BENEATH a searing tropical sun, Marcia Vargas Herrera's husband and friends begin the grim task of unearthing the skeletal remains of her family to prove their story. ``I was lying down in my house,'' she recalls waving in the direction of a wooden shack across a field of grazing cows. ``It was about 7 p.m. That was when I heard the soldiers firing. I was too scared to look, too scared to leave my house.''
She stops, her hazel eyes filling with tears.
On that muggy July evening, about 15 soldiers of the Sandinista People's Army made the hour-long climb from the road, through banana trees and scruffy coffee plants, to arrive on this knoll near the town of Los Angeles, Nicaragua at about 5 p.m., say Mrs. Vargas's neighbors and an aunt who escaped.
The witnesses say a soldier named Miguel Escorcia was present with the troops. Mr. Escorcia, now police chief of the nearby town of El Cua, was a member of the state security forces at the time. The Nicaragua Association Pro Human Rights says it has 18 written allegations of rights abuse on file against Escorcia.
At about 6:30 as darkness was falling, Amelia and Rosa Guti'errez were shot to death in their small one-room house on a nearby hill, the Herrera's neighbors say. The two sisters' house was used for mortar practice.
Despite the gunshots and explosions, the six members of Marcia's family remained in their house a short distance away - only to be killed shortly after the Guti'errez's were murdered. Why didn't Marcia's family run when the shooting started?
``They talked about running,'' says Sisto, Marcia's husband. He and Marcia also remained in their house, which was farther down the hill from her parents' house. ``Her [Marcia's] aunt ran away,'' Sisto says. ``She took five children with her. But they [the others] thought the soldiers were done.''
Half an hour later, approximately 30 yards from the house, Marcia's father Gabriel Vargas Tinoco was killed, Marcia and her neighbors say. The rest of Marcia's family was shot in their beds, she was to discover in the morning. The bodies were buried beneath the dirt floor of the house after Sandinista authorities refused permission for a funeral.
Marcia Herrera thinks the attack was because her two brothers, Brigido and Fabio, had joined the contras two years prior. But she says neither the contras nor her brothers had been in the area for a long time. The attack might have been because her father refused to report to Sandinista Army headquarters after having been summoned three times. He didn't go, she says, because of fear he would never return.
``We have lived in fear for years - constantly being watched,'' says neighbor Angelina Herrena. With the Sandinistas out of power, ``we're starting to breathe again.''