Miskito Indians rebuild their lives from ground up. But many are not satisfied with Nicaraguan leaders' autonomy plan

``I was born here and it's better that I also die here,'' says Angela Hernandez. ``This is my home.'' Ms. Hernandez is one of a group of Miskito Indians who have returned to their homes in this village on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast after two years in an inland resettlement camp.

In the three months since their return, the 55 Miskito families have reconstructed most of their houses and begun replanting their fields in the swampy lowlands.

Their return is part of the Nicaraguan government's effort to mend relations with the Miskito, Sumo, and Rama Indians as well as the blacks and Creoles who live along the Atlantic coast.

In what diplomats, academics, and political analysts have called one of the ruling Sandinistas' worst political mistakes, government forces started a massive relocation program from the northern Rio Coco in 1981. The relocation was partly aimed at reducing any potential civilian support bases for the ``contra'' forces fighting to overthrow the Sandinistas.

Thousands of Indians were forced to abandon their homes on the Rio Coco. Villages were burned to keep the Indians from returning. Some 15,000 of the Indians were resettled in camps, and thousands more fled across the border into Honduras.

The government has announced that all the Indians will be allowed to return to their villages on the Atlantic coast this year. The Sandinistas have promised to grant the Indians autonomy and are negotiating a cease-fire with the two Miskito Indian rebel organizations:

The Misura, led by Steadman Fagoth, is directly allied to the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN). The FDN is a US-backed contra group based in Honduras.

The Misurasata, headed by Brooklyn Rivera, is split into two factions. One group wants nothing to do with the FDN. The other faction is more disposed toward an alliance with the FDN but does not have direct ties with it.

Residents of the four Tasba Pri resettlement camps, where most of the Indians were relocated, say the Sandinistas were providing them with plots of land and a steady supply of food.

But the Indians say they still want to go home, primarily because of strong cultural ties to their homeland and particularly to the Rio Coco area.

The Sandinistas' efforts to make amends include what Interior Minister Tom'as Borge Mart'inez has called an ``audacious'' autonomy plan that will allow the Indians to govern themselves, ensure their land rights, and guarantee the preservation of their language and culture.

Some Indian activists are optimistic about the program of autonomy, which is expected to be incorporated into a new Nicaraguan constitution that will be drawn up this year. The constitution will the first for the Sandinista government, which has been in power since 1979.

``It is a good first step that we hope will contribute to an easing of tension,'' says Armando Rojas, a member of the government-appointed autonomy commission.

However, some other activists distrust the Sandinistas' motives. Most of the autonomy-commission members are considered pro-Sandinista. Its director, Minister Borge, is widely considered the most hard line of the nine-man Sandinista directorate.

Borge and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra have said in recent speeches that the autonomy plan must be within the framework of the ``revolution'' and ``anti-imperialism.''

``The Miskitos don't feel that this work is theirs,'' Miskito activist Burnthon Benjamin says.

Misurasata leader Rivera has said that any unilateral government autonomy plan not including participation of the Miskito rebels will be little more than a whitewash.

Indians who were returning to their villages on the Atlantic coast were grateful to be going home. The government supplied some assistance to these Indians. In two villages the Indians said they had been taken back to their homes in trucks, and that the Red Cross and the government social-welfare agency were providing them with basic foods. But, the Indians said, they were rebuilding their villages on their own.

One Indian, Douglas Webster has finished his new house -- an airy, wooden structure built on low stilts on the plot he left here two years ago. The burnt rubble from his old house is now barely visible.

Full reconciliation with the Indians, however, may be difficult for the Sandinistas. Civilian support for the Miskito rebels -- some of whom hope to topple the Sandinista government -- appears to be considerable.

While making a trip through several towns and resettlement camps outside of Puerto Cabezas, three journalists were detained at gunpoint by Miskito rebels within minutes of being told that no contras had passed by for six months.

The 30 rebels who seized the journalists seemed able to operate freely. They came out from the jungle and assembled on the road. They spoke easily with the civilians, consulting with them before releasing the journalists an hour and a half later.

Although few people on the coast seemed familiar with the autonomy plan, many recalled with bitterness the relocation.

``They burned all the houses and killed all the animals,'' says Angela Hammonds in front of her house in Kwakwil. ``We couldn't take anything when we left. The children were nearly nude.''

``They killed my father and mother,'' said one of the Miskito rebels. ``We're here to fight until the end.''

The Monitor incorrectly stated in its July 16 issue that two Miskito Indian rebel organizations -- the Misurasata and the Misura -- are holding negotiations with the Sandinistas of Nicaragua. Talks with a leader of the Misurasata, Brooklyn Rivera, are stalled. Talks were held with only one faction of the Misura, which resulted in a cease-fire agreement in late May. Steadman Fagoth, considered by many to be the Misura's leader, has never held negotiations with the Sandinistas.

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