Ex-enemies unite to fight regime War: Former Sandinistas and contras say Nicaragua has broken its promises to them, so together they bear arms against the government.

Sun Journal

August 08, 1998|By Edward Hegstrom | Edward Hegstrom,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PALOMAR, Nicaragua -- The newspapers say the Nicaraguan civil war ended eight years ago, but Comandante Modesto Olivar swears it isn't true.

A Sandinista combat fighter who joined the movement 20 years ago at age 16, Olivar never adjusted to civilian life after the Sandinista leaders and the U.S.-backed contras reached a peace agreement in 1990.

So, the comandante recently dragged out his old AK-47 assault rifle and retreated into this remote, malaria-ridden tropical forest, where he has joined 200 ex-Sandinista fighters who refuse to give up the war.

The rebels, known as the Andres Castro United Front, control this vast, roadless wilderness along the Wani River. They say they are combating crime in this sparsely populated region of thatched-roof huts and small cattle farms. They say they won't put down their arms until the Nicaraguan government fulfills a long-standing promise to provide them with food, land and job training.

`You can't end a war overnight when there is no work for the soldiers,` says Olivar, a scraggly-bearded rebel who has stopped to rest his platoon of 15 soldiers at the edge of this small village, 15 miles from the nearest dirt road and further still from the conveniences of modern civilization.

`The government cheated us, so we fight on,` Olvar says.

Long forgotten by the rest of the world, the Nicaraguan civil war lives on in the isolated north of the country. A thousand or more ex-contras, ex-Sandinistas and Miskito Indians who fought alongside the contras refuse to give up their life of combat.

The government claims that the number of rearmed soldiers has diminished lately, but the rebels still have the power to destabilize a vast region of the country stretching from the city of Matagalpa to the Atlantic Coast.

Miskito Indians known as Yatima stormed a Nicaraguan Army fort on the northern Atlantic coast this year, taking seven soldiers prisoner until the government negotiated their release.

In mid-June, a previously unknown group of former Sandinistas calling itself the Revolutionary Armed Forces ambushed a Nicaraguan Army patrol in the state of Matagalpa, killing four soldiers. No rebels were killed or captured.

Starting young

`The level of violence in the north is still extremely high,` says Marc Gagnon, a Canadian diplomat in Managua. `There may be fewer of these fighters now, but those who are left are the hard core, the last banditos, the John Waynes of Nicaragua.`

Not all the fighters are grizzled veterans. Government officials say that boys as young as 13 are re- cruited as foot soldiers, leading to concern that the combat lifestyle may continue for generations.

Many countries face difficulties adjusting to peace after a long civil war, but few have had a debacle like Nicaragua's. The problems began after the election of Violeta Chamorro to the presidency in 1990, ending the 11-year rule of the Marxist Sandinistas -- and the contra movement's attempts to overthrow them.

'It's the only life we know'

Nearly 150,000 ex-combatants were out of work.

`We were trained as soldiers,` says Alejandro Navarro, 42, a member of the Andres Castro Front who joined the Sandinistas before they came to power in the 1970s and then saw combat throughout the 1980s. `It's the only life we know.`

The government claims to have spent $200 million to reintegrate the former combatants, but most of the money did not go into retraining and employment programs. Instead, flat compensation was given to individuals. Some received land; a few got money or automobiles. Many never received anything.

Much of the land proved worthless because the titles were in dispute, so the new holders often abandoned it. The money was spent -- sometimes on drink -- and the cars were crashed and not repaired.

With nothing left, the ex-combatants took up arms. By 1993, as many as 25,000 former fighters had rearmed, and the north of the country was again a war zone. At first, ex-contras and ex-Sandinistas fought each other, until they realized they had a common enemy: the Chamorro government. New bands of rebels appeared in which former contras and Sandinistas fought together.

Broken treaties

The government has negotiated many disarmament treaties but has not always honored its pledges, prompting the rebels to rearm all over again.

`It became a vicious cycle,` says Marcelo Ochoa, a United Nations official who oversees the government's disarmament program. Government representatives say they will no longer negotiate with rebel groups. The army recently threatened to mount a major offensive against them. "There is no longer any legitimate reason for rebel groups to exist,` says Capt. Milton Sandoval. `What exist are bands of delinquents.`

It is true that many former combatants form gangs that rape, rob and kidnap, but others rearm to protect themselves and their neighbors from the gangs.

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