A family divided by war. Nicaraguan homes suffer the pain of civil conflict
Matagalpa, Nicaragua — Teodora Fley is a rugged, 77-year-old woman who still has the energy to chase after errant chickens in her yard and run a household of 20 people, including children, in-laws, and grandchildren. But she is tired of the war that has gone on for six years in the mountains around Matagalpa.
She is tired too, she says, of the dread that hangs over her as she awaits news of her sons. ``Three times the paper said he was dead: `Comandante Johnson is dead.' Thank God they were wrong.''
``Comandante Johnson'' is the nom de guerre of Luis Fley, leader of the Nicaraguan contra rebels' 15th of September Command, which roams the mountains of Matagalpa Province. Luis is one of Teodora's 12 sons. She also has two daughters.
The news of the death of another son, however, was not premature. Enrique Fley was a lieutenant in the Sandinista Army when he was killed by a Jan. 5 rebel ambush in Jinotega Province, north of Matagalpa. Two other Fley sons serve in the Sandinista Army, both officers.
The Fleys - Teodora's husband, Federico is a spry 82 - are like many Nicaraguans whose families have been split by the 1979 revolution and United States-backed counterrevolution.
So for them, the cease-fire signed March 23 brings a double blessing. ``As a mother with sons on both sides, I ask God that they will sign'' a peace pact, Teodora said in an interview in her living room, as her timid granddaughters peeked around the doorway at the strangers.
``It has been very hard these years,'' Teodora said, when asked how she has fared knowing the one son could be holding another in his rifle sights.
``You know, mothers support their sons 100 percent, all of them. ... At least now I don't have to worry about bad news,'' she added, waving her hand as if to ward it off. I still don't understand [Enrique's] death.''
On a wall map of Nicaragua at the contra office in Miami last week, Luis Fley pointed to the area where his brother Enrique was killed.
``Around in here somewhere. It was an ambush.'' When asked how he felt about his brother's death, Comandante Johnson replied: ``It wasn't my troops.''
Despite the bitterness one would expect among brothers so divided, the Fleys say their sons have not stopped being family.
Indeed, during a unilateral cease-fire called by the Sandinistas late last year, Francisco Fley left his Army unit and went in search of his brother Luis in the mountains.
When the two met, they spent 10 days together ``talking of the family, fishing ... maybe they talked about the amnesty [the government had offered the contras]. They are still brothers,'' Teodora said.
Luis and his three brothers - Enrique, Jorge, and Francisco - all fought with the Sandinistas during the struggle to oust the Somoza dictatorship.
Luis's three brothers have been in the Sandinista Army since 1979.
Luis left for Honduras to join the contras in early 1981 when they were still a ragtag group being trained by Argentine military advisers.
``I saw things I didn't like. What the Sandinistas were doing were not the things I had fought for,'' Luis explained, but not in further detail.
So one day, his mother said, Luis told the family he was going to Managua to buy some things. She has not seen him since.
Luis's father, Federico, is less charitable than Teodora about his son's allegiances. ``I don't agree with him. No.'' The contras ``are all criminals. They commit great crimes ... they rob people ... take the shoes from people.''
``They never fight against [Sandinista] battalions, they come and kill one [person], rob, take off. They are just inflicting costs to the economy ... blowing up power lines, attacking [farm] cooperatives,'' he said.
Luis ``was a good Sandinista before ... but he left for personal reasons. It was not political.''
Teodora said Luis, a hardworking man, had earned the jealousy of his neighbors for being successful.
Rumors spread that Luis was feeding the contras in the area, and he was unjustly jailed twice.
Luis never gave detailed reasons for leaving.
When asked why, then, his son would endure for years the severe life of a mountain guerrilla, the old man leaned forward, and his heavily lined face tightened at the mouth as he held up his hand and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. ``He is fighting for dollars, and for no other cause ... they are all paid in dollars,'' he said, referring to the contra leadership.
Yet despite the harsh condemnation of his son's choice, when told a reporter might see Luis in Miami or Managua at the talks that were scheduled to be held today, Federico's weathered face softened. Taking the hand of a reporter, he whispered: ``If you see him, tell him I send greetings and hugs.''
That scores or even hundreds of Nicaraguan families like the Fleys have been divided by the war weighs heavily on the process of national reconciliation expected to come from the cease-fire talks. This is particularly true, as many contra soldiers, and some Sandinista troops, have operated in the areas near where they were born and raised.
The implication that local boys have been killing each other all these years, and the recriminations from that, could haunt Nicaragua for years, dividing towns and families.
For while Luis Fley is certain it was not his troops that killed his brother three months ago, that may not be the case later if the peace talks fail, and Nicaragua's remaining Cains and Abels resume the shooting war.