She had worked for over a year with the development project Cristo Rey (Padre Jaime – with mostly German donations), was a Delegate of the Word in the Catholic church, and was former head of AMLAE, a Nicaraguan women’s organization, in Paiwas. She knew she was a contra target and did not casually leave Paiwas.

On Wednesday, December 2, 1987, Carmen did, however, ride in an armed truck to Rio Blanco to buy electrical wire for a child care center that was being built in Paiwas.  Yamileth, her 15 year old daughter, was attending school in Managua and this same morning was preparing to board a truck with her theater group.

As Carmen and two other women who had hitched a ride along the way were traveling to Rio Blanco the contra attacked and killed all three. Because Paiwas had a radio system they were able to get word to Managua within half an hour. A priest reached Yamileth and took her off the theater truck.

That truck was attacked later in the day and 4 students were killed.  Yamileth feels that, at some spiritual level, her mother died to save her from being killed in the theater truck.

Yamileth, now 30, is the oldest of the 7 children.  She still lives in Paiwas and continues the work of her mother. She is a phenomenal organizer, and would be considered phenomenal in any big U.S. city. She’s a moving force behind the radio station in Paiwas (Palabra de Mujer) and a women’s health center (Casa de la Mujer).  She’s happily married with two strong, capable, insightful male children.  

Her youngest sisters, Rosa and Norma, are both active with the radio station and the women’s center. Yamileth and her three brothers have all had trouble with alcoholism.  Some friends helped Yamileth remove the clutches of alcoholism from her life, but her brothers have not been as fortunate.  

Reconciliation? Yamileth feels no hatred (her choice of words) for the contra that might have tried to kill her and did kill her mother. The only hatred she feels is for the United States.

How many seeds of hate can we afford to plant? It appears that Bush is adamant about moving forward with his Iraq war. To quote Carlos Powell, an Argentine reporter in Nicaragua who just received an international "Juan Rulfo" award for his reports on land mine victims in Nicaragua, "It is much easier to begin a war than end it, and even more difficult to repair the invisible marks that can never be erased from the soul."

The visible damage is heart breaking, the invisible damage is a mountain that isn’t being touched.  Someone said Nicaragua as a country is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

Clearly no war truly ends with the signing of a peace agreement. On the afternoon of July 17, 2002 in the little community of San Antonio de Upa, Matagalpa, an eight year old girl found an anti-personal mine. Not knowing what it was she played with it and died. This story was painfully common for the first five or so years after the war, and at a lower rate continues.

In 1990, after the war ended, 8-year-old Catalino was home alone in Rio Blanco. He explained that his family was poor and everyone was out working but him. He found a mine, and out of curiosity and not knowing what it was, he poked at it. In an instant he lost his left eye and both arms. He spent the next 4 to 5 years in rehabilitation in Matagalpa and Managua.  By the time he got back to Rio Blanco his mother was gravely ill.

He’s now 20, his mother is dead, father is dead, and he receives not one penny of support from the Nicaraguan government. OAS helped with prostheses several years ago, but they caused too much pain to be of use.  Catalino doesn’t feel close to his sisters, and they too are struggling for basic existence, but he lives with one sister for a few days and then the other.  A friend in Rio Blanco said people in the community help him with clothes and food when they can.

But tall, strong, handsome, in spite of all his scars, Catalino says he’s never been depressed. When he has a bike, doesn’t now, he rides long distances, even to Boaco (about 60 miles). And Paul took photos of him doing a flip off a cliff into a local swimming hole.

It’s estimated that of the 150,000 mines that were placed in Nicaraguan soil, 59% have been destroyed. To make the removal even more difficult, the mine maps no longer function since some of the mines were relocated in the 1998 floods and mud slides of Hurricane Mitch.

Thanks again for traveling with us. We were in Paiwas for 10 days, with several day trips to Rio Blanco. Paiwas had an incredible New Year´s Eve FOLK DANCE presentation, young people of all ages, men and women. Yamileth, in her market woman costume, was the ever funny MC. Twenty one year old Rosa was one of the main dance instructors. At midnight people gathered in front of the municipal building, Yamileth read a formal document proclaiming the end to disrespect for women, the end to putting garbage in the river, the end to.......for three pages. Then at midnight they lit the "Old Man" - the old way of doing things - in the middle of the street. The huge old man was cranky, and the dried banana leaves didn’t want to burst into flame. But with the help of a little gasoline the fire took off.

Then I realized the intent of the 8 or so very drunk men in a line, swaying on their horses, about 25 feet from the "Old Man". They started forcing their horses to run through the fire, while throwing fire crackers into the flames. Somehow no one was hurt, not the men, the horses, or the bystanders. Yes, change is coming, but it’s a constant struggle!

For those of you in Montana who know George Baldwin, Paiwas was his old stomping ground. He lived there for several years in the 80s, delivered a truck to the women’s center in the 90s, and during the 90s was driver for the women’s center (sorry I don’t have a clear grasp of the dates, etc). In the 80s Paul went on three two week trips with Padre Jaime, going from chapel to chapel on horseback in road-less isolated areas. Padre Jaime was committed to visiting each chapel twice a year and the contra were threatening to kill him. He felt that if he had another gringo with him he might be safer. Paul’s last trip was just after the contra informed Padre Jaime that he would be killed if he did even one more trip. Clearly they survived, but they do have interesting stories of contra contacts along the way (interesting now that we know the results).

There are so many people and scenes we’d like to share with you. Hearts break and fill in rapid succession. Thanks for sharing in the experience!

With love,

Pam and Paul