Almost four years ago, Sandinista government forces went into the jungled regions at the edge of the northern Coco river and forced thousands of Nicaraguan Indians to abandon their homes. The relocation was intended at least in part to deny anti-Sandinista Miskito Indian rebels civilian aid.
Many Indians were deeply alienated by the relocation and by the tactics used, which included burning houses. Reagan administration officials denounced the relocation as a major human rights abuse.
Since the relocation, thousands of Atlantic Coast people, principally Miskito and Sumu Indians, have crossed the Coco River into Honduras. Some are rebuilding their lives; some are joining the anti-Sandinista guerrillas; and some are still on the move.
The Indians have strong ties to their homeland, and particularly to the Coco River. Before the 1979 revolution they were for the most part ignored, left to fish and farm in their villages or work salaried jobs in the mines and other Atlantic Coast industries.
In an effort to duplicate their home environment, representatives from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Honduras have resettled about 7,500 Indians in new communities along, on, or near the Patuca River. In recent months, about 4,000 more left the UNHCR camp to start villages on the Honduran side of the Coco River and another 4,000 are still at the Mocoron refugee camp.
``If you ask refugees if they are happy, they rarely say yes,'' said Louise Druke, deputy representative for the UNHCR in Honduras. ``But they have gone quite a few steps [in improving their situation].''
Many of the Indian refugees are believed to be involved to some extent with the Miskito anti-Sandinista rebels. A reporter, recently returned from a trip to the Coco river region in Honduras, said some of the non-UNHCR refugee settlements there were within five miles of a camp for rebels from the Misura organization.
``One way or another, they are involved from the time they leave Nicaragua,'' said Armstrong Wiggins, a US-based representative for the Misurasata Indian organization, who works for the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington.
``Everyone is trying to support their daughters and sons who are fighting,'' Mr. Wiggins said.
The Sandinistas this year are making their strongest effort to mend relations with the Indians. They are permitting all of the relocated Indians to return to their homes. They have promised to grant autonomy to the Atlantic Coast population of Miskito, Sumu, Rama Indians, and Creoles.
Resolving the conflict, however, may be a long haul. The Sandinistas' ceasefire negotiations with Misurasata rebel leader, Brooklyn Rivera, have stalled. Representatives from the Indian Law Resource Center said the refugees in Honduras are still wary of the Sandinistas, despite this year's efforts.
``The war is not over,'' said Steven Tullberg from the Indian Law Resouce Center. ``After three to four years in camps, these people have not been turned into Sandinistas.''