For Nicaraguan teens, peace plan offers chance for normal life

Every afternoon on the local playground, 17-year-old Carlos Guti'errez hones his basketball moves under the blazing tropical sun. At first glance, the rangy Nicaraguan teen-ager seems like any schoolboy pursuing a dream. Sometimes as he makes a drive to the basket, he even pretends to be American star Michael Jordan.

But for Carlos, perfecting his jump shot is a matter of life and death: If he fails to make the national youth team later this year, he says, his next position could be on the front lines of Nicaragua's war against the US-backed contra rebels.

In June, six of Carlos's friends were drafted into the Sandinista Army. As part of their Patriotic Military Service, a requirement for all males between 17 and 40, they were taken to the hills of northern Nicaragua to repel the contras.

Two of them returned last month in body bags.

Since last Thursday, when President Daniel Ortega Saavedra called for indirect talks with the contras, there has been a flicker of hope that the guns may soon be silenced, that fewer young men on both sides will end up like Carlos's friends. And now that President Reagan has shown a desire to talk with the Sandinistas, that flicker has become a flame.

But the Sandinistas - like the contras - show no signs of stopping the recruitment that has swelled their Army from 24,000 in 1981 to over 100,000 today, including more than 50,000 reserves.

For all but the most privileged young men here, the future still means two years of active military duty followed by many more years in the reserves. Even after returning to civilian life, on-call reserves are mobilized several months per year.

Resentment against the Patriotic Military Service has been rising since the end of 1984, when press reports of draft dodgers started coming out of Nicaragua. In recent months the resentment has intensified as reservists have been asked to serve for as much as five months a year.

In Dario, a village one-and-a-half hours north of Managua, the three grown sons of Adriana Villacorta (not her real name), hide from Army recruiters in the surrounding hills. One night last summer they were abruptly awakened by soldiers and taken away for three months of training. Now they are avoiding reserve duty - with the help of their family.

Indeed, amid the country's crippling economic crisis, it is often a hardship when able-bodied sons go off to the Army.

Jorge Jir'on Garc'ia, a Managua taxi driver, struggles to make enough money to feed his six children. His 20-year-old son, an Army reserve, spent five months away from home on duty last year. Now he's patroling the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. ``Just when I need him most, he's out in the jungle,'' Mr. Jir'on says.

Not everyone feels resentment, however. Even Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, once a harsh critic of the obligatory military duty, recently revised his position. Now he considers it something to be complied with as the law of the land.

Carlos accepts military duty as necessary. Even after what happened to his friends, he says, ``I won't flee. We all have to do our part to defend our country.''

Martin Flores, a 25-year-old taxidermist from the southern lakeside village of Sapoa, has proudly fought with the Sandinistas for eight years. Leading a visitor past rows of stuffed crocodiles, he points out his loaded, Soviet-made rifle. Nodding at the other men in the shop, all of whom are reserves, he says: ``We always have to be ready to protect the nation.''

If peace negotiations bear fruit, Nicaragua's young men - whether hiding in the hills, fighting on the lines, or polishing their jump shots - will have a brighter future.

``It doesn't matter who brings peace,'' says taxi driver Jir'on. ``It could come from Daniel Ortega or Ronald Reagan. But the important thing is that we find a way to end to the senseless violence.''

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