Nicaragua: a siren to many foreigners. `Rucksack revolutionaries' lured by romance of struggle

The eight West Germans kidnapped three weeks ago by Nicaraguan ``contra'' rebels were released Tuesday evening minutes after the deadline set by the Sandinista government. The eight workers were left in a village 12 miles from where they had been seized by the rebels on May 17. All were said to be in good health.

The freed hostages are just a few of the several thousand North Americans and Europeans who annually come to do their bit for the development of Sandinista Nicaragua.

The Germans had been working as part of a volunteer construction brigade on an agricultural cooperative 93 miles southeast of Managua, building houses for people displaced by the government's war against the contras.

The most visible of the internacionalistas are the young ``rucksack revolutionaries'' -- visitors attracted by the romance of revolution and the whiff of war. But their habit of changing money on the black market and overstaying their visas has prompted a stiffer attitude from the Sandinista authorities, who now insist that all visitors must show they have $200 and a return ticket when they enter the country.

More committed to the revolution are the brigadistas, the some 4,000 people who come here annually to spend about a month doing the sort of jobs Nicaraguans would normally do but can't because so many have been conscripted to fight the rebels.

Paying their own way, the brigadistas build schools and clinics, harvest coffee and cotton, and learn what life in a third-world revolution is like on the inside. Their work is often as symbolic as it is practical, but the authorities are glad to have it anyway. ``All we ask from the brigadistas is their voluntarism and their desire to contribute to the revolution with moral as much as practical support,'' said Silvia Mcewan, head of the nongovernmental Nicaraguan Committee in Solidarity with the Peoples, which coordinates the work brigade.

``I came here because in addition to opposing US aggression, I support the revolution,'' said Dan Perlstein, a New York teacher who spent a month planting trees in Nicaragua late last year. ``I wanted to try to understand a revolutionary society and to be in the countryside to see another side of life.''

Such visitors are running increasing risks, as the Germans' experience illustrates. Two internacionalistas have been killed in contra attacks this year. A clandestine rebel radio station warned last month that rebel forces regarded ``all foreigners who come to implant communism in Nicaragua'' as legitimate targets.

At particular risk, because of their extended stays in remote parts of the country, are foreign doctors who have helped boost government health services while Nicaraguan physicians are being trained to replace those who left after the 1979 revolution. Alongside 500 Cubans, an equal number of European and North American doctors work for the Ministry of Health.

While Sandinista supporters mix political and humanitarian motives here, the rebels have also attracted practical foreign assistance from former military men politically committed to their cause and eager for action. Soldier of Fortune magazine organizes groups of US mercenaries to train Nicaraguan Democratic Force guerrillas, as does the Alabama-based Civilian Military Assistance [CMA] run by former policeman Tom Posey.

Such military advisers are known to operate in and over Nicaraguan territory. Two American CMA members died in a helicopter crash in Nicaragua in September 1984. Another American was killed when the Sandinistas shot down his helicopter last year.

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