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US volunteers head for Nicaragua. Some want to go on record as disagreeing with US policy, others risk their lives to shield villages from the contras

It's a long way from northern California's serene Santa Cruz Mountains to Nicaragua's war-wracked village of El Cedro. But Scott Rutherford and eight other Americans are willing to go the distance if it means they might shield the village, by their very presence, from attack by contra guerrillas. ``At the very least, we're an extra calculation for the contras to consider before they attack,'' Mr. Rutherford said last week, before leaving for Nicaragua with the Veterans Peace Action Team.

Amid revelations that the Reagan administration solicited private funds to aid the contras, private American efforts on the other side have been almost overlooked. In defiance of official United States support for the contra rebels, groups of Americans like the veterans team are working to counteract the effects of the contra activity.

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Supplies and labor worth almost $40 million have been channeled to Nicaragua since July 1986, according to Sister Maureen Fiedler of the Quixote Center in Maryland.

``The difference is that, unlike the US government, we know where our aid goes and how it gets spent,'' she says.

In its national campaign, called the ``Quest for Peace,'' the center hopes to collect another $60 million worth of donations by fall - to match the $100 million Congress is sending to contras.

The Quixote Center, a Roman Catholic relief organization, has been shipping medical and educational supplies to Nicaragua since late 1983. Its role has expanded, however, into a clearinghouse for tracking donations sent to Nicaragua by more than 500 private groups across the US.

The private aid network has experienced ``a steady surge of growth since its beginning,'' says Sister Maureen. Making a contribution - in the form of clothing, food, medicine, and even personal labor - ``is something concrete people can do to show they oppose administration policy and the contra war.''

The US government takes no official position against such aid by American citizens. But ``people need to ask themselves to what extent does their work, as well intentioned as it may be, help solidify Sandinista repression,'' a State Department official says. The situation in Nicaragua today is analagous to Cuba in 1959, when a contingent of Americans helped harvest sugar cane for Fidel Castro's new communist revolution, he says.

The US estimates 1,500 Americans are living and working in Nicaragua, and thousands more are traveling there on a short-term basis. Since the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, about 40,000 Americans have gone to Nicaragua for humanitarian or political work.

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The Veterans Peace Action Team (VPAT), for instance, will be in El Cedro for a month to begin rebuilding a health post that has been destroyed by the contras three times.

The task, however, ``is not so much finishing the building as it is interacting with the Nicaraguan people,'' says Bob Barns of Witness for Peace, a national organization that arranges trips and tours to Nicaragua. ``It is important to share their way of doing things.''

``Sharing the risk'' is a part of that process, says VPAT founder Brian Willson, one of four vets who last fall held a vigil on the Capitol steps, fasting in protest of US policy in Central America. The veterans team, the second one to travel to Nicaragua, will be working a little more than a mile from where Benjamin Linder was killed April 28 during a contra attack. Mr. Linder, who was working on a hydroelectric project at the time, was the first private American citizen to be killed in Nicaragua.

US policy toward Nicaragua is ``illegal, immoral, and dishonest,'' Mr. Willson adds. ``There will be no honor unless I, myself, show that I will not allow my government to act like this on my behalf.'' If any members of the team are injured or killed by the US-backed contras, ``we will hold the US government directly responsible,'' he says, noting that none of the veterans will be armed.

The US, however, says it is the responsibility of all host countries - not just Nicaragua - to protect foreigners on their soil. The Sandinista government, in fact, has pulled most West Europeans out of the war zones for their own protection, State Department official says. The Americans, in effect, become pawns in the Sandinistas' public-relations campaign to win sympathy with the American public, he says.

The strategy appears to be having some effect, says sociologist Paul Hollander of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ``Look at Congress and how reluctant it is to give adequate funding to the guerrillas [fighting the Sandinistas],'' he says.

Professor Hollander, who fled Hungary in 1956, says the phenomenon of ``political tourism'' in Nicaragua is having a ``multiplier effect'' back home. ``These Americans would have you believe that the big bad United States is picking on poor, little, victimized, undeveloped Nicaragua.'' They don't see the dissent and repression because they don't talk to political prisoners in the Nicaraguan jails and they don't see the resettlement camps filled with people who fled the Sandinistas, he says.

Winning the hearts and minds of the American public is exactly what many who go to Nicaragua intend to do. ``One of the most important reasons I'm going to Nicaragua is so I can come back,'' veteran John Skerce told his colleagues as they prepared for their trip to El Cedro. ``I want to find out for myself what's going on, and then let everyone know about it.''

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