Peace Marching Through a War Zone

By Barry Stevens and Garry Pascal

Barry Stevens is an associate editor of Peace Magazine who was in Nicaragua at the time of the International March for Peace. Gerry Pascal participated in the March. Excerpts from his diary are italicized.

Last December, a Canadian in Managua asked a U.S. television correspondent why the Peace Marchers were not getting more publicity in North America. He replied contemptuously, "Hey, this march is not big news. There are marches like this all over the world."

Not quite. The International Peace March in Central America, although not treated as a major media event, was a unique and dramatic nonviolent action whose effects will long be felt in the region and elsewhere. It scared certain political forces enough to provoke violent attack, arrest, and in at least one case, probable torture. It also helped to stimulate waves of enthusiasm for the cause of peace and justice in Central America and educated many outsiders about what's going on in that war-scarred region.

The idea for the march originated with Torril Eide, a Norwegian woman who had been a principal organizer of two previous large peace marches in Europe, one in the Soviet Union. The journey would be from Panama City to Mexico City and would take about six weeks. It would travel through every country in the region. The themes of the march were: human rights, solidarity with the people of Central America, self-determination, and support for the Contadora Peace Process. In Canada, The Voice of Women initiated the organization of the Canadian contingent. About 40 Canadians, 20 from Québec, participated in the march. At least 26 other countries were represented, with large contingents from Scandinavia and the United States. At times there were upwards of 350 people on the march.

Dec. 8-15. My first impression of Panama is a warm welcome from the Panamanian support committee who greet us at the airport. The temperature is a humid 30 degrees C. We camp at a government training school just outside Panama City. While in the country we receive messages of support from Bishop Tutu, Olof Palme of Sweden, Graham Greene and Jesse Jackson. We take part in an act of reconciliation at a military school where 6 students were killed by U.S. soldiers in 1964 and another action at the Howard Military Base. Panama is one of the leading countries behind the Contadora Peace proposals, and supports the March. Before arriving at the Costa Rican border we receive a friendly welcome from campesinos at a cooperative farm. Dark clouds ahead. Reports that an extreme right wing group called Costa Rica Libre are waiting for us on the other side of the border. The government-controlled media have been waging an intense campaign against the Peace March. The government of Costa Rica itself, after much negotiation and international pressure, permits us to stay for three days. We wait for two days at the border in very uncomfortable physical conditions.

Bowing to The Enemy

The experience with the Costa Rican authorities was to prove typical. There and elsewhere, the marchers found that although the advance organizers had secured permission from the civilian authorities to enter and peacefully demonstrate, the military and other political forces in the country would not permit this. And while the leaders of the March haggled, the Marchers waited, some having literally to sleep in "a garbage dump," according to Eric Ramlo, a young Minnesotan Marcher. Here also some tensions began to develop between the Marchers and some of the March leaders. At one point, some of the Canadians, ordered on short notice to get on the buses to leave, felt that the decision-making process was being circumvented and refused to move. In a painful moment, the March split. But a deal was struck with the Costa Ricans, and the March was once again reunited. The Marchers were permitted to be bused to San Jose, the capital. They arrived, to be welcomed by Codepaz, the local peace movement support group, and jeered at by C.R. Libre. As the Marchers entered the Youth Hostel, the "proto-fascist" group attacked, hurling stones and tear gas. It was a shattering experience to many of the Marchers, who had never experienced this kind of violence before. The assault was unopposed by the Civil Guard, whose newly appointed chief, Benjamine Piza, was formerly the head of C.R. Libre. During the attack, one Costa Rican supporting the Marchers received an injury that will likely result in the loss of his eye. Throughout it all, the three Japanese Buddhist monks on the March chanted and bowed to the "enemies," beating their drums as tears streamed down their faces from the gas. The government insisted that the Marchers leave the country the next day. Accompanied by 50 Guardsmen, the buses transported the Marchers north. Women were not given privacy and Guardsmen had little sympathy for those who were afflicted with diarrhea and needed to stop. "But I'll never forget the people waving by the roadside, the children offering flowers," recalled Barbara Saunders, a Marcher from Kitchener, Ontario. "Some had been waiting to greet us for 8 hours, but the buses wouldn't even slow down." When they reached the Nicaraguan border, some of the Marchers bade farewell to the Costa Rican Guards with gifts of money and applause and the singing of "Feliz Navidad." "They were pretty surprised!" said U.S. Marcher Lydia Caros.

Nicaragua was, in the words of one Marcher, "like a coming home of the troops." The atmosphere was entirely different and here the military were friendly.

December 16th. In Nicaragua we are greeted enthusiastically by Conipaz, the peace support group and some of the local population from the nearby town of Rivas. We sleep at an old school building much in need of repair. The next morning a local commander of the Sandinistas describes Contra attacks from inside the Costa Rican border. In 1985, there were four attacks by sea from the Bay of Salinas. Then several mothers, whose children died during the Revolution, tell their stories. Local speakers at a cooperative farm speak of the lack of funds for health, education, and social needs due to the money spent on the war.

Dec. 17th. Marches in the towns of Masaya and Granada, where 500 to 1000 people take part. The reality of war is ever present. Armed militia in combat fatigues are everywhere amid shouts for peace and fluttering peace banners. We sleep at a scout camp used by soldiers near Masaya.

Dec. 18th. The next day we walk into Managua and take part in a large peace rally in a central square. Miguel d'Escoto, Minister of External Affairs, speaks: "We need people of peace, ...people of good will....We will bow before God, the God of Abraham and Isaac, but not before the U.S." He spoke of a vision for the future: "Unless we create militant nonviolence, there is no future for the planet."

Tension Among the Marchers

The March had arrived in Managua several days ahead of schedule, due to being rushed through Costa Rica. In Nicaragua, the Marchers were kept busy with a fairly tight program. The tensions on the March grew somewhat worse. Any disparate group that is placed under great pressure before it has had a chance to build unity is bound to suffer some internal dissension, and the Peace March was no exception. Some people felt overcontrolled by their Nicaraguan hosts. Some were tired of going almost everywhere by bus. They had expected literally to march. Many were uncomfortable with the organization and leadership structure. Some felt that the meetings were unwieldy and many experienced the leadership as autocratic. Some women like Barbara Saunders and Lydia Caros of Minnesota felt that the leadership was too dominated by men and that women's voices were not heard. In Managua, some people left the March. Others flew in to join. The Marchers needed to find a unifying action, something that everyone could feel was worthwhile. They were to find it by heading north to the war zone.

Dec. 19th-20th. We head toward the Honduran border. As internationalists we afford some security for the local people who are constantly harassed by the Contras. We pass through the towns of Contega and Puebla Nueva where the people are glad to see us and stay in a school in Esteli. Here we hold a peace march and rally during the day and take part in a moving Way of the Cross in the evening. One senses the deep faith of the people.

Dec. 24th-25th. Some of us go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Swimming at nearby stream on Christmas Day. Honduras, we hear, refuses to let us into the country.

Dec. 17th- 28th. Two busloads head toward the border town of Espino, a town completely razed by the Contras two years ago and now abandoned. We join the rest of the Marchers and go to the border together. we are met by a contingent of fully armed soldiers wearing gas masks who face us from the Honduran side. This a unit of the "Cobras," noted for the death and disappearance of 150 Hondurans. We make a formal request to enter the country but are refused categorically. The Honduran official who spoke to us added, "Nicaragua must be destroyed." For six days we travel each day to this point, where we do a sit-in in front of the guards.

Do the Pica Pica

For many of the Marchers, this experience on the border became the soul of the March. It began in extreme tension when the Marchers arrived and in silence the Cobras prepared their gas masks and lowered their rifles. Later during the sit-in, a toxic plant, called pica pica, was spread on the road, causing a reaction like that of poison ivy. (The U.S. contingent composed a song about it, to the tune of 'Loco-Motion': "We started out this morning as a solemn mass. Come on baby, do the pica pica. We ended up this evening with a prickly ass, Come on come on, do the pica pica," etc.) Marchers developed creative, nonviolent ways to express their opposition to the Cobras. A juggler entertained the troops, asking that his balls be returned if he dropped them and they accidentally rolled across the border. There was dancing and political threatre, a moving ecumenical service was held, and the theme song was sung: "Todo el mundo esta mirando. Respecto derecho del transito." ("All the world is watching. Please respect our right of passage.") Marcher Pam Costain found that although she began the week very hostile to the Cobras, at the end she was able to see them as human beings--and elicit a human response. When the Marchers bade farewell by symbolically shaking hands in the air opposite the Cobras, the troops were able to smile and return the gesture.

On January 2nd, the Marchers returned to Managua. There was some disagreement as to where to go next. Honduras was resolute. El Salvador was also hostile to the March. Delegations were sent to these countries to make contacts with the local support groups, as well as to Guatemala. A parallel march of more than 500 people was organized in El Salvador to protest the "disappeared," and also to demand entry for the international March. The Nicaraguan press reported that this March was fired upon. According to Doug Mackinlay, one of the few Internationalists who were able to get into El Salvador, about 80 percent of these demonstrators were women, many of whom had lost relatives. On January 4th, the Salvadorean police arrested a Marcher and activist by the name of Brigidio Sanchez. The remainder of the group camped in protest in the basement of the cathedral of San Salvador for several days, harbored by the Archbishop. Five thousand people demonstrated in front of the National Palace. But government officials claimed that Mr. Sanchez has confessed to no less than 37 murders. Those who have been permitted to visit him report that he has been drugged and tortured. His collarbone, among others, may have been broken. [For information on how to help this peace worker, contact Amnesty International--Ed.]

In Managua, the International March leaders decided to attempt to cross the Gulf of Fonseca to El Salvador in small local boats. Even if the Salvadoran authorities turned them back, it would be a dramatic gesture of solidarity with the local peace movement. However, the group of International Marchers who headed for the coast were turned back by the Nicaraguan government. El Salvador had made it clear that no boat would be permitted to land under any circumstances, and the Nicaraguans were anxious to avoid a confrontation for which they could be blamed. The sudden appearance of a U. S. Navy frigate in the Gulf gave emphasis to the decision. The U.S. Navy maintains a strong presence in the region. (In January, it was reported in El Salvador and Nicaragua that a U.S. warship had bombarded Salvadoran guerrilla positions with rocketfire.) Back in Managua, some Marchers were feeling that they had outstayed their welcome in Nicaragua.

Fortunately, the Guatemalan government granted the March permission to enter. The pattern of civilian permission and military refusal did not hold in Guatemala because the country had held elections for the first time in many years and the authorities were anxious to demonstrate that things were changing. Even so, the Marchers had to fly to Guatemala City in small groups, not identifying themselves as Peace Marchers. Money for the flight was generously donated to the March by a Danish peace group.

A Meeting Between Relatives of the Disappeared

Jan. 13th-17th. Guatemala is full of surprises. There are no problems with immigration. The night air is quite chilly. Peace Marchers who have gone ahead greet us at the airport and help us settle in for the night in low cost hotels. The next day we all meet at the Teatro National where the president-elect, Vinicio Cerezo, is to be installed in office. GAM (Mutual Suppport Group) is there to greet us. There are several hundred of them, mostly Mayans from rural Guatemala. Their multi-colored costumes stand out clearly against the bright sun. The group is well organized and determined, led by a young women in her early 30's whose husband was killed or "disappeared." In all, over 30,000 Guatemalans, mostly indigenous people, have been killed or have disappeared at the hands of the military during the past few years. All wear straw hats with the names of their loved ones inscribed on them, a parallel to the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo from Argentina, whose trademark is the white kerchief. In fact, the Madres of our group meet with GAM, the first time reps from the two groups meet. Like the Madres, many in the Guatemalan group carry photographs of members of family who are no longer with them. Later in the afternoon we march through the streets of the city along with many ordinary citizens, ending up at the Palacio Nacional, where Cerezo and international dignitaries are to greet the people in a "popular fiesta" early in the evening. In his speech the president speaks of human rights and formally greets the Peace Marchers. A sign of new things to come? Those who know the country also know that it is the military who really control the government. [As a reminder of this reality, seven people have died at the hands of the military in the two weeks following the inauguration.]

For the next three days we pass through the cities of Quezaltenango and Huehuetenango, where we hold peace marches and meet the people on the way to the Mexican border. The countryside is breathtakingly beautiful. It is mountain territory and there are flowers everywhere. The gentle faces of the Mayan people are an inspiration to all of us.

When the March reached Mexico, it finally seemed as though all the troubles and pain of the past weeks were over. Doug Mackinlay recalls, "We would travel on the buses for a couple of hours, arrive in a small town, participate in a one-hour march and then be given a huge feast with music. Then the whole process would be repeated."

Jan. 17th-23rd. Some of the highlights of our stay in Mexico are the beautiful liturgies in the churches of four cities--San Cristobal, Tehuantepec, Puebla, and Mexico City--in the presence of packed congregations, rich Latin iturgical music and enthusiastic people of deep faith. Also there are the peace marches and rallies on the streets and the plazas where 1000 to 2000 people take part in the smaller cities. In Tehuantepec, Bishop Arturo Lona speaks of the Church's commitment to the poor, and how the people meet in Biblical groups to reflect on the Gospel in relation to their daily lives. Cooperatives have been formed as a result. Many Mexicans come from as far as 8 hours by foot to take part in some of the liturgical events and peace rallies. The people also give all they have in the way of food and shelter even though they are poor. After an event, it is common to see women with baskets of food which have been prepared in their homes, sharing it with us. Nothing is spared.

The March ended dramatically on Jan 22nd in Mexico, the world's largest city. A demonstration of thousands supporting self-determination for Central America marched down the broad central avenues of the city. According to Doug Mackinlay, it took two hours to pass a single point, and its size was estimated as high as 50,000 people.

The March broke up on this high note, and the Marchers returned to their home countries, with the exception of a small group that went to Washington to report to members of the U.S. Government.

What are the Results?

And what did all this accomplish? An enormous amount, according to the Marchers. Barbara Saunders is excited by the networks of women that have sprung up as a result of the March, supporting, teaching, and learning from Central American women and each other. Doug Mackinlay talks about the boost that was given to local communities who are struggling against enormous odds for peace and justice. And presence of the March gave them credibility at home with their own people. One concrete example of this is the establishing of a permanent group working on behalf of the disappeared in El Salvador with foreign support (the presence of foreigners makes it less likely that the peace workers will disappear). Another is the exposure that the violence in San Jose gave to the increasing militarization of Costa Rica, the "Switzerland of Central America." As a result, legal action has been taken against Costa Rica Libre. Less tangible, but equally important, is the effect that such a large scale nonviolent action had on its participants, and through their contacts in their many home countries, countless other people.

The lingering impression after seven weeks in Central America is that the people in that part of the world have a deep desire for peace. They are tired of war. They want to build their lives without interference. This aspiration was well expressed in the phrase we heard often during the trip: "We want peace!" "Queremos La Paz!"

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1986

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1986, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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