The Scars of War: De-mining Fields and Minds
Anti-personnel mines are the cruelest vestiges of the war.
Their unexpected explosions are the beat of funeral drums,
accompanying the long, painful process of relearning
to embrace a culture of peace.
Journalistically speaking, peace is not selling well at this moment in history when everything appears to be subject to its market value. The roar of the cannon, torn flesh, blood, crossfire, slaughter of the masses, adversity, screams and horror fetch a much better price. There’s a big market for the bloodcurdling, nightmare-producing, morbid spectacles, which is perhaps why Nicaragua doesn’t make it onto the front pages of the world’s newspapers much anymore.
It’s far easier to start a war than to end one. And it’s even more difficult to heal the invisible wounds, those stains on the soul that are never completely cleansed. Wars end when the generals shake hands, or when a treaty, a capitulation or a pact is signed. But peace is not a signed document; it is rather a silent, slow, laborious process. Nor does it have a blueprint; peace, to quote the famous Spanish poet Antonio Machado, “is made as you go.”
War has fabulous economic benefits in the ready money that finds its way into the pockets of a few. Generally speaking, these beneficiaries are people who didn’t really need more and are never found at the front lines. Peace, in contrast, brings profits that cannot be measured in dollars and are shared among the many people who are always the cannon fodder and who often don’t have the basics with which to live. And what is it they win with peace? Quite simply, their life. In the poor countries, however, life is nothing more than survival. When the wars end, what kind of life do those who didn’t die have the right to? Breathing, eating, moving around are functions common to all animals. But to be affirmed as human beings and live with dignity, people need much more.
Wars between brothers: Non-conventional or civil wars are even more accursed because they are waged between compatriots. Nicaragua’s war in the eighties ranged between two definitions. The Sandinistas refused to call it a “civil” war; they wanted the world to know that they were up against a clearly identifiable army financed by the United States: the “contras,” who preferred to call themselves the Nicaraguan Resistance. Beyond these definitions, the reality is that in a country as small as Nicaragua, those shooting at each other were neighbors. Uncles shot at nephews, brothers at brothers, and we even know of fathers and sons who were on opposite sides of the conflict. The scars left by the horrors they experienced will last the rest of their days, and current research shows that some war traumas are passed from one generation to the next.
An even greater horror
Anti-personnel mines: If pacifying civil wars is in itself a gigantic human endeavor, another dimension makes the task almost unfathomable: anti-personnel mines. Their role is not to destroy material objectives, but to protect them. And therein lies the cruel paradox: to protect productive and strategic objectives from the attacks of the Nicaraguan Resistance, the Sandinista military of the eighties ringed them with anti-personnel mines; 150,000 of them. Even today, the mines that were supposed to preserve the civilian peasant population’s development are the daily cross they have to bear.
I have seen them. Whether for reasons of temerity or profession, I caved into the temptation to hold an activated mine. I silently hefted it as my saliva glands worked overtime from anxiety. It left me with the sensation that I had held a sleeping cobra in my hands.
There are many models: the PMN and the PP-MI-SR, made of Bakelite, are the most commonly used for eliminating individuals, whereas the M-18 is for ambushes. All of them, however, are designed to disable or fatally cut down a human being. Burying these artifacts of death is much easier and cheaper than finding and deactivating them, extracting them from their mortal niches and destroying them, because the criminal potential of these bombs lies precisely in their invisibility: the greater their surprise, the more effective they are. Thus, the civilians’ long torment only begins after the guns of war fall silent.
The seeds of postwar workWithin the context of the “transition” initiated in Nicaragua in 1990, some organizations timidly began to think of the need to deal specifically with those with war disabilities. They also believed that work was needed to prevent civilian accidents from the anti-personnel mines and that initial programs for recovering a cultural of peace would have to be designed with an eye on the future. In other words, that it was time to begin working “for something” and not “against someone.”
The Ottawa Convention provided Nicaragua with the necessary basis for initiating the de-mining process. The international community pulled together the financing for these costly programs, which were implemented by the newly-named Nicaraguan Army through its National De-mining Program. Lieutenant Colonel Spiro Bassi, who is in charge of the program, estimates that at a cost of US$350 per mine, $20 million has been invested so far in destroying stored mines and deactivating and destroying those buried in the ground. During the closure of the conference on “The Progress of De-Mining in the Americas,” held in Managua in August 2002, President Enrique Bolaños celebrated the eleventh and final destruction of stored army mines, declaring that “the country is now a territory free of warehoused mines.” The reality, however, is less cheery. The military command says that only 59% of the approximately 150,000 buried mines have been removed, which means that some 55,000 anti-personnel mines are still hidden in the ground, especially in the north of the country, along the border with Honduras, in the department of Nueva Segovia. And that is the best part of the news.
After Mitch: Searching blindIt was in the middle of the evolution of this de-mining process that Hurricane Mitch hit Nicaragua, in October 1998, during the government of Arnoldo Alemán. On top of all the direct destruction the hurricane caused, a drama widely reported internationally, enormous quantities of mud were moved by floodwaters and landslides, entire hilltops changed place and many rivers altered their course, shifting tremendous sandbanks. The topography changed so much in some cases that not even the inhabitants recognized it. And, of course, the military maps marking the location of anti-personnel mines suddenly became obsolete. Mitch’s furious winds and torrential rains also destroyed the warning signs, placards and tapes; everything that had slowly been done by that time. The areas already combed were no longer necessarily free of mines.
International aid responded to the immediate urgency, but yet another hurricane devastated that humanitarian aid: this time the unscrupulous hand of President Alemán and his political cronies, another internationally recognized fact whose repercussions are still being felt. Nicaragua’s tragic destiny approaches the worst punishments of Greek mythology.
Not only was the de-mining work interrupted, it was made much more dangerous than before. With the maps no longer reliable, the sappers were searching blind. Progress became much slower, and much more dangerous, especially in northern Nicaragua where the mountainous and broken topography impedes the use of motorized minesweepers. Only specialized sappers can operate there, at very high personal risk and financial cost. Many producers, anxious to get their land cleared so they could plant at the start of the following season, exploited the extreme poverty, paying anybody willing to go in and deactivate the explosive traps. How many people died that way? It is difficult to know in an economically dislocated country permanently on the edge of general anarchy and immersed in profound misery.
Each explosion reopens old woundsAnti-personnel mines are the most pernicious, inconceivable vestige that war leaves behind. Their unexpected explosions are like the irregular beat of funeral drums that accompany the long and painful years of relearning to embrace a culture of peace. While brothers who once faced off against each other in war make a thousand efforts to learn to live together, each child thrown through the air by an explosion, each silhouette that appears on the street with a prosthetic, each mutilated mother carrying a child on her hip, each wheelchair that suddenly appears in some community is like a reopened wound. Suddenly, in a matter of seconds, all the images of the war flash before the residents’ eyes as if the events had happened yesterday. These wounds are even more lacerating when the victims are children who had no part or stake in the war and in so many cases were not yet born.
Many organizations are now working on different projects to stop this bloodshed forever. Many of today’s donors, truth be told, are countries that acted “diplomatically” during the war, to use a diplomatic word. I do not want to refer to them in this narrative; nor do I want to refer to the work that the Nicaraguan Army is doing, because that is its obligation and it should not be perceived as glorious. Nor do I want to mention here the organizations or official institutions that have developed this work in recent years with enormous resources. Many people know about their actions because they get the most media attention in opinion columns or in the big headlines. They are good and they will never be enough.
Uriel and Leónidas: What I do want to talk about are the people I met from the Joint ORD-ADRN Commission, one of the poorest organizations in Nicaragua, who are working on the ground in a peace education project. This organization continues to seek a way to reintegrate those with war disabilities from the Sandinista Army or the Nicaraguan Resistance through either the Organization of Disabled Revolutionaries (ORD), created in 1982, or the Association of National Resistance Disabled (ADRN), created a decade later. This extraordinary mutation of two local organizations born out of the war is also one of the few surviving institutional holdovers from that period.
I spoke with Uriel Carazo and Leónidas Pérez, enemies during the war, both of whom were left permanently wounded. They are the coordinators of these two organizations in the department of Madriz, which has nine municipalities and a total of 135,000 inhabitants. The department’s border with Honduras still conceals tens of thousands of active mines. For some years now, Uriel and Leónidas have been working together in the office of the Joint Commission they set up in the city of Somoto. Behind the acronyms of their respective organizations is a devastating war; before them is a luminous labor for humanity. At their request, they are quoted as a single voice.
“We emerged in 1992-93,” they began, “with the demobilization of the Nicaraguan Resistance and the cutting back of the Sandinista Army. Through its Education and Action for Peace Program, the Center for International Studies (CEI) in Managua decided to sponsor the rapprochement between ORD and ADRN. It was hard at first; Sandinistas and contras attended the meetings with their pistols. The CEI organized gatherings that lasted several days, and we all had to sleep in the same dorm room. There were moments when the mere mention of words like “Sandinista” or “resistance” got everybody jumpy. Suddenly somebody would ask: ‘And you, which comando did you belong to?’ ‘And you, which front were you in?’ The memory of the war would quickly get temperatures rising, we’d all get tense and somebody would bark out ‘You were a contra!’ and others would retort ‘And you a piricuaco! [the derogatory term the Resistance used for Sandinista military]. Sometimes we were ready to go for each other’s throats; there was so much tension. The organizers had to move us into different rooms when that happened to avoid problems, just like with immature kids. Now, we get embarrassed just remembering those moments.”
First reconciled; then reconcilers“But we started growing up,” they explain grinning. “With time and mutual effort, we were able to go through two fundamental stages: first reconciling and later being reconcilers. The pioneers of this whole effort were seven people who managed to get beyond the initial tensions: three war-wounded from the Sandinista Army and four from the Nicaraguan Resistance. At the end of 1993, following a series of gatherings, we decided to accept the CEI’s challenge and form the Joint Commission of Disabled for Peace ORD-ARDN. Unfortunately, of all the joint commissions formed, ours in Madriz is the only one still functioning. That may be because the largest fronts were concentrated here during the war, or perhaps because the others thought that when the mines are deactivated in a certain sector there’s no longer any need for the joint commission. It’s a serious mistake.”
“We’ve been working for many years now. That means we’ve matured, grown and learned. We know we can be an example for other regions of Nicaragua and for the world. But this Joint Commission should never stop existing, even if not a single war-wounded person were left in the country: it should continue working permanently on prevention and on education for a culture of peace.”
“Our mission is holistic: it’s not just about de-mining and the prevention of accidents involving any kind of weapons or explosives the war has left behind in the national territory, which are specific Ottawa Convention mandates. Our mission is the full reintegration of those affected and the creation of adequate economic, social and professional conditions—fighting against administrative barriers and prejudices—so that all of us can participate in local development.”
The big mistake of Superman and Wonder Woman“In addition to taking on a raft of administrative tasks related to the simple survival of those with disabilities (bureaucratic procedures, efforts to obtain prostheses, drafting productive projects), we organize specific workshops on environmental protection, gender, community development, rights of the disabled, conflict resolution, consciousness-raising about disabilities and conferences on ethics, justice and peace.
Grassroots educational work plays a central role. Large organizations have come here over the years with the best intentions and a lot of money, but without a clear social vision. And they committed huge mistakes. For example, one organization printed up thousands of copies of a “popular” pamphlet for children on the danger of mines. They pulled a copy out of a box full of the things, showed it to me and I could barely believe my eyes. It was a full-color comic book on glossy paper in which Superman and Wonder Woman play the stellar roles of the children’s “saviors,” whisking them up into the air just as they are about to step on a mine. This publication, which was not only totally inappropriate for what Superman represents in the social imagery, actually made many children want to find mines and put themselves deliberately in harms’ way so that Superman or Wonder Woman would come to rescue them...
War is good business for politicians and the richI asked Uriel and Leónidas how the still-buried mines can be found if the military maps have been rendered obsolete in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. “This is a long and tedious process,” they told me. “The military maps were used from 1993 to 1998, when Hurricane Mitch hit. Afterward, they had to turn to the information that veterans from each side could offer about places—caches—where they were stored and dumps of all kinds of other explosive weapons. Regrettably, we know there is still a lot of clandestine materiel. They’ve also relied on the collaboration of peasants, because they know about and have seen many things, though they prefer not to inform for fear of getting into problems. We make them understand that their help is fundamental to their own safety, that of their children and the few animals they have and to their survival economies.”
I tell them that it seems an enormous paradox that it is now necessary to rely on local people to resolve a problem for which they not only had no responsibility but were and still are the main ones affected.
“Yes, that’s regrettably the case,” they tell me. “War is a business for the bourgeoisie, the rich, the arms manufacturers, the politicians. Those whose lives are sacrificed for the most part are peasant men, women and children. It was when we realized that both contra and Sandinista soldiers had the same problems and were poor that we started working together.
“But we also realized that one of the worst barriers is the cultural and educational pit in which our peasants have been left to drown. It’s titanic work. We have to deal with so many people’s lack of consciousness, and that also has its roots in the lack of basic education and economic impoverishment. For example, many rural producers with economic means don’t inform the authorities when they learn that there’s a mine in one of their fields. To “resolve” the problem quickly, they find some guy who needs money and pay him a hundred córdobas [under $15] to go deactivate it. And then there are people who manage to recover the mines intact, and instead of turning them in to the Army or Police, they use them, for example for fishing. They drop them into the bottom of some natural pond or river and throw rocks at them to make them explode, then gather up all the dead fish that float to the surface. There have been reported accidents related to all these unthinking acts, which also cause environmental damage.”
“The mine destroyed my At the end of the conversation, Uriel and Leónidas related some of their personal experiences with mines during the war.
legs and nearly killed me”
“We can tell what happened to us now, because we’ve gotten past the worst: the temptation to commit suicide, which many feel at some moment if there’s no structure to help them begin a new life, with a new body. We suffered accidents as combatants, not as civilians. This changes the focus a little bit because when you do something out of conviction you don’t have anyone to blame afterwards.”
“I”—here only Uriel is speaking—“stepped on a mine in 1988, in a place called El Doradito, on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. It lifted me into the air. When I landed after the explosion, I was conscious and saw that my legs were destroyed. My immediate thought was that I was going to be disabled for the rest of my life, that people were going to pity me. With that, my first reaction was to grab a grenade and end my life. But a buddy threw himself on top of me and said, ‘If you kill yourself, you’ll kill me too!’ That gesture was what stopped me. By the third day, it was safe enough to get me out of the mountains. When I was released from the hospital months later, I began to do administrative work within the army, supporting the fighters who came to Managua demobilized or wounded. I think that was what gradually began returning the self-esteem I needed. Afterwards I was invited to the first workshops organized by the CEI. And here I am.”
“My story,” related Leónidas, “was less serious than Uriel’s. I was hit by mortar shrapnel, which embedded itself into my back and arm. I don’t have motor problems, but it has affected my personal development in other ways.”
“Unquestionably,” the two continue together again, “these experiences make a person see life differently, although that also depends on other personal and national factors. It also depended on the FSLN’s electoral defeat and the demobilization of both armies. These events ‘shook the tree’ in Nicaragua: some landed on their feet, others flat out and still others on their head. Others kept tenaciously hanging on to the tree. D’you understand what we’re saying here? You don’t have to be poor, to be a peasant and have suffered an accident with a mine to do what we’re doing. But experiencing all that confers a certain authority on us, especially with respect to any politician from the city.”