Hope in a War-Torn Village

Peace-hungry Nicaraguan families struggle for togetherness in a country of blurred loyalties

LIKE many other women in this town on war's frontier, Andrea Alonso has spent most of the last five years waiting. Waiting for Nicaragua's civil war to end. Waiting for this divided community to reunite. And waiting for her husband and three children - all contra fighters - to come home. The fighting has not ended. In fact, when President Daniel Ortega suspended a 19-month-old cease-fire last Wednesday and ordered a new military offensive, Rio Blanco became the focus of conflict once again. Soon thereafter, Mr. Ortega was scheduled to visit this restricted war zone to look into a recent contra attack. But despite the troubling return to war, Mrs. Alonso's patience has already found its reward: Her family has renounced the war and come home.

Last year, soon after the United States cut off military aid to the contras and the cease-fire was signed, her youngest son showed up at the door. Tired of fighting, Ebelio had turned himself in to the Sandinistas, put down his rifle, and signed an amnesty agreement.

A few days later, he went back to the mountains to assure his father and two brothers that the Sandinistas would interrogate them but not harm them. (The human-rights group, Americas Watch, found that from 1987 through early 1989 the Sandinistas were responsible for 74 murders and 14 disappearances - mostly of contra sympathizers and many near Rio Blanco.)

So the Alonso family decided to give up the fight and come home.

Today, Andrea Alonso is surrounded by her family. Inside their bamboo hut, she listens to her oldest son, Leonardo, describe the return to civilian life. His young daughter, Mariyuri, prances across the dirt floor from her grandmother's dress to her father's hands, weaving together the generations. Now associated with neither the Sandinistas nor the contras, the family is insulated, to some extent, from the threat of an intensified war.

Not all families have been so fortunate in this town of 9,000, set providentially against a range of misty green mountains.

Vicente Juarez, a rancher and opposition leader, has seen three of his children go to fight for the contras. His oldest son died in combat in 1985. Another son and daughter remain in the contra organization, holed up with more than 10,000 contras along the Honduran border.

Mr. Juarez's youngest son, an 18-year-old, left school in Rio Blanco several years ago so he wouldn't be drafted by the Sandinista Army. Unlike his siblings, who ran into the arms of the contras, this son now lives on a farm outside of town, trying to avoid fighting for either side.

``In Nicaragua, it's a crime to be young,'' says Vicente Juarez.

Even though the Sandinista draft has been suspended during the past two months in deference to the February presidential elections, teenage boys still face a stark decision. To avoid two years of obligatory Sandinista military service, in which recruits have often been sent to the front lines, a boy may only have one place to hide safely: with the contras.

``It's a war between brothers,'' says Juarez. ``We want it to end so the country can come together as one family.''

Rio Blanco is strategically located between 4,500-foot M'usun Hill and the rolling agricultural lands to the east. For years, the contras have used the sparsely populated corridor to head north to the camps in Honduras or south to their former strongholds in Chontales.

Even during the cease-fire, the Sandinistas were wary of contra attacks. On one recent evening, Claudio Paramo, a lieutenant in charge of a state security outpost here, gathered with two special-battalion commanders. They worried about a contra attack earlier that night on a government ambulance. Today, apparently, the Sandinista fighters have much more to worry about.

Small groups of contras still in Nicaragua are carrying out more frequent ambushes, some with heavy casualties. Ortega blamed those occasional attacks for his suspension of the cease-fire.

Last year, a group of contras killed Hilda Manzanares' husband, the leader of a local Sandinista cooperative. Two of the contras responsible have since taken amnesty and are now living in Rio Blanco.

Mrs. Manzanares' sons want to avenge their father's death, but she is neither bitter nor vengeful: ``We have to forgive everybody if we are ever to end the war.''

It is such signs of forgiveness - and the collective longing for peace they reveal - that threaten to be buried as the Nicaraguan government and the US-backed contras escalate their war of words and weapons again.

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