EL ALMENDRO, NICARAGUA
THE long awaited demobilization of the Nicaraguan contras began here on Tuesday with 100 rebels surrendering their weapons to United Nations officials. After a short speech by contra commander Israel Galeano near this village 180 miles southeast of Manaugua, groups of contras lined up outside tents supervised by UN peacekeeping troops.
Each turned over his (or her) rifle, then received new clothes, food supplies for one month, and a medical checkup. The UN soldiers immediately cut the rifles into three pieces using acetylene torches, as the disarmed rebels waited nearby for transport home in trucks.
But this start of the contra disarmament process, a crucial step toward total disarmament and national reconciliation, was also significant because of what it said about the woman who was by all accounts instrumental in bringing it about.
Before last week's meeting, rebel chief Galeano had accused President Violeta de Chamorro's top advisers of ``treason'' after the new Nicaraguan leader announced that Sandinista Army leader Humberto Ortega would remain head of the armed forces for a time.
Yet, Mrs. Chamorro - in a marathon 15-hour meeting last Friday - finally convinced them to begin disarming. It was a significant personal as well as political victory.
``No one should underestimate Violeta or think it's only her advisers who make the decisions,'' says a foreign diplomat who knows her well. ``At times she's uncomfortable with the press. But inside she's a very determined woman.'' Chamorro faces challenges
Few would dispute the fact that Chamorro, who is frequently discounted as a well-meaning political neophyte, has a long, tough road ahead. She must pull the shattered Nicaraguan economy together and keep her fragmented politial coalition from disintegrating.
By retaining Humberto Ortega as Nicaraguan Army chief, she has shown toughness in bucking pressure from the United States and most of her supporters. Now, apparently due largely to her own powers of persuasion in the marathon session with contra leaders, she has taken the next crucial step toward reconciliation.
``Dona Violeta was present in the meeting all day and half the night, and clearly assumed her responsibility for our safety,'' said top rebel commander Galeano. ``So we decided to take this important step toward bringing peace to the country.''
He says the president and cabinet members convinced him that promised changes in the military were more important than the issue of Humberto Ortega.
The group was the first of the estimated 15,000 contras expected to disarm by June 10 under the recent peace accord. Others should follow in coming days in each of five special security zones set up around the Nicaraguan countryside. Disarming the contras
Up until the last minute, doubts existed as to whether the rebels would actually abide by an agreement signed April 19 calling for their demobilization. They were supposed to begin disarming April 25.
Galeano said instead that his troops would not surrender their weapons as called for the in the April agreement until the brother of ex-president Daniel Ortega was dismissed, and the Sandinista Army disarmed simultaneously with the contras.
Chamorro, however, was apparently able to persuade Galeano that she is committed to reducing the size of the armed forces, and that Ortega's stay is only temporary. She also gave personal assurances for the rebels' security as they return to civilian life.
Contra political adviser Roberto Ferrey, the liaison between the rebel command and the new government, says it is only logical that rebels in the field have suspicions about Sandinista intentions. But Chamorro's invitation brought fatigue-clad commanders out of the bush to Managua to discuss things face to face, a personal touch that evidently worked.
``Originally Violeta was to leave the meeting after we broke for lunch,'' Ferrey says. ``But she stayed right through, seeing how important her presence was. Twelve hours later, after signing the agreement in the middle of the night, she even had everyone over to her house for dinner.''
This fits in well with Chamorro's style, who as a candidate held press conferences in her living room, and greeted each and every contra commander at the meeting last week with a warm embrace and a kiss. While she is not reknowned for her intellect, no one disputes her sincerity or familial manner - which may be just what sharply polarized Nicaragua needs right now.
The contra disarmament is still shakey as the ``voluntary'' nature of the accord has led some rebels to say they will gauge Sandinista moves before turning over arms.
But breaking the ice on the issue still affords President Chamorro a boost in her stated goal of achieving national reconciliation by being president of ``all Nicaraguans.''
``Mrs. Chamorro brings something of a kitchen recipe to these meetings, managing herself as if in her household,'' says an official of the United Nations peacekeeping force. ``She's not polished in public, and sometimes doesn't project very well. But she has savvy and common sense and people listen to her.''
She cannot impose her will, the official says. ``But it forces them to see things in a different perspective - and they listen to her.''