Out of the line of fire. Leaving behind a country ravaged by seven years of civil war and revolutionary rule, Nicaraguans of all ages try to adapt to life in overcrowded refugee camps in neighboring Honduras.
TWO barechested youths play a desultory game of catch with a homemade baseball, as the evening breeze whips up dust devils at their ankles. A line of small girls, clutching cauldrons, wait patiently at the water tap. A group of women gather round their earthen hearth, fanning the first wisps of smoke from the wood fire that will cook the evening's tortillas. An air of quiet desperation hangs over the Gu'asimo Refugee Camp -- home to some 2,000 Nicaraguans who have fled from Sandinista rule or the fighting around their home towns. Their uncertainty about the future is palpable.
``Maybe if there's a change of government [in Nicaragua] we'd have a chance of going home,'' says Francisco, a 47-year-old peasant farmer. ``But not until then. When you leave your homeland you've made a decision to live any way that God lets you, so what can we do? Just endure it.''
Enduring camp life is perhaps hardest for the many single men who came here in order to evade compulsory military service in the Sandinista Army. Some spent years dodging the police. Others paid their families' life savings for a guide across the border to Honduras. But when they reached this United Nations-run camp, they found the war they fled had arrived here before them.
They complain that Nicaraguan government spies are everywhere among them -- masquerading as refugees. Western relief workers say that anti-Sandinista ``contra'' guerrillas work hand-in-hand with the Honduran authorities to recruit the supporters for the rebels' struggle.
Many of the refugees, former students, succumb to that pressure or to the boredom of camp life and join the contras. Over the past 12 months, around 1,000 refugees have left the UN camps here and in nearby Teupasenti and are ``unaccounted for,'' says an official familiar with refugee affairs. In the camps, recruiting of any kind is forbidden by UN rules. But refugees are well aware of the contras' presence.
``If I decide to join up, I know who to go to'', said one young man, who would identify himself only as ``Bayardo.'' Contra commanders regularly visit the towns of Jacaleapa and Teupasenti, according to refugees and aid workers. And news of their arrival spreads quickly within the camps.
For those who stay, time weighs heavily and homesickness runs deep.
``More than anything else, we are bored,'' says 18-year-old Jes'us Baltodano. ``We are used to city life, not to being stuck in one place without decent food, without enough clothes, or any furniture.''
Relief workers from voluntary agencies such as the Honduran Red Cross and Caritas have set up workshops to occupy the refugees with crafts such as leatherwork, but they report indifference toward such projects among many youths.
Other refugees take part in work details gathering wood, building a school, or growing vegetables. The garden, however, grows only in the rainy season and Camp Gu'asimo has scarcely enough water at the moment for its residents to drink and wash in. This water shortage -- the camp's six taps are turned on four hours a day -- has compounded health problems regularly found where people are crowded 10 or 15 to a house.
Last month, typhoid broke out in Gu'asimo, striking four members of one family. Although none died, some felt its occurrence offered a reminder of the potential for catastrophe.
Meanwhile, peasant families used to growing their own food and selling their surplus find it hard to adapt to the system of basic rations applied in a refugee camp.
Even Mercedes Tercero, a thrifty 25-year-old mother of three who plants her vegetable patch around the camp water pump that her husband tends, complains that ``here things are limited. I suppose it's because there are too many of us.''
A day before weekly rations are distributed, Mercedes has run out of rice and beans, and her vegetables are not yet ripe. ``We are still alive,'' she reflects, ``so we are not really badly off. But how can I say we are well off either, when I don't have food to give to my children tomorrow?''