The Nicaragua Photo/Testimony Project
Paul Dix and Pam Fitzpatrick
Home  |  About the Book  |  About the Authors  |  Letters from Nicaragua   |  Reviews & Testimonials   |  Contact
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 26, 2005 Ayapal, El Cua, San Jose de Bocay, La Dalia

Including stories about or testimonies from: Ben Linder, Sophia del Carmen Palacios, Juan Domingo Jimenez, 
Javier Lopez Hernandez.

Note: The photos in this letter are Pam's casual digital photos. To see some of Paul's professional photos taken for the Photo/Testimony project, visit the Photos and Stories page.
As I write this in Managua, THE CORPORATION is being shown on HBO. If you've seen it, don't you agree that it's an important movie?

One of our latest trips took us to Ayapal, truly the end of the El Cua - San Jose de Bocay road, a beautiful part of Nicaragua, tree covered hills, cool temperatures, sparsely populated. As I mentioned in the March 1, 2003 letter, it's easy to see why Ben Linder loved this area. We stopped off in El Cua to photograph a mural honoring Ben, the young man from Portland, Oregon who, in the 1980s, brought electricity to this tiny community.  The people of El Cua loved Ben, the Ben they knew as an engineer, a clown, a unicyclist, a friend. They deeply mourned his death when, at the age of 27 on April 28, 1987 he, Sergio Fernandez and Pablo Rosales were killed by the contra as the three were surveying a hydroelectric project site in San Jose de Bocay.  What a loss!

After a series of bus rides to San Jose de Bocay, which many view as the end of the road, we boarded a former military transit truck (IFA type) for the 3-hour trip to the true end of the road, Ayapal. Here the Ayapal River joins the Bocay River which eventually flows into Rio Coco which Paul and I will be on next week.
Benas Clown  Ben Unicycle
Two views from mural in El Cua depicting Ben Linder as clown, on unicycle, and as hydroelectric engineer. Ben helped bring electricity to El Cua before he was killed by the contra in 1987.

Ayapal River
Near the confluence of the Ayapal and Bocay rivers.
On the bus to Ayapal
On the bus to Ayapal.
Sophia del Carmen Palacios in her shop in Ayapal.
At last we found Sofia del Carmen Palacios. We had found Sofia's sister, Ismelda Maria Palacios, during our last journey through Nicaragua, but not Sofia.  Sofia and her daughter, Damaris, welcomed us like family. You might remember the 1980s photo of Sofia from our slide show; a woman holding her chest, weeping as she looks into an open coffin. The man in the coffin, Enrique Moran Velasquez, was the husband of Sofia's sister, Ismelda.  You can view this photo and several others of the 1980s photos by doing google search of "Paul Dix fotos".

Sofia and her sister had both supported the Sandinistas before their takeover in 1979 and continued to support them during the 1980s.  During the 80s they both lived in the town of Jinotega and did reasonably well as market women in the public market.  But the Sandinistas lost power in the 1990 elections and the new local government began to hassle her. She finally closed up shop and somehow selected Ayapal for her new home. Here she and her daughter have their own store front shop selling shoes, pretty children's dresses, hair clips, pretty socks, things that make life a little nicer. But she reports that none of that sells now, since there's no work.  She gets by selling inexpensive corn drinks, hot corn on the cob, deep fat fried pig skin.  She's always making something and kids (many of them her grandchildren) are in and out and around constantly.  Staying afloat is a struggle, but she's a strong hard working woman, even by Nicaraguan standards!
This is an area that is still being de-mined; you see posters along the street reminding people of the mines and urging them to stay on well worn paths. Sofia says that many Nicaraguans blame the Sandinistas for the land mines, since they did, in fact, place most of the mines that are still being removed.  But Sofia is clear that if the U.S. hadn't gotten involved in the affairs of Nicaragua there wouldn't have been a war (or at least not as long and vicious a war) and the Sandinistas wouldn't have had to place the land mines.

Later in the day we returned to San Jose de Bocay, the current home of Juan Domingo Jimenez.  Those of you who read our newsletters from 2002-2003 will remember that the Organization of American States (OAS) has a large de-mining operation in Nicaragua, which also includes helping victims of these mines with surgery, prostheses, and trainings for new work.  When we met with OAS staff in 2002 they explained that they originally focused only on soldiers wounded by the mines and had just begun to include civilians.

But, in reality, it appears they assist contra and civilian victims of land mines and not Sandinista victims.  At least that is what we are told and it is what we have observed thus far during these two stays in Nicaragua.  When Paul went to Aldo Chavarria hospital, where OAS has a prosthesis program, all of the patients were former contra.  We haven't heard this directly from OAS but we've been told by Sandinista mine victims that they were turned down for assistance and OAS told them the Nicaraguan government is supposed to be helping them, which as you know, is not happening.

We introduced Juan Domingo to you in our March 1, 2003 letter. As a young child he and his family lived in Quatro Esquinas where they had a little land and several businesses, including shoe repair and cow hide processing. Juan was always busy helping his father; never had a day of schooling.

As the war escalated contra forces kept threatening them.  Then one night contra forces entered their house and stole absolutely everything, including all their work tools. Later their house was burned.  The Sandinista government soon relocated the community to Las Praderas, in the Pantasma Valley. Juan's family was able to sell their land but at a huge loss.

Later, in 1984, Juan watched contra forces enter Las Praderas, select a group of 12 or more men, line them up and shoot them dead in front of everyone.  Then on October 20, 1986, at the age of 10, he was riding in a truck, running an errand for his father when he and ten other people lost limbs to a contra placed anti-tank mine.
During the next year his father was kidnapped and killed by the contra and over the next several years his two brothers were killed.

By the age of 12 Juan Domingo had joined the Sandinista police force.  He says that one might say he was raised by the Sandinistas.  With his one leg and crutches he was out in the hills and mud sometimes for two weeks to a month at a time, watching for robbers and, I'm sure, contra forces. He did this for eight years and during that time was caught in four ambushes.

One might think Juan would have resentments and psychological problems, but he claims and seems to be amazingly healthy. He doesn't dwell on the past, just tries to make the present and future better.  If you saw our slide show you might remember the 2003 photo of him, with the stump of his right leg braced by a crutch, arms outstretched, coaching his winning baseball team. Baseball and his wife bring a sparkle to his eyes!

The exciting news is that Juan and Ana are expecting their first baby in the spring. They've been married for a handful of years and feared they couldn't have babies, but it happened!

Juan Domingo was told by staff of the OAS Landmine project that they couldn't help him with housing or training because they weren't assisting former Sandinista soldier land mine victims.  He had to convince them that at the age of 10, when he lost his leg, he truly was a civilian. They eventually helped Juan and Ana move into a new home in a newly formed cluster of houses, a 10 to 15 minute bus ride beyond Bocay.  At last he and his wife had a house, the bare minimum, dirt floor, zero furniture, no kitchen. But they have to make payments for the house and it appears they might soon be forced to move out. When he lived in town he had a little saddlery business, but now he's in an isolated area far from town. It's hard to see how he can make a life for himself here.  He's asked OAS for help in starting a new business but hasn't heard from them.

It was sad to see Juan on the verge of losing his house. He talked about possibly moving back to Las Praderas and living with his mother.   This seems to be an especially difficult time for Juan and it's difficult to see how the OAS assistance has actually been helpful for the long term.  

On our way back to Managua we stopped off in La Dalia for a few days and with some amazing luck we found Javier Lopez Hernandez.  February 15, 1987, in an area called La Pavona in the department of Jinotega, Javier was driving his co-op's 2-month-old tractor to town to buy shoes for co-op members. The tractor hit an anti-tank mine that killed one of the eight on the tractor and wounded 4.  The front wheels and engine were blown 30 yards away. Paul photographed Javier several days after the explosion, face marked by shrapnel and stitches, but full of smiles, glad he had survived.

Like Juan Domingo, Javier barely had a childhood.  Javier's family had land outside La Dalia, land for cattle, coffee, corn, beans, and fruit. They did well.  But Javier's father had been the Somoza contact person for the area and the family definitely felt threatened when the Sandinista's came into power.  So Javier, at age 12, and his brothers fled to Honduras with the contra forces. After a year of training (now age 13!) he entered Nicaragua for his first battle and was captured by the Sandinistas; his brothers escaped and joined their parents in Guatemala.  Javier was forced to travel with the Sandinistas until he was finally released, basically unharmed, in the La Pavona area.  Later he survived the land mine explosion and then, when he reached the draft age of 17, he was recruited into the Sandinista army. Not much of a childhood.

Javier and his mother
Javier and his mother. In 1987, Javier survived an explosion caused when the tractor he was driving hit an anti-tank mine. Javier fought for both the contra and the Sandinistas.
But he didn't lose the family land and now his family has moved back (his father died several years ago). His mother and other relatives live on one part of the land, Javier, his wife, Reina (from the Sandinista co-op) and their 6 children live nearby.  They still have plenty of land for cattle, coffee, corn, beans, and fruit. They seem to be doing reasonably well.  As we said in the last newsletter, what a difference owning land makes!

Javier is quiet and extremely likeable.  He wants absolutely nothing to do with politics, just wants to farm and take care of his family. It certainly would have been interesting to have met with his father!  For most of the interview Javier kept saying he fled Nicaragua because of the draft.  But that didn't fit. He fled BEFORE the mandatory draft was implemented and when he was much younger than 17.  It was only at the end of the interview, after some probing questions about the draft, that he mentioned the Somoza connection.  He clearly wasn't trying to hide anything, it's just that the draft was a huge issue during the war and still overshadows many of the other issues.  He still retains the politics of his father and of the contra training camps in Honduras, believing that the contra forces brought freedom and democracy to Nicaragua.

As I mentioned earlier, Paul and I will be on the Rio Coco next week, visiting several indigenous communities around Pankawas.

Thanks for traveling with us. We'd love to hear from you ( AND, any suggestions for our speaking tour in the fall and spring are welcome.

We hope you are all doing well!

In appreciation,

Pam and Paul