After seven months of relative quiet, the Nicaraguan countryside is once again in the grip of uncertainty over possible renewed contra rebel attacks. President Daniel Ortega recently claimed that 3,000 contras, having received new nonlethal aid from a United States aid program in Honduras, are infiltrating back into Nicaragua. He claimed they are trying to take advantage of the extensive damage wrought by Hurricane Joan last month.
Less than 24 hours later, on Oct. 29, a group of contras ambushed a truck carrying people from a state coffee farm in Nueva Segovia Province, 200 miles north of Managua, survivors say. Eleven people died in the attack, all but one of them civilians. It was the largest single death toll in any attack reported since before a tentative peace pact was signed on March 23.
Other rebel ambushes have also been reported by local residents, including one on a truck carrying relief supplies to hurricane victims in Chontales Province which left one soldier dead. The rebels also fired on an ambulance, wounding the driver, in the same region as the hurricane swept across the country on Oct. 22.
It is still unclear whether the incidents are part of a larger operation, although rebel leaders deny President Ortega's allegations of an increased infiltration. With 11,000 contras estimated to still be in their Honduran base camps, only small isolated groups are reported to be inside Nicaragua itself.
``They [the rebels] know how to seize the opportune moment, and can best operate in small bands,'' says Gilberto Gutierrez, a farmer and ex-soldier, near the site of the coffee truck ambush. ``They don't have the strength to operate in larger units like before.''
The Sandinistas claim the rebels operate in bands of less than 20 out of an inability to mount the large-scale attacks they carried out routinely before the US Congress stopped military aid in February. Contra ambushes of government vehicles on remote roads have long been common in the six-year war.
In the north, residents and local military authorities say the rebels are targeting the crucial coffee crop, which brings in 40 percent of Nicaragua's annual foreign-exchange earnings. Thousands of pickers are ready to flock into the mountains for the three-month harvest, which is early this year because of the hurricane.
And if as in previous years the rebels want to complicate the harvesting process, their job will be easier because of the extensive damage Hurricane Joan caused in the mountain areas. Two weeks after the storm, washed-out roads have left a dozen communities incommunicado. The hurricane destroyed 66 bridges nationwide, most of which have long been closely guarded military targets.
``The contras may be in worse shape then before, technically,'' a Western diplomat in Managua says. ``But they don't need to do much to disrupt things given that the situation is already so bad. And they appear poised to do whatever they can.''
Government troops are now deployed along the narrow dirt roads which wind through the rugged area, signaling drivers with colored flags around both mudslides and possible rebel movements. Much of the coffee will have to brought out under guard on mule back as it will be months before damages can be repaired.
Since the hurricane, transport trucks have been carrying large numbers of Sandinista troops and new equipment to the war zones. And a new recruitment drive is under way, including mobilizing military reservists.
In the south-central part of the country which suffered the most immediate hurricane damage, military authorities close the main roads at night as contra movements have been detected in the area.
Most people are busy with the slow clean-up process in those towns which were badly flooded, and are awaiting delivery of materials to construct new houses. An estimated 180,000 homeless remain in schools and other public buildings where they sought refuge as the hurricane ripped across the country.
Although the main towns are easily defended, more problems may arise as relief aid gets channeled to remote villages, most of which are accessible only by foot or donkey. Some officials are reportedly reluctant to send supplies into the hills, fearing that the rebels can easily appropriate them for their own use.
``Area leaders are going to meet this week to discuss what to do about delivering aid to the destroyed villages in the bush,'' said Dolores Baez, a community leader in La Esperanza, 170 miles east of Managua. ``The contras are sure to be around and about, but what can you do?''
As in the north, officials say the contras are operating in smaller groups adding to the climate of uncertainty. On the night of Nov. 3 someone ambushed a Toyoto jeep on the main highway near the provincial capital of Juigalpa, killing private cattle rancher Jos'e Eli Urbina.
It could have been the contras, mistaking the vehicle for a government-owned jeep. Some locals suggest it was the government, or possibly armed thieves. But the uncertainty which hangs in the air is again palpable.