Nicaragua's rebels: numbers and civilian support are growing

Two years ago Jos'e Noel Cruz abandoned his wife, their four children, and his tiny plot of land outside this mountainous village to join the anti-Sandinista guerrillas, known here as the contras. His wife, Jacinta Torres, says that contras roaming near their home in the rugged northwest hills talked to him about the Sandinistas' ``communist, anti-Christian'' government and promised its quick overthrow.

After 12 weeks of training in Honduras Mr. Cruz returned to Nicaragua because he missed his family, his wife says. But he was not able to resume normal life. Nine months after his return, he was forcibly recruited by the contras.

``They fooled him the first time and then they just took him away,'' his wife says.

The Nicaraguan government says many more have been taken -- kidnapped, it says -- by the contras. The rebels kidnapped 1,969 Nicaraguans into Honduras in 1984 alone, it says.

The contras, on the other hand, say more than 7,000 people voluntarily joined the rebel cause last year.

These figures could not be independently confirmed. Many organizations consider figures from both sides as suspect.

But in four years of fighting, it is clear that the contras have had an impact in northern Nicaragua. Interviews with contra leaders, peasants, and sources in the Sandinista government and military indicate the rebels move freely in the region.

They say the contras have gradually built up a support system among civilians in the mountain strip along the Honduran border. Sandinista soldiers in the war zones describe 10 villages in Jinotega Province and at least five in Estel'i as ``with the contras.'' In sections of Nueva Segovia there is presumed to be regular civilian collaboration with the contras.

Military sources say there is also collaboration with contras on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, where the Miskito Indian rebels are fighting.

Leaders of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the main Honduras-based rebel group, say civilians provide them with food, shelter, and clothing because they are discontented with the Sandinista government.

``The people of Nicaragua are collaborating more with us,'' FDN military chief Enrique Bermudez asserted in a recent BBC radio interview. ``The [Sandinista] Army has a low morale. The [nation's] economic problems are very severe,'' he said.

Most of the collaborators are peasants, rebel sources indicate, but there is some support from members of the Sandinista military and other Sandinista organizations, they say.

Interviews with campesinos and Sandinista representatives suggest that peasant aid to the contras is largely passive and has little to do with strong commitment to a rebel victory in Nicaragua.

Some peasants say they are forced or intimidated into supplying food, shelter, and recruits to the rebels.

``You don't play with men with guns,'' said a resident of a camp near Asturias, in Jinotega. Campesinos in resettlement camps in Jinotega and Estel'i say that, as unarmed civilians in a war zone, they have little choice but to cooperate with both the contras and the Sandinistas.

But others help the contras because they are genuinely frustrated with the Sandinista government or because they have family members who are contras. Still others say they are so angry about the national draft, instituted last year, that they feel they should join the contras.

Earlier this year, the Nicaraguan government began relocating more than 40,000 peasants in parts of the five northern provinces to areas under Sandinista control -- an effort aimed in part at cutting off civilian aid to the contras.

``The influence of the enemy was so strong in some areas [that] it was difficult to counteract,'' says Horacio Lander, operations chief for a Sandinista military brigade in the Estel'i. ``By taking people out we can try to win them for the [Sandinista] revolution and take away the contras' social base,'' he says.

Only a dozen of some 100 people at the camp to which Jacinta Torres was moved were men. ``The majority of the rest left with the contras,'' says the Sandinista representative in charge of the camp.

Sandinista officials say the defection of Nicaraguans to the contras does not constitute a major problem for their government. But they admit that in the most isolated regions, campesinos have less contact with the ``benefits of the revolution'' and thus are more willing to collaborate with the contras.

The FDN's Bermudez says: ``It's true that in some areas, the Sandinista militia is very well organized, but it's also certain that in some areas, especially in northern and central Nicaragua, the militia has passed over to our side,'' he said.

Several recent reports issued by private American organizations -- including the human rights group Americas Watch and the ecumenical Witness for Peace -- have criticized the contras for attacking civilian towns and killing government health and education workers.

Contra recruits are frequently sent to fight in their home territory, where family and friends are likely to offer food and shelter. ``If the contras kidnapped my son and he returned eight months later, I'd feel a moral obligation to help him,'' said a Sandinista front representative in the provincial capital of Matagalpa, suggesting he would provide food or shelter.

But rebel penetration south of the five northern provinces appears to be small. The contras have yet to take and hold a town. Most of their attacks and ambushes are made in isolated, sparsely populated regions. Contra leaders admit they have yet to develop a strong clandestine political organization.

But FDN leader Adolfo Calero says the FDN relies on the Nicaraguan domestic political opposition group known as the Coordinadora. ``We don't need to have our own political organization. We rely on their [domestic opposition] work.''

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