Both sides' veterans dropped by patrons

November 17, 1996|By Mark Fazollah

MANAGUA, Nicaragua - In a tragic form of postwar unity, former Sandinista soldiers and contra rebels hobble together through the hallways at Managua's Rehabilitation Hospital to have their prostheses refitted.

Some have wooden legs that have cracked. Some have artificial limbs whose internal bushings have worn out. Some amputees have simply lost weight and their prostheses no longer fit them.

"No one fights here," said Eddy Garcia, who directs the state hospital's prosthesis manufacturing center. "They all come for the same reason."

When the Cold War ended, Nicaragua virtually fell off the political map. Gone are the impassioned speeches of former President Ronald Reagan, who once declared: "I am a contra." And gone is the lavish European aid that paid to shuttle many wounded Sandinista soldiers across the Atlantic for surgery.

Nicaragua now ranks second only to Haiti as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. U.S. aid is down by 90 percent from the assistance in 1990 and 1991.

For victims of the decade-long contra war, the drop in foreign attention and money has been devastating. No matter which side he was on, virtually the only assistance that a disabled veteran receives in Nicaragua is a pension of about $20 a month and such health care as is available at state hospitals. The hundreds of peasants who were maimed don't even get that.

Amputees regularly must have their prostheses replaced, but locally financed agencies have been unable to meet their needs. Former combatants often must wait months to obtain care.

Carlos Leiva's left leg was amputated in 1986 after he was shot while fighting in the Sandinista army. His artificial leg has been replaced several times, and the prosthesis he now uses makes a loud clicking noise when he bends at the knee because its inner bearings have broken. At first, his treatment was paid for by leftist European groups in "solidarity" with the Sandinistas.

"Before, the committees for solidarity provided prostheses," said Leiva, who was fitted with his first artificial leg in Czechoslovakia. "Now, they are gone."

The Czech prosthesis lasted two years. Since then, he said, he has needed replacements an average of once every year, and there is always a long waiting list for government health care.

Denis Martinez, 27, was a contra guerrilla in 1988 when he was seriously wounded in northern Nicaragua. It cost him his right leg.

Martinez said the Americans immediately flew him to Miami for surgery and paid for his high-tech aluminum and plastic artificial leg. But the leg never worked properly on the muddy hillside where he lives in northern Matagalpa province.

Artificial limbs may be made of wood or plastic, but because they wear out - and because the human bodies they are attached to grow and change - they are not permanent. Garcia of the Rehabilitation Hospital said an amputee may have to have as many as 20 replacements during a lifetime. Garcia's tiny production plant, the only one in Nicaragua, manufactures about 40 prostheses a month - not nearly all that are needed.

"There is always a demand," Garcia said. "The problem is the economic situation."

Donal N. "Mike" O'Callaghan, the former Democratic governor of Nevada who served as an observer during Nicaragua's Oct. 20 election, said virtually every amputee from the war now is due for a new prosthesis.

O'Callaghan, who lost his left leg above the knee in the Korean War, helped bring about 100 amputees and other wounded contras to resettle in Nicaragua after the war ended in 1990. Now, many of them urgently need help, he said.

"Your stump will shrink," said Callaghan, who wears a prosthesis. "It's been six years. They're damn well due for a change."

Roger Noriega, an aide to Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, characterized the disabled contras as "the canary in the coal mine." He said Washington has largely ignored Nicaragua since the end of the war.

"I think we do have a moral obligation to these people," said Noriega, who traveled to Nicaragua in 1990 to meet with contra amputees. "They do need special help."

He said that even in 1990, it was clear the high-tech prostheses that the United States had provided were poorly adapted to Nicaragua. "What the Americans had outfitted them with was so sophisticated that it would be difficult for them to maintain," he said.

Noriega said some form of assistance must be given, not to just the crippled former contras, but also to the disabled Sandinista soldiers. Both sides were basically peasant armies, he said. "They're all cut from the same cloth."

Elliott Abrams was a point man for the Reagan administration on Nicaragua; an outspoken advocate of military aid to the contras throughout the 1980s, he eventually pleaded guilty to lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra affair and was pardoned by President George Bush.

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