La Vigia, Nicaragua
Contra rebels encountered in this northern farm settlement say they are ready to enter cease-fire zones to be established this week as part of the Sandinista-contra cease-fire accord. But they say that as they keep their part of the peace agreement signed March 23, the Sandinista government must also play its part by taking steps to democratize Nicaragua.
``I doubt peace will ever come just by talking, but we are willing to see if they will comply with the agreement,'' says Commander ``Nolvin,'' interviewed on a farm near Quilal'i. ``Peace will only be achieved if concrete steps accompany the dialogue.''
At least 40 contras were resting this weekend near homes in La Vigia, a farming community spread along a valley in Nicaragua's rugged northern mountains. The well-armed troops relaxed as local peasant supporters cooked beans and tortillas for them.
The contras, many of them teen-age campesinos, stared curiously at several journalists who suddenly came into their midst. Most of the rebels sported bright green US-made camouflage fatigues, ammunition belts, and M-16 rifles. A few carried Soviet-made Kalishnikov rifles.
``Nolvin,'' who said he commanded a task force of 200 men in the northern war zones, praised the peace agreement as having opened a ``new phase'' in the six-year war.
Dressed in casual clothes and baseball cap, with a pistol on his hip, the 29-year-old field leader said the time had come to test the political waters and see if a negotiated settlement can end the war.
``We're never going to meet our objective through force of arms. This war has been disastrous, especially for these rural campesinos,'' he said, pointing to a dozen civilians around him. ``Now we must define what we want of the Sandinistas politically, to end it for good.''
He and other contras said that what they want is democracy for Nicaragua, which they defined as ``freedom of expression and religion, as well as liberty to work for yourself and not for the state.''
Under the agreement, a provisional 60-day cease-fire took effect last Friday, and the contras are to move into seven cease-fire zones while negotiations continue toward a definitive end to the war.
Although the accord is not clear on the issue of contra disarmament, Managua wants the contras to lay down their guns and participate in the ``national dialogue.'' Talks between the government and opposition political parties began yesterday in Managua after a week-long break.
``Nolvin'' and his men seemed highly wary of Managua's hopes that the contras will disarm and suddenly opt for civilian political life.
``We'll enter the zones, but we're not going to become civilians [right now],'' a rebel named ``Clifford'' said. ``If the Sandinistas don't keep the agreement, we'll continue to fight.''
Asked how they would be able to carry on militarily, the contras admitted the halt in US military funding has hurt. But ``Nolvin'' quickly denied the peace agreement amounted to surrender. (The rebels had heard they would receive $47.9 million in humanitarian aid, which they said they welcomed.)
``We subsist now due to the help we receive from these campesinos, and for the time being we have enough arms to continue fighting.'' He said the contras were also seeking other sources of military aid, but did not specify what those sources were.
As of last weekend, only five cease-fire zones had been tentatively agreed on. La Vigia lies within one. The contras seemed confident that Sandinista soldiers stationed just five miles away would not disturb them. Government and contra negotiators met again yesterday in Sapoa to set the final boundaries for the zones.
``Nolvin'' said he was awaiting orders from the contra directorate over where to proceed next. He indicated his men would abide by whatever decision the top rebel leaders make in negotiations.
Meanwhile, other contras in the southern province of Nueva Guinea seemed much less complacent with the peace accord. Rebels with the ``Tomas Jarqu'in'' task force said they may even defy orders from the contra leadership. ``On the one hand the cease-fire may stop the bloodshed,'' said a rebel who called himself ``Caminante.'' ``But if Adolfo Calero sells us out by forcing us to give up our weapons, we'll never surrender,'' he said, referring to the contra's top political leader.
[The Associated Press reported from Miami yesterday that Mr. Calero was named as head of the rebels' negotiating team, which will arrive in Managua April 12. Calero rejected the Sandinista proposal limiting the contras to a Managua airport hotel during next week's peace talks. He demanded the right to meet freely with political opposition leaders, the press, and other groups.]
Both Nueva Guinea and the Quilal'i region have been the scene of constant combat in recent months. While the fighting has diminished considerably under the cease-fire and during a 10-day truce that preceded it, combat has not stopped entirely.
Both sides have traded accusations of violating the cease-fire. Through the Easter weekend occasional mortar explosions could be heard from Quilal'i, and townspeople said life has not changed all that much due to the peace agreement.
The contras knew about the official cease-fire but seemed vague on the truce which began March 21.