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Former Nicaraguan Foes Find Common Ground During Peace

For Cozmel Dominga Suaz and her friends in Nicaragua, conversation at lunch could not be more routine.

They talk about the food, the weather, their families, and the courses that they are taking. When lunch is done, they go together to class at the Center for the Development of Peace. No one would guess that if Ms. Suaz and her friends had been face to face a decade ago, they might have killed one another.

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The students at the peace center in Dario City - a tiny, arid town about 60 miles north of Managua, the capital - are among the most needy victims from both sides of the 1980s civil war between the leftist Sandinista government and Washington-backed contra rebels.

The center's students were affected by the war in many ways: Some lost limbs, others their sight. They have entered a three-month program at the center, a live-in compound that trains war veterans in a variety of trades to overcome physical disabilities.

The students - former Sandinistas and contras - have put aside their hatreds and differences and found camaraderie. The center is funded by the Italian government, which may have to withdraw its support later this year because of budgetary problems.

Perhaps none of the students knows hardship and abandonment better than Jos Ernesto Rostrn, a veteran of the Sandinista Army. Mr. Rostrn joined the Army in 1979 at the age of 10 and, 10 years later, was wounded in an attack by contras, leaving him without the use of his legs. His attackers could include those with whom he now shares meals and classrooms. But that's irrelevant, he says.

"At this point I don't feel hatred for anyone," he says, motioning from his wheelchair to the classrooms behind him. "We look at one another as brothers. We are all handicapped; we are all poor; we are all the same; so why keep fighting?"

Helping, despite the past

Jos Alfredo Hernndez, another ex-Sandinista who uses a wheelchair, agrees. "If we see someone who's having trouble or going crazy, we'll try to help out," he says. "And it doesn't matter who he fought for. We may not even know." Mr. Hernandez, who like Rostrn is studying carpentry, lost both legs when he stepped on a land mine in 1989.

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Hernandez says that whatever enmity he felt toward contras dissipated shortly after he stopped hearing vitriolic pep talks from Sandinista officers. "They would tell us that the contras were the evil invaders, and we had to protect the fatherland," he says.

Woman joined the contras

Ms. Suaz joined the contras in 1984 at the age of 12. "The [contra] soldiers would often pass by my house, and I just wanted to be one of them," she recalls. She lost a leg in 1986 after one of her fellow soldiers tripped a land mine. At the center she is taking sewing classes and hopes to launch a small business when she completes the course.

Though the 30 residents no longer blame each other, resentment still remains for their commanders, who they say abandoned them after the war ended in 1990. Disabled groups also fault Nicaraguan President Violeta Barrios Chamorro, who in 1992 pledged an active government role in promoting reconciliation and a new life for ex-combatants.

It never materialized. Instead, the government spends only about $90,000 a year to coordinate support for the victims.

"There is no question that our resources are very limited," says Alvaro Icaza, director of the Institute for War Victims, a government outreach program created by Mrs. Chamorro in 1991. "But this program is a critical element of President Chamorro's national reconciliation program."

In addition to dishing out monthly pensions, Mr. Icaza says, the government has built 700 houses and provided low-cost building materials for war victims and has sent 2,600 packages of school supplies to children who lost parents to the war.

Most of the 30 students now at the center are either unaware of the government's programs or haven't taken advantage of them.

But there's not much to take advantage of, according to Darwin Romero, a former Sandinista soldier who works as a janitor in the Managua offices of the Ministry of Social Action. Mr. Romero's 150 cordoba monthly payment (under $20) doesn't go far to help him. "My house is falling in on me," says Romero, who must support his family.

He married an ex-contra

Still, a job - no matter how humble - is more than most center students are likely to get. "When I tried to get a job with an electrician," Rostrn recalls, "I went in and the man said, 'So you want to be an electrician. Reach up and change that light bulb.' He knew I couldn't reach it."

But ex-Sandinista Rostrn insists he will make it. He is starting to build a network of contacts to find a job. And he has a supportive wife, who also fought for seven years in the war - for the contras.

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