Crouched near the evening campfire after a long day's march, a CIA-trained commando leader concedes that he joined the contra forces not because of politics but because he couldn't find a job after he fled from Nicaragua. If the rebels ever defeat the Sandinista government, 19-year-old Jaime Zeledon Benavides is certain they will return his family's 4,300-acre farm, which was confiscated under Nicaragua's agrarian reform program.
This reporter spent a week interviewing scores of rebels operating from the 4,000-man command base of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN).
The only condition placed on visiting the command center, which has been pounded by Nicaraguan Army artillery at least three times in the past two years, was that journalists should not disclose whether it was in Honduras or Nicaragua.
The command center is high in the hills near the Coco River, which forms part of the border between the two countries. The camp has a hospital, training schools, military radio facilities, and warehouses filled with supplies. Signs designate ``parking'' for vehicles used by the commanders and oficina de motorpool.
About one-quarter of the top contra commanders belonged to the National Guard of the late President Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who was toppled as Nicaragua's strong man leader in 1979.
In an interview at the camp the guerrillas' military chieftain, Col. Enrique Bermudez, said that 13 of the top 50 rebel leaders were former guardsmen and that many of the contras' pilots and other lower-level officers had served in Somoza's National Guard. But the majority -- perhaps even three-quarters -- of the FDN's 10,000 to 16,000 infantrymen are peasants. Many of them are illiterate and some are under 14 years of age.
Many of the peasants said they joined the contras because of Sandinista human rights abuses. Others crossed into Honduras to escape the Sandinistas' campaign of forcibly moving villagers out of areas, such as Madriz Province, where the contras are active. Peasants repeatedly have charged that soldiers burned their homes to ensure they would not return.
There have been repeated allegations that the contras kidnapped peasants and forced them to join the rebel army. Rebels deny this, however, saying all members are volunteers. Recent reports by private United States organizations have criticized the contras for attacking towns and killing government and health workers.
Other youths, especially those from the middle class, say they joined FDN to dodge the Sandinista Army draft. A smaller part of the contras' army comes from Somoza's police, and a few combatants are from wealthy families. Among the latter is Jaime Zeledon Benavides, a native of the northern Nicaraguan province of Esteli.
``We still have the title to our land and we expect to get it back,'' says Mr. Benavides.
The FDN, the largest of Nicaragua's four main guerrilla groups, has built a network of militiamen who defend rebel areas under attack and provide military cover for retreating contra troops.
The FDN leaders say the goal of their organization always has been to topple the Sandinista government. They scoff at past statements by the Reagan administration that the original reason for forming the contra forces was to intercept weapons that Nicaragua allegedly was sending to the leftist rebels in nearby El Salvador.
``We haven't analyzed what the country will be like after overthrowing the Sandinista regime,'' Bermudez says. ``The people will decide what type of government they want.''
But Bermudez is worried about the debate in Washington on whether to renew US financing for the rebels. The high number of troops at the rebel base appears to confirm that there are insufficient funds to equip fighters to fan out more fully in Nicaragua's northern provinces. Congress is expected to vote on the funding today.
The cutoff of American funds last June appears to have caused far fewer problems for the FDN than for the other major contra forces.
One officer of the Misura Indian Force, which operates mainly in Nicaragua's east coast province of Zelaya, says more than half of his organization's 5,000 combatants had sought sanctuary in refugee camps on the Honduran side of the border because they lacked sufficient supplies to continue fighting within Nicaragua. The Misura officer repeatedly criticized the FDN for refusing to share its supplies and funds with his organization.
To replace the lost American CIA funding, which reportedly had totaled some $80 million over the past four years, the contras say they have received private donations and supplies secretly channeled through other countries. During this reporter's visit to the rebel zone, 1,000 Spanish-made old-model G-3 automatic rifles were delivered by truck to the command center.
``They came from friendly nations in the area,'' said Silverio Hernandez, a Cuban-American volunteer who was coordinating weapons repairs. He refused to say what countries had supplied them. Observers say the arms were probably purchased on the black market and funneled through several countries.
The rebels run their main supply lines through Honduras, as they have done for several years. Bermudez showed journalists a map with routes used by the contras' airplanes, initiating from El Aguacate, an isolated town where the Hondurans have an important military base. The flight routes continue over the command center and terminate at several points within Nicaragua.
The contras appear to have demonstrated that they can survive without US government aid. Some crates in tents at the camp carried the inscription of the Guatemalan Army. (Guatemala does not receive US military aid.) Contributions flow in from various sources.
But over the long run, it may be far more difficult to continue the war as more and more combatants realize they probably must live without victory. Virtually no independent military specialist expects the rebels to march into Managua unless there is a dramatic change in the direction of the war.
In conversations with members of the elite commando unit, two of the guerrillas asked about the possibility of asylum in the United States or other countries.
``If I could find a job anywhere outside of Nicaragua,'' one commando said, ``I'd take it.''