Contra Camp: Life in Limbo

Disinclined to disarm, the rebels bide Their time near Nicaraguan border

IT is Central America's forgotten army. As the war rages in El Salvador and the election campaign heats up in Nicaragua, more than 10,000 Nicaraguan contra rebels are learning to live in limbo on the Honduran border.

In August, five Central American presidents vowed solemnly to disarm and dismantle the United States-backed contra forces by Dec. 7. They're still here, marking time and musing about the future.

On Dec. 12, the same five presidents agreed to divert US funds to a commission designed to help remove the contras. But even when the Nicaraguan elections take place in late February, the contras will undoubtedly still be here - with food on their minds and weapons in their hands.

``To put down our weapons is easy,'' says one 39-year-old fighter, known as ``The Bird'' for his craggy face and pointed nose. ``All the Sandinistas have to do is show us a real democracy and we'll come out of here without firing a single shot.''

The Bird winks at the other soldiers from the Jorge Salazar II Command, many of them less than half his age. Playing to the crowd, he says: ``But until then, we're going to stay here and eat this nauseating food.''

The young soldiers hoot and holler - and The Bird wanders off.

With the tedium of daily life here, food has become the third-most popular topic of conversation, topped only by women and war.

There's little else to do.

Some soldiers prepare for civilian life by spending a few hours a week in US-sponsored courses in carpentry, shoemaking, cattle raising, chicken farming, and other trades.

Others gather in the afternoon for games of volleyball, baseball, even checkers. One whose war name is ``Rambo'' goes it alone, shaving off his stubble to prepare for another uneventful Friday evening.

Younger troops like 13-year-old ``Bismarck'' are often found with AK-47 rifles guarding the entrances to the 25 commands here, each with its own group of plastic-covered huts nestled into the burned-out hillsides.

Every soldier must participate in calisthenics and drills that start before sunrise. The routine usually ends at 6 a.m. sharp, when the soldiers stand erect and offer a raucous rendition of the Nicaraguan national anthem. (Choral training is not offered to the troops.)

Then it's time to line up for another breakfast of rice and beans.

For some contras, the monotous diet is apparently not to their liking. Along the road beyond Jorge Salazar II Command, the sound of three rifle shots reverberates through the forested hills.

Enrique Zelaya laughs: ``They're hunting for food. Too many beans.''

Without stopping to question whether this is the proper use of the US-supplied weapons, Mr. Zelaya - known as ``Dr. Henry'' for his medical background and US education - complains that bureaucratic corruption has left the field fighters with bad food and living conditions.

``Supposedly we have received millions of dollars,'' says Dr. Henry. ``But most of the aid has been lost in the bureaucracy.... Do you think we would live like this if there weren't corruption?''

At the hilltop perch of the camp's strategic command, however, the contras' top commanders live a little more comfortably.

A refrigerator cools their drinks. The hum of a Yamaha electric generator drowns out the crickets. And at the operations center, a contra commando types a new document into a Tandy personal computer.

Savoring a bowl of chicken soup, top contra commander Miguel Angel Soza acknowledges that the contras' fate is mainly in the hands of the Americans and the Sandinistas. But he vows: ``With or without aid, with or without sanctuary, we are going to have people in arms after February's election.''

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