After ‘Operation Clean-up’ my Nicaraguan suburb mourns

St Pedro Church, Sutiaba, June 2018 surrounded by barricades. Credit Steve Lewis

St.Pedro Church, in June, surrounded by barricades.

Father Victor Morales was woken at 5 a.m. by the young men on the barricade outside his church. “They’re coming Father, they’re here”. What the community had been afraid of was happening now. When Fr. Morales cautiously looked into the street he saw scores of armed, hooded men flooding into the suburb.

On that day, 5th July, the Nicaraguan police, with masked and armed para-military support, attacked the suburb of Sutiaba in Leon, the ‘barrio‘ where I’ve been living for the last year.

‘Operation Clean-Up’, as the government called it, resulted in three dead among the parishioners of Fr. Morales’ San Pedro church. Since then the community has been living in fear – and nationally the pressure on the Catholic church has also increased.

Roadblock in Leon, built from paving stones, 10 June 18, credit Steve Lewis

Roadblock in Leon, early July, before the paramilitaries came. The lad is armed with a catapalt.

 

Now, a few weeks after the three deaths, local people are still cautious to tell their story. “I was frightened that day, yes of course, but not surprised”, said Fr. Morales. “Other priests and I had tried to negotiate with the authorities in the preceding days. But they didn’t listen.”

In June local people had put up barricades all over Leon, built from paving stones, as a protest against the FSLN government for the violence they have used since demonstrations begun suddenly in April. The barricades were also a self-defense mechanism, to prevent paramilitaries driving into the suburbs in pick-ups and shooting. But after a month of stalemate the state was forcibly going town by town and taking the barricades down.

“It was very violent that day” said F. Morales. “They had riot-police and paramilitaries in at least 20 pick-ups, and bulldozers. I couldn’t leave the house for a couple of hours, I felt impotent, furious and sad. But later I could walk to the health post and I learnt about the deaths.

Father Victor Morales, parish priest of San Pedro, Leon. 2 Aug 18, Credit Steve Lewis

Father Victor Morales, outside his church

“Sadly, the youngsters didn’t realize that they couldn’t win”, said Fr. Morales.” You can’t hold off heavily armed men with fireworks and catapults”.

Four blocks South of San Pedro church the remains of the barricades litter the streets, and two sad crosses mark the spot when Junior Rojas and his friend Alex Machado were killed. Down a dusty alley-way, and past a large rabbit-hutch, the family of Junior sit outside their two-room house, still seemingly in a state of shock.

“They killed my boy with a single-shot to the head”, said his mother, Aura Rojas. “He was behind the barricade, but the police had flooded the suburb. They were to the North and West – they shot him from a block away.”

Junior, 21, was a builder’s assistant, and studied at night school, in first grade of high school. “He was my support, he looked after us”, said his mother, “I have glaucoma and can’t work, so he supported me and his nine-year old neice. The government have said all sorts of lies about the men on the barricades, that they were delinquents, they sold marijuana, but its not true. Junior was a good lad, he attended mass, he studied, and played football at weekends.”

“They took his corpse and dumped it in the morgue” said Junior’s sister, Cruz Hernandez. “We went to get his body later that day. They would barely speak to us. There was no autopsy, no investigation, they gave us no paperwork. Only one doctor dared look at him that day. They warned us – go home to your family now, or something worse might happen there.”

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The family of Junior Rojas, shocked, outside their house.

Junior was killed just yards from a close friend of his, Alex Machado Vazquez (24). Three blocks to the West another young man was killed under the shade of a large Tamarindo tree. Danny Ezekiel Lopez (21) was apparently shot while on a bicycle, passing a barricade. “They shot him 8 times”, said a local barber on the corner, who didn’t want to be named, “they wanted to send a message. And that worked – after that most of the other neighbors around here took down their own barricades.

The governments ‘operation clean-up’ moved on from Leon to other towns during July, with a steady succession of unarmed young men killed by hooded paramilitaries with high-caliber weapons. Since the protests began in April at least 317 people have been killed according to the International Human Rights Commission (IHRC). Thousands of others have been injured, or imprisoned. “Around 90% of those killed have been anti-government protestors” according to the IHRC. In June and July most of these have been killed by para-militaries, who President Ortega has described as ‘voluntary police’.

Aura Marina Rojas, mother of murdered student Junior, shows his photo. Leon, 2 Aug18. Cred Steve Lewis

Aura Rojas, with a photo of son Junior. July 2018

As in Sutiaba, local priests have been called on to mediate in many of the besieged barricades. In the small town of Diriamba on 9 July, Bishop Silvio Baez and other senior clergy were attacked and lightly injured by a mob of FSLN supporters, as they tried to mediate the release of local people. In Managua on 13th July Father Raul Zamora had to take care of dozens of students who took refuge in the Church of Divine Mercy after being attacked at the UNAN University.

Nationally the Catholic Church is trying to keep alive the dialogue between government and opposition, in spite of accusations from President Ortega that the church is part of the opposition. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes has said in weekly mass that the Church “is persecuted” but won’t give up their mediation role. Visiting Leon for the first time on 2nd August, the Papal representative in Nicaragua, Waldemar Sommertag, emphasized that “the National Dialogue is the only route to peace”.  But at the time of writing, president Ortega shows no sign of returning to the dialogue. He doesn’t need to, he is buying his own  version of peace in a different way – through the barrel of a gun, fired by a man in a mask.

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Laying flowers at the makeshift cross that marks where Junior was killed.

All photos Steve Lewis

More Nicaragua photos, follow instagram @owstonlewis

Content originally published by Catholic News Service, reproduced here with permission

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Keep Calm & Carry On, as Nicaragua closes down

After 50 days of protests against President Ortega, the death toll in Nicaragua has reached 140 dead and over 2000 injured. The country is being steadily closed down by roadblocks on main roads and side-streets all over the country. In spite of the difficulties, some Non-Government Organisations & non-profits are trying to keep working, and community workers are going to enormous lengths to keep services running for their people.

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Barricade on the outskirts of Leon

When student protests began on April 18th the peaceful protestors were attacked by police and pro-government gangs, with a death toll of 46 young people in the first week of protests. The month of May was filled by marches and counter-marches from pro and anti-government supporters, with increasing attacks from para-military forces. The period of ‘normal’ protests ended abruptly on May 30th when government forces fired on a mass peaceful Mother’s Day march. Since then protestors have resorted to a new and defensive tactic, setting up roadblocks to impede the arrival of the police and their allies in civilian clothes.

As more and more of these roadblocks are built, it is becoming increasing difficult for daily life to continue. Some cities are experiencing shortages of foodstuffs, whilst others have run out of gasoline. Reliable information is hard to come by and rumours abound. While some cities are close to chaos  others are surprisingly calm. Speaking from the comparatively peaceful city of Leon, one NGO director (who preferred not to be named) described the city as ‘Alice in Wonderland’…. ‘We wake up in the morning to read of deaths in Masaya, and street-fighting in Jinotega – but Leon is still calm, except for the strangeness of being cut off from the world by barricades’.

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Student roadblock prevents buses taking a side-road past the main barricade

In many cases however, Nicaraguans are making huge efforts to ‘keep calm and carry on’. This weekend I attended a long-planned training session in Leon, run by Doctors James Saunders and Karen Mojica from Mayflower Medical Outreach (MMO) for three nursing students from Jinotega. Kath Owston, PGL Associate, is a board member of MMO and helped set up the training. ‘We weren’t sure the three young people would be able to arrive’, she said, ‘but they got up at 5a.m. and came down on three buses, a lift and a taxi’.  Jinotega and Leon are about 100 miles apart, and there were three roadblocks in between. At each stoppage the passengers had to get off one bus with their possessions, walk through the roadblock, and then take a lift or another bus on the other side. (the roadblocks stop vehicles at present but allow foot-traffic). The journey which normally takes four hours on the bus took them eight hours.

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Dr Saunders & Dr Mojica (centre) show students how to take photos of the ear drum

The training in hearing test technology, which precedes a pilot program to screen 4000 school children in the department of Jinotega, was a great success. However today, Monday, the 3 students were meant to return to Jinotega, but they have not been able to leave Leon as the barricades have become tighter. They will try again tomorrow. Poor Fabiola left her house in Pantasma on Thursday evening, to travel down on Friday, and won’t get back to her house till Tuesday night at best.

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Marlene practices the tympanometer on a willing victim.

In a second case last week, staff from sister-city Project Gettysburg-Leon (PGL) also had an odyssey of a journey to carry out a long-delayed technical visit to the isolated village of Talolinga. Normally the journey is a pleasant drive, on a tarmac road, until the last 5 miles which is unpaved, steep and bumpy. PGL Programme Co-ordinator Francisco Diaz drove up last week with two water engineers from another NGO, Nuevas Esperanzas  They had to take tiny back-roads to get around the roadblocks. ‘It was a labyrinth’, said Francisco, and at one point it started raining as well. ‘We had to ford a river and drive on dirt tracks for miles alongside Telica Volcano. After spending the day doing a GPS mapping of the community, so that we can plan a piping service from a new well, we faced the long drive back. Coming home to Leon we had to go a different way again and at one point had to be guided by farmers behind an ox cart! We arrived exhausted’.

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Javier & Marvin from Talolinga try to open the capped well-head with Leo, the engineer from Nuevas Esperanzas.                                                                                              (credit Francisco Diaz)

What the future will bring for Nicaragua is unclear. Will the protestors put up more barricades and close down all traffic totally, including food and fuel? Or will the discredited President, Daniel Ortega, continue to sit back and wait? So far, he seems in no hurry to break the barricades, and has not called in the army. In Leon we are looking fearfully at cities like Masaya, which have experienced huge violence, and hoping it will not come here. Tomorrow is apparently a strike-day. In a fog of untruths and false information, it is difficult to know which way the current is flowing in Nicaragua. But we are proud of the efforts that organisations are making, despite the fear and difficulties, to keep serving their communities.

 

All photos by the author unless stated. For more, follow @owstonlewis on instagram

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