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!

November 11, 2002    Condega, Los Arenales

Including stories about or testimonies from: Nellie, Juana, Mauricio.

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

Dear friends,

Thinking of you always, especially as we continue to follow the US war news here.  Hoping you all are well.

We’re just back from the Achuapa area. Beautiful, sad, inspiring - more on this trip in our next report.

Like Mexico, Nicaragua celebrates the DAY OF THE DEAD. Here it’s November 2nd - a day to go to the cemetery, clear the burial area, paint the crosses/markers/tombs, place flowers, remember, honor, and picnic, a very important time for Nicaraguans.

Friday November 1st we took the hour bus ride north of Esteli to Condega (6 cordobas - about 45 cents). We left the bus about 4 miles south of Condega to visit Nellie (Paul had located and briefly visited her a few days earlier). Some of you might remember Nellie from a small WFP booklet - the cover was black with a little girl, about 7 years old, holding out her arm in a sling...Nellie!

In 1985 Nellie and her family lived in a cooperative a mile or two further out, LOS POTREROS. The contra attacked, killed her father, 5 year old brother, grandfather, and kidnapped an uncle, 2 cousins, and a friend. Those kidnapped were never heard from again, dead for sure. Nellie was shot in the arm, and today does have good use of that arm.

After this attack the community relocated to a resettlement camp - LOS ARENALES - and this is where we visited Nellie.  To reach Los Arenales we wade through a river, knee high and about 40 yards wide when it’s not raining. Anyone who leaves Los Arenales to reach the market or catch a bus anywhere has to do this crossing. We manage to NOT slip on the rocks, reach Nellie’s house, she’s there!  Her mother, her 2 children and several friends gather around in the kitchen. Again, the main theme is the level of poverty.  The house, tiny, dirt floors, seemed totally bare.

As we wrap up our short visit (we need to be sure to reach Condega by dark) I ask Nellie if she will be able to visit the graves of her father, uncle and brother on Saturday...THE DAY OF THE DEAD.  She replies "you know how it is for us now....we’re struggling...there’s just no money for the bus".

In some ways THE DAY OF THE DEAD in Nicaragua reminds me of Christmas in that people start making preparations way in advance. You see little packets of colored sawdust (is that what it is??) for sale in the markets...for decorating graves...and LOTS of real and plastic flowers.  Some businesses close early. Not being able to go is a real loss! It turns out the 4 miles bus ride to Condega was 4 cordobas, so a round trip of 8 cordobas (about 55 cents) kept Nellie from visiting her father, brother and grandfather.

We visited some more and headed back across the river to catch the bus to Condega where Paul had arranged to meet with Juana and her family of Saturday morning. I introduced her son, Mauricio, in my last report. We’d been invited to go to the cemetery with them on a 7 am bus.

After a restful night, Paul and I are in the plaza at 6:45 am looking for the family, but they don’t show.  Later we walk to their house, same story, just no money for the bus. This cemetery is an hour away, 9 cordobas one way. We offer to pay for those who want to go and 7 of us head off on the 11 am bus.

Another creeping, rocking, heaving ride up hill, no towns, just scattered houses down a country road. We get out and walk up up up up, about 20 minutes to the very top of a hill. WOW, the cemetery....what colors! Packed with people, flowers, color. We walked to the 2 crosses marking Juana’s husband and son and Mauricio, the son who ran barefoot through the woods at midnight to escape the contra, began cleaning and painting the crosses. Juana knelt down and started cleaning up the grave site.

On December 27, 1985, around midnight, the contra attacked Juana’s house. The family all ran for the woods. Mauricio, 17 at the time and his younger brother, 15, ran barefoot to the woods. Mauricio’s brother only made it a few yards outside the house before the contra killed him. The father was captured, horribly tortured, and then killed. Juana kept running with 5-month-old baby Juana in her arms. The contra came toward her, yelled for her to stop. She somehow fell down a long steep cliff without hurting herself or baby Juana, and the contra left without killing them.

After the crosses are cleaned and painted, and the grounds cleaned, Juana decorates the area with fresh flowers. Beautiful! She saves some of the flowers in her bucket.

Then we walk down the hill and up the road and across a field (about 1 hour) to the place her house used to be. Absolutely beautiful hill site...breathtaking view. But the fear and horrible memories had kept Juana from continuing to live there. In the words of Juana, "they cut my husband’s wrists and stomach and took out his heart and tongue".  In 1986 the family took the house apart, board by board, even the front door with the shrapnel markings, and reconstructed it on a tiny crowded lot on the outskirts of view.

We stood on the hill and listened to Juana talk about how she used to love this land. Then we stood in the green indentation that had been the bomb shelter. Then Juana walked us down a long path to the hillside she had fallen down, much steeper and longer than we expected. We return towards the house site and Juana stops to decorate a bush with the flowers she had saved. This is the place her son’s body had been found. What loss!

The family had shared a powerful day with us. We head back to the road to catch the bus, start walking and soon learn that the bus isn’t coming. It had a loud flat when it was bringing us to the cemetery and was staying in Condega for repairs.  And this was the last bus to town!

So, at 3:15 we start the 8-mile walk back to town, muddy slippery road, Paul and I in good walking shoes, Juana in thin loafer type shoes with no socks.  We hadn’t seen a truck go by all day so we had little hope of begging a ride. The 7 of us just start walking to town, slowly, conserving energy, all in good spirits, just doing what needs to be done, the Nicaraguan way.

More time to visit. Mauricio talks about the economic struggle, tells us about his eye problems and his need for glasses.  He needs eye surgery...but no money for glasses or surgery.  This is when he told us there’s just no work...and how he searches for ANY work...often with an empty stomach.

After over an hour a miracle happens. Not only does a truck stops!  About 12 of us "hop" in the back. We made it back to Condega, muddy and tired, but with full hearts. Shy Juana now offers to meet again and give a testimony, something she had hesitated to do earlier.

With about 7 minutes to spare we catch the last bus to Esteli. Early the next morning we return to Managua for new amazing findings!

Our next report will be on EL LAGARTILLO, near Achuapa. You’ll hear more from Florentina and the Perez family. The contra and the U.S. took their dream but the Perez’ continue...and give hope to the word!

Thanks to each and every one of you for joining us here!

 Pam and Paul