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!

March 1, 2003  Quilali, El Cua, San Jose de Bocay

Including stories about or testimonies from: Oscar, Jesus, Ben Linder, Luz Mabel, Juan, Carmen.

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

Dear Friends,

While waiting for the bus to Quilali in front of a small store in the tiny gathering of houses called Guasimo, several people pulled up chairs and started talking with us. Very relaxed! Just curious about what we were doing, and curious about what it’s really like in the US. "Do we have a maid?"  Sweet, delicate Nereyda is selling enchiladas; one of the many who walk through each bus as it stops, trying to make a cordoba or two.  We’re talking about distances and ages and Nereyda quickly does the calculations in her head. How much older is Paul than me. How much older I am than her. She is clearly bright and curious, but selling enchiladas rather than attending school.

We catch the bus to Quilali, back of an IFA (military transport truck during the war), along a route that is only open during the dry season. One of our prettiest rides yet. Part of the time we’re weaving along and across a dry and then not dry river bed and then cutting across what at first appears to be an open roadless field. Nice!

A young couple, looking very much like city folk, got off the bus with their new baby in the middle of "no where" and started up a tree covered hill. Off to introduce this new life to the grandparents?

Flocks of parrots. Pig on the roof of our open sided bus. Men hopping off to pee, never ever saw, on any bus ride, women leaving a bus to squat.

We got to Quilali feeling much better than we had feared and found Oscar right away.

On March 9, 1988 8-year-old Oscar Daniel was traveling from Quilali to Wilili with his 16 year old brother, Jesus, who was planning to attend Bible classes. They and 2 other passengers had hitched a ride on a clearly marked civilian truck, Tanic Tobacco Company.  Tanic had a well-known policy of not allowing armed or uniformed people, from any side, on their trucks.

This road had been closed by the Sandinista army earlier in the day due to contra activity in the area. Before they opened the road the Sandinistas sent in 2 military trucks and 1 foot patrol to look for the contra. None of these military targets were attacked.

After the road was opened the Tanic truck, with big Tanic emblems on each door, was the first civilian vehicle to pass. At around 11am, the contra opened fire on the truck just after it passed through the tiny town of Panali. Only 1 of the 5 passengers escaped injury.

Oscar was badly wounded in the right arm and forehead, Jesus was wounded in the neck. Paul came upon this scene just after the wounded had been removed, blood still dripping from the truck. About a half hour later he ran into a contra group that admitted they had done the ambush.

Oscar eventually lost his right arm nearly at the shoulder and for sometime they weren’t sure he would survive the shrapnel wound to his forehead. Jesus survived the neck injury without permanent damage.

Oscar continues to live with his mother in Quilali and Jesus and his wife and baby live next door. Oscar oozes depression. Missing an arm makes life harder, but the more serious problem is the fact that he has epileptic attacks about every 8 days. He does see a doctor periodically, but the doctor doesn’t take any blood, just checks his blood pressure. He does have some pills (not free) but the attacks are definitely not controlled. And who knows what other damage the head injury caused!

He sometimes works at home repairing bicycles, and hungers to have SOMETHING that is his own. He talked about liking school, but not having the money for the uniform, or the notebooks, or the monthly fees. It’s difficult to see joy in Oscar’s future.

We continually see signs of the rewriting of history. The most blatant is in the public school history books, barely a mention of the revolution. We see other examples at the individual level. We were told in Quilali that Oscar now believes the Sandinistas attacked him. When we asked him who did the attack, he said he didn’t know.

We later traveled to El Cua and then further out to San Jose de Bocay. You might remember that El Cua was home to Ben Linder as he worked on hydroelectric power plants in both towns. The first light bulb ever in El Cua was lit thanks to Ben’s work. After his death, when the lights would come on at 4 pm, the children would run around and shout with joy, "llego Benjamin" (Ben arrived). As we traveled to El Cua I could see why Ben wanted to live there, unpopulated hills that still had trees!

Ben had completed the hydroelectric project in El Cua and had just begun the project in San Jose de Bocay when the contra killed him and 2 Nicaraguans, Pablo Rosales and Sergio Hernandez, on April 28, 1987 as they were making river flow measurements. The Bocay plant was completed thanks to the fundraising of Ben’s parents and it has been a huge success. They are now expanding, building plants further out, and hoping to hook into the national grid and feed into it during peak production.

On the road between El Cua and Bocay in the little community of La Union, we found Luz Mabel, one of the main people we’d hoped to find in all of Nicaragua. And, again, we had almost given up!

On the evening of October 20, 1986 several contra opened fire on the home of 22 month old Luz Mabel, killing her father, her brother, and her 38 day old baby sister. Luz was shot in the right arm and her sister, Elida Janet, was badly injured on her right cheek.

Some of you might remember Paul’s picture of little Luz Mabel, with her missing right arm, reaching up with her left arm to hold her mother’s finger.

Spunky 17 year old Luz Mabel now has a 9 month old baby of her own. Her mother, 3 sisters, and 2 brothers live within a short walk and all help out, but they say Luz does most the child care herself, it’s just a little harder with 1 arm. She washes clothes, dresses the baby, cooks, irons, and makes tortillas - everything. She and her partner seem happy.

Elida Janet’s face scar seems much bigger than it did when she was little. She has one son, age 4, who was born with a cleft palate and has had 1 of 3 surgeries he’ll need. Elida says he’s never said a word, mute. When we were visiting, the little fellow was pretty miserable with a fever. We bumped into them several days later on a bus as they were returning from a doctor visit with a diagnosis of Dengue Fever - ouch.

The mother of the family, Elida Del Carmen Rizo Flores, now 58, said they moved to Jinotega after the attack, then Waslala, then back to La Union since some of the family was still there. When her husband was killed they had land and over a hundred cows. But little by little she sold everything to take care of her family. Now she has nothing.

One daughter, Josefa, and her husband, Noel, have land and cattle in La Union, but the others seem to have to work where and when they can. There’s little money for medicine or surgery, but they somehow cover the most basic needs.

Later we traveled up to San Jose de Bocay where we were told Juan lived. We had begun our search for Juan in Pantasma.

On October 20, 1986, 10-year-old Juan was riding in a civilian transport truck on its regular route from Pantasma to Jinotega when it struck a contra-placed anti-tank land mine. Four civilians were killed immediately, 43 people were wounded, and 11 people underwent amputations. We met with several people that survived this attack. Some talked about the incredible, horrific pain they experienced during the hours they laid in the field waiting for help.

Juan lost his right leg above the knee and almost lost his left leg. Paul visited him in the hospital soon after the attack. At that time he thought the doctors had just taken his leg for a little while, and would bring it back soon.

He’s now married, living in hilly San Jose de Bocay, making and repairing saddles, and managing the Bocay baseball team. We were in Bocay for the regional championship games and watched 3 games. Bocay won!

Baseball is a very big deal in Nicaragua. One of the teams, the Tigers, had to walk more than 5 hours to get to Bocay for the competition. They lost, and started their walk home right after the game ended, expecting to reach home around midnight!

It was great seeing Juan in action. He seems steady, patient, and clear and has a boatload of hand signals.

He tried a prosthesis in the past, but it hurt too much. Now he gets around on crutches, and EVERYTHING in Bocay is either up or down a hill.

He, his wife, and a new young pig (slated to be dinner in 2 more months) live in their tiny, dark, 2 room shop which is jammed full of saddle tools. He doesn’t seem to have much business, but is getting by somehow. He’s never received one penny from the government.

They’ve been married for 4 years and still don’t have any children. They are now thinking the land mine blast must have damaged him in this way, too. They would make very beautiful babies together!

This landmine was the same one that cost Carmen her 2 legs. You might remember beautiful Carmen from an earlier report. We had met with her at her mother’s house in Matagalpa. You also might remember that her stumps were infected. She had pain up to her waist and needed surgery and new prostheses.

After meeting with Carmen in Matagalpa we returned to Managua and talked with people in the OAS office about Carmen’s situation, hoping that their new landmine victim’s program might help Carmen. We left addresses and contact people and hoped for the best.

Wednesday we rented a truck and a driver so we could visit several little towns in one day. One of the towns on our list was Consuelo, where Carmen lives. But she wasn’t there. She was in Managua with OAS!  If they help her with surgery and new prostheses our 6 months here will have been worthwhile for sure!

We lost a few days a while back to fever and rapid and complete digestive emptyings, but we were lucky to be in a relatively private place with running water. Good to feel healthy again!

One more month of explorations! We sign off with full hearts and appreciation for each of you!

With love,

Pam and Paul