Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
December 15, 1987
Contras wage war of symbols
Rebels' jungle trek a mission of fits and starts


A helicopter approaches the contra camp (Ed Hille / Philadelphia Inquirer)
Click here for a gallery of photos from the trek with the contras.

NEAR THE ULI RIVER, Nicaragua - After 27 days of marching through withering jungle and scrambling across perilous mountains, the band of 100 contra rebels was at last ready to engage the enemy.

But first, the contras changed their wardrobe.

One by one, they replaced their old, faded uniforms with the crisp, new camouflage fatigues they had been issued before leaving their base camp on the Honduran border. Some discarded their old boots and laced up the new pair they had carried for nearly a month.

These contras were going to look good.

A rebel commander code-named Buitre, in an interview later, emphasized the importance of making a dapper appearance. He said it gave civilians confidence in the rebels.

There was another intended audience, as well.

"The enemy also sees we have good equipment, that we march in American boots that are better than theirs, with ponchos and hammocks that are better than they have," said Buitre. "It drives them crazy with envy when they recover one of our backpacks."

As it developed, these contras did not engage the Sandinistas at all. They hiked to within an hour of their target, then fled when they learned it was guarded.

But at the end, Buitre declared the mission a success.

In the three days that the task force hurried through populated areas, he said, the peasants could see that the rebels were alive - and well turned-out.

"The Sandinistas have a policy that they're going to exterminate us," he said. "So if we walk through an area, and avoid contact with the enemy, the civilians can see that we're always present."

Not all the contras are as ineffective militarily. The same weekend that Buitre's squad avoided any combat, the Jorge Salazar Regional Command was conducting a series of coordinated attacks along the Rama Road in southern Nicaragua.

But U.S. officials acknowledge that many contras are content to demonstrate little more than that they can survive, a survival that depends on their umbilical cord to Washington.

"It's not the way we are trying to train these guys," said a high-ranking State Department official who monitors the contras.

"This war is here today. It was here yesterday and it's going to be here tomorrow," he said. "That's the way a lot of these guys look at the war. They're not in any hurry."

The Coco River is swollen and opaque in September, the peak of the rainy season along the Honduran border. A contra helicopter of Vietnam War vintage swoops in low over the towering palms and lands on the Honduran side of the river.

This is San Andres de Bocay, a series of camps that stretches for miles along the river. It is the place the contras call home when they are between missions inside Nicaragua.

"This is only a transit point," said one of the base commanders, Johnny, who like most of the contras has adopted a pseudonym to protect his relatives who still live in Nicaragua.

On any day, about a thousand contra soldiers are stationed at San Andres. They live in huts built of bamboo and banana leaves, side-by-side with their families and civilian refugees. The contras say about 8,000 civilians live in the camps.

Almost every day, the contras' DC-3 plane rumbles over the treetops, parachuting crates of U.S.-supplied provisions into the camp. Food, weapons, uniforms, even cash - all of it arrives by air.

In the last year, the $100 million in U.S. aid that Congress approved in late 1986 has kept the aerial supply line filled. This year, everyone agrees, dining has improved significantly in San Andres.

"Without Ronald Reagan, I wouldn't be so fat," said a rebel named Goliat.

Goliat said he left his family's farm near Managua in 1981 to join the contras after the Sandinistas jailed his younger brother, who had been a member of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle's feared National Guard. At 38, Goliat was more than twice as old as the teenage peasants who make up the bulk of the rebels' ranks. At 5 feet, 9 inches tall and 180 pounds, he was also considerably larger; hence, his nickname, Goliat - Goliath.

As personnel officer for the contras' San Jacinto Regional Command, Goliat was responsible for maintaining troop morale. To amuse the rebels, he performed derisive impersonations of the man he blamed most for the Sandinistas' 1979 triumph:

"Hello," he said in Spanish, flashing a wide smile and extending his hand. "I'm Jimmy Carter."

Now, on this September day, Goliat supervised as the contras divided up the provisions that had been flown into San Andres for a task force of 150 rebels that was preparing to leave on a seven-month mission inside Nicaragua. Most of the rebels in his task force had been idle in the camp since they returned in April from their last mission.

The leader of the task force was a commander code-named Victor.

Victor explained that the task force initially would hike for several weeks to attack the highway leading to Puerto Cabezas. But Victor harbored a more glorious goal. He wanted to shoot down a Soviet-supplied Sandinista helicopter with one of the new U.S. "Red Eye" surface-to-air missiles that his troops carried. "That is our real objective," he said.

The two 32-pound missiles, worth $28,000 and good for one shot apiece, were wrapped in ponchos to protect them from the rain and stored in a hut in the camp. Outside the hut, the contras busily picked through the piles of gear for Victor's task force.

For each rebel, there were a new pair of camouflage trousers and a matching shirt, a pair of jungle boots, a hammock, a poncho and cartridge belts - all stamped "U.S." They also divvied up piles of medicine, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap and cigarettes.

There were stacks of crated weapons and ammunition, most of them the same Soviet-bloc arms the Sandinistas carried so the contras could use captured ammunition. But a score of rebels received new Belgium FALs, a powerful gun the rebels covet as a status symbol because it is bigger - and louder - than the Soviet AK-47.

Each man received 700 bullets and three hand grenades. The task force would carry 60 mortar rounds, 60 rocket-propelled grenades, 40 remote-controlled Claymore mines and a dozen U.S. light-antitank weapons (LAWs).

And then there was food. Because the rebels were using San Andres as their point of departure, they had to carry enough food to sustain a march from the border to Nicaragua's populated areas. Victor's task force operates in the zone closest to San Andres, the gold mining region of northern Zelaya province where the coastal highway links the towns of Siuna, La Rosita and Bonanza.

They divided food for a 12-day hike: 500 pounds of sugar, 500 pounds of rice, 500 pounds of beans, 400 pounds of lard, 375 pounds of dried milk, 350 pounds of oatmeal, 300 pounds of salt for preserving meat, 63 pounds of coffee, 750 packets of chicken soup and 300 cans of sardines in picante sauce.

"When we run out of food, we go to the highway and fight for it," said one rebel, exhibiting the bravado that infected the contras as they prepared to depart San Andres.

There was another option for getting food, preferable to fighting for it - buy livestock from peasants. The purchases would require money, but the contras carried plenty of that - 28 million Nicaraguan cordobas, worth about $3,000.

The bundles of cash filled two bushel bags.

A contra spokesman who was visiting the camp from Miami described Victor's unit as aggressive. "They pursue the Sandinistas, rather than being chased," he said.

From all appearances, Victor's task force meant business. But what they accomplished in their initial foray, which took 31 days, was next to nothing. Despite all their weaponry, the contras ended up turning tail at the first whiff of the Sandinista army.

Victor's mission began with the rebel column bogging down under their enormous loads and wallowing for weeks in the uninhabited jungle. Then Victor's back gave out, forcing him to return to Honduras. Buitre, his deputy, took command.

Under Buitre's charge, the rebels fared no better. They never fired at a helicopter. They did not even reach the highway they had targeted.

In six weeks, during which they were accompanied by an Inquirer photographer and reporter, they avoided any contact with the Sandinistas whatsoever.

Goliat, the rebel who thanked Ronald Reagan for his girth, was not the only contra who appeared well-fed.

Victor's belly hung over his belt, stretching his sleeveless t-shirt. He had not been inside Nicaragua on a mission for more than a year, and looked it.

A year before, Victor had been flown secretly to a military base in the United States - he was not told where - with other unit commanders to receive training sponsored by the new U.S. aid program. When he returned, bad luck struck.

In February he injured his back in a jeep accident in Honduras. And then in May he suffered shrapnel wounds in his back when a mortar round fell near him during a Sandinista attack on San Andres.

But Victor declared himself recovered and fit for the mission. "After two weeks of marching, I'll be in good shape," he boasted.

Victor, 29, had spent half of his life in the military. A former member of the National Guard, he fled to Honduras the day the Sandinstas overthrew Somoza in 1979. Two years later, he joined the contras.

As the years passed and the original members of the contras died or drifted away, Victor steadily rose in the ranks, finally becoming one of 54 task force commanders. As the contras' numbers grew, teenage peasants filled the ranks, but still many of the commanders are ex-Guardsmen, graduates of the notorious Somoza regime. The contras have been unable to shake the image.

Victor complained that the image was unfair. "I was 20 years old when I left Nicaragua," he said. "I am not struggling to return Nicaragua to Somocista rule. I learned that an army cannot survive without popular support."

"I don't really like this life, living in the mountains," he said. "It's uncomfortable. But we have to fight. In Honduras, we are foreigners. We are people without a country."

Victor appeared firmly in command on the cloudy afternoon of Sept. 15, when the 150 rebels of the Xolotalan Task Force gathered in formation at San Andres for their final instructions before departing on their mission.

The commander held court with his cadre of assistants, who were laughing. Victor was telling dirty jokes.

"I carry the same things the commandos carry," he said later in an interview. "I eat what they eat. I sleep in the same hammocks they sleep in. I play with them, I joke with them. But when I give an order, they obey it."

Nearby on the assembly grounds, a platoon commander tossed bags of hard candy to his troops, some of whom were no more than 14 years old. A few civilians from the camp came down to the assembly grounds to shake hands with the rebels and wish them well. Reina Flores Moreno had come to see her son, a platoon commander nicknamed Leche Negra.

"I am worried, yes," she said. "But I am also very proud." Leche Negra said he left Nicaragua with his father to join the contras after Sandinistas killed his uncle. At 16, he is the youngest platoon commander in Victor's task force. He became a contra at age 9.

Many of the contras joined when they turned 15, the age of decision for peasants in Nicaragua: They either submit to the government's compulsory military service or they flee and become contras. Either way, they fight.

Many said they were predisposed to join the contras because the Sandinistas had harrassed, jailed, killed or taken away the property of their families. Others were attracted by a seductive prospect: not salary - they receive none - but food, clothing and weapons.

Still others have been all but shanghaied into the rebel army. Consider Richard, a wide-eyed 15-year-old who said he joined the contras in April after they stopped the bus in which he was travelling to Puerto Cabezas. Richard said the rebels kidnapped 16 men from the bus. Seven "voluntarily" joined the contras. The rest, he said, were released.

Richard is the son of a Sandinista agrarian reform official. He had little bad to say about the government, but he said that the contras presented a better life.

"There, in Nicaragua, things are expensive and life is hard," he said. "Here, the (contras) help those who came."

While the contras milled on the assembly ground, Victor's second-in command, Buitre, looked quietly over the scene.

Five years older than Victor, Buitre had a soft-spoken, gentle manner that contrasted with Victor's chumminess. He joined the contras in 1980 with his younger brother after the Sandinistas arrested their father, who had been a Somoza appointee to a local political position. Buitre has darker skin than most Nicaraguans. When Victor joked that Buitre was actually a Jamaican, Buitre smiled, but no more. He is not a joking man.

Buitre's attention was absorbed by his 20-month old son, who frolicked naked before the amused troops. For several days, Buitre had been tenderly playing with his son in the camp whenever there was a break from work. Now, he walked over and picked the child up.

The 34-year-old commander wiped some dirt from the child's eyes, and then he hugged him.

Buitre would see his son in seven months, if the mission went as planned.

Sometimes the contras talked about old battles, striking heroic poses to illustrate the position they assumed when they responded to the gunfire from the piriquacos - a Miskito Indian word for "rabid dog" that the contras have adopted as a pejorative for Sandinistas.

There was a certain truth to the boasts. So many of the rebels had scars from gunshot wounds, they obviously had experienced some fighting.

Usually, the spot was marked by a pink dot the size of a dime where the bullet entered, and an ugly divot of tangled scar tissue where the bullet exited.

Some of the scars told miraculous tales.

Raton, a 15-year-old whose voice squeaked from the onset of puberty, had identical dimples on both cheeks, caused by a small-caliber bullet. He said he was talking to another rebel when he was shot, and his mouth must have been open because the bullet passed through without striking his teeth or his tongue.

Another rebel, Ardillo, 16, displayed four gunshot wounds he suffered when the Sandinistas ambushed his unit earlier in the year. One bullet had smashed through both sides of his rib cage, coming and going. Somehow it missed his internal organs, or he could not have survived the two weeks it took his friends to carry him back to Honduras.

Some survived the bullets. Others did not. A Reagan administration official and a Western diplomat in Managua said the contras' troop strength had dropped from "10,000 to 12,000" in early 1987 to "between 8,000 and 10,000" last month. Nobody can say for certain how much of that shrinkage is caused by casualties. The contras would rather change the subject.

"Yes, some of my friends have died," said Sompopo, 19. But the conversation fell off. Although the contras talked eagerly about blowing away piris, they became uncomfortable talking about their own fallen comrades.

To talk about the dead could conjure dangerous emotions, and to be sentimental was to be weak. The youthful soldiers rarely displayed any emotion other than firmness or amusement.

The sense of machismo was evident as Victor's troops left the border base and plodded through the mountainous rain forests, their physical condition deteriorating day by day.

"How do you feel?" they would ask each other when they stopped to take a break. Even when a rebel arrived blistered and soaked in sweat from the last, murderous climb, the answer was always the same. "I'm fine."

"Are you sick?" Victor would ask a rebel. "You look exhausted."

"I'm a little tired," the rebel might allow.

Victor's radio-operator, nicknamed Managua, had his own way of responding that soon became the standard response of others, too.

Managua had been a seminary student in Bluefields, he said, when the Sandinistas installed new priests who changed the curriculum to emphasize liberation theology. He objected and quit. Two years ago, he joined the contras. He was one of the few rebels who had even graduated from high school.

How do you feel, Managua was asked.

"Worldly," he said.

But the march was becoming otherworldly.

Some days, the rebels spent more time taking breaks on the trail than they did hiking. When they stopped, they refreshed on beverages made of oatmeal, sugar and dried milk. On two occasions, the entire column stopped to light a fire for coffee.

The two mules the contras used to carry the mortars and mines snagged repeatedly in the brambles that limited visibility on the trail to 20 feet. One mule slipped and cut its leg, further delaying the column as it limped along.

Each day the contras hiked about eight hours, stopping at 2 p.m. The rebels made camp hastily, expertly hacking brush and vines to form a green cave in the thick jungle. Each man strung a hammock between two trees; over the hammock, he suspended a poncho tent-like as a rain cover; he placed his backpack on the ground beneath the hammock to protect it from the inevitable rain. If they were attacked, the rebels could break camp in minutes.

By the second week, Victor's task force had left a winding trail of empty foil food wrappers deep into the mountains. But even with lighter backpacks, some rebels could no longer hide their weariness.

Managua felt "not so worldy." Goliat sought out the group's medic for injections of painkiller for a pinched nerve.

"What for?" Goliat shouted one day as he dragged into camp a half-hour behind. "What are we doing this for?"

Victor, meanwhile, was trying to accustom the rebels to hikes of an hour's duration. "When we're in the zone of operation, that's how we march," he said. "Commandos do not take days off, even on Sundays. Sometimes, we march at night without flashlights to surprise the piris."

One afternoon Victor announced that the group was going to hike the next 50 minutes without rest.

The group then walked nine minutes before Victor ordered another break.

A few days later, Victor said his back injuries were bothering him. He could go no farther. He had decided to head back to Honduras with a few rebels as escorts.

"I'm leaving Buitre in command," he said, smiling weakly from his hammock. "He's a good man. I have complete trust in him."

It was the 12th day. The food they carried was nearly exhausted. And they were far from the target highway.

Under Buitre's command, only the rain picked up.

Half of the task force seemed to be suffering from colds. They blamed the diet, and with good reason: Everything but the powdered chicken soup was gone. The contras were reduced to boiling bland, green bananas for dinner.

Unconcerned about the Sandinistas, the rebels began firing their AK-47 rifles at anything that moved in the jungle - deer, wild turkey, macaws, geese, boars, woodchucks and even monkeys. Some of them even shot at fish in the Wasma River. There was a more efficient way to catch fish - by heaving a hand grenade into the water. The explosions stunned fish by the hundreds, and the rebels dove into the river to retrieve them.

"Pura vida!" the rebels exclaimed. Pure life. It was a peasant expression when one enjoyed the simple pursuits of life.

Despite the firepower, food remained in short supply. But in the next few days, they would burn little energy.

Several days after Victor limped back to Honduras, Buitre's column caught up with a task force of about 100 other contras. They were camped on an abandoned farm, the first sign of civilization the contras had seen since they left San Andres.

The task force of 100 had been operating in the area of Siuna for four months, during which they had attacked an electric plant outside of Siuna. These rebels were ragged and gaunt. They had been waiting eight days at the abandoned farm for a CIA airdrop of new supplies.

The commander had been instructed to return to Honduras, but he bequeathed his men to Buitre. He left the next day with a small escort.

Buitre's group later learned by radio that that commander and his escort needed only six days to return to San Andres, the same ground that had taken Buitre's men 15 days to cover.

Now, at the abandoned farm, Buitre commanded a combined force of 250 men. They settled in to await the airdrop.

Torpor ensued. The contras shined boots, bathed, shaved, waited. And waited.

Finally, after five days, the radio crackled with coded instructions from the commanders in Honduras. Buitre paced as the radio operator deciphered the numbers into words.

The contras were ordered to retrace their route for two days. Their leaders said the group was too close to Siuna to risk a flight by the DC-6, a four engine plane that made wide turns. "I know it seems ridiculous to go back," Buitre said, "but the commanders are worried that the piris would spot the plane." Why had the commanders taken so long to reach that conclusion? Some of the contras had waited 13 days at the abandoned farm.

"I don't know," said Buitre. "I just follow orders."

They returned on the same trail to the wilderness along the Wasma River.

Two days later, waiting in their new camp, the rebels tuned in to Radio Liberacion, the contras' clandestine AM station, to an excerpt of President Reagan's speech to the Organization of American States. Reagan said he would ask Congress for $270 million in contra aid for 1988 to keep the force alive.

He recognized the voice on the radio.

"That's Ronald Reagan," he declared, "mi abuelito" - my little grandfather. "Wouldn't you North Americans rather pay to stop communism with your dollars than your own blood?"

Soon, there was more reason to rejoice than the promise of future U.S. aid. Immediate U.S. aid was on its way that night. The CIA airdrop had been approved.

Spirits soared.

"At 9 o'clock, we'll be drinking coffee with milk," said Principe, who had assumed the role of Buitre's deputy since Victor's departure. "We'll be eating rice and beans."

"Maybe they'll send cigarettes," said another.

That night, the contras lit signal fires over a three-acre knoll where they had cleared the trees. At the predetermined hour, the silhouette of a DC-6 appeared over a mountain, swept in an arc over the camp and passed out of view. Its baritone buzz drifted into silence.

The contras looked into the sky. Nothing fell. They looked at each other. The plane was supposed to make two passes to drop 20 parachutes.

Something was wrong.

The pilot radioed that his radar had picked up pursuing Sandinista aircraft and he had aborted the air drop to return to Honduras. The kickers on the plane managed to drop six parachutes. Unfortunately, he said, they did it at the wrong time. The crates were off-target.

The pilot gave the coordinates of the parachutes in miles.

Buitre was puzzled. "How many meters are in a mile?"

He was told.


Two of the crates landed 10 miles from the camp - several mountains away. The contras would never find them.

But they had more immediate concerns - the Sandinista aircraft.

The contras quickly extinguished the signal fires to hide their position. Ten minutes later, the contras heard the planes passing overhead.

Fifteen minutes passed. Explosions rumbled in the distance. The contras' faces went white. They knew the sound.

The Sandinista planes had not been pursuing the CIA supply flight. Rather, their paths simply crossed. The Sandinistas were bombing San Andres, their border base camp.

For the next two nights, the Sandinistas' Antonov-26 planes dropped 500 pound bombs on the border camps. The contras, far away in the jungle, could hear the explosions and became glum. Sargento, 24, extracted a small photograph wrapped in tissue paper from his backpack.

"This is my son," he said. "He's two years old. He lives in San Andres."

The next day, Oct. 8, Radio Liberacion said that four people died and 17 were wounded in the bombings. Eyewitnesses in San Andres later confirmed the report that two of the dead were children. They were buried in small graves in the center of the camp, a few steps from a six-foot-deep bomb crater.

None of the casualties was related to the contras in Buitre's task force.

"The Sandinistas are assassins," Goliat fumed.

But the contras were helpless to do anything.

After the bombing ended, the contras rescheduled the air drop. The CIA plane finally returned on Oct. 11, nearly two weeks after Buitre's group had arrived at the abandoned farm.

Besides the crates of food, uniforms and weapons, the plane delivered one crate containing an unusual cargo: toys and used civilian clothing, intended as gifts when the contras visited peasants.

But once again, the timing was off.

Twelve hours earlier, Buitre had dispatched a squad of 100 men on a mission to penetrate the populated area outside of Siuna. While he and 150 men planned to stay behind at the wilderness camp to await the air drop, he instructed the assault squad to streak "like lightning" to the highway and set an ambush.

"Security is of extreme importance," Buitre said in addressing the group. He wanted the men to avoid fighting the Sandinistas in the mountains, where there were no civilian witnesses.

Buitre assigned Principe, 31, to command the assault squad.

In a matter of days, the rebels were cautiously moving out of the jungle and through a cooler, dryer terrain of gentle hills. They camped in the burned-out houses whose occupants had been relocated by the Sandinistas. Some of the veterans reminisced about the time four years earlier when the area had been populated with their supporters.

"In the houses around here, the women used to have baskets full of tortillas," said a company commander named Cayman. "We could buy them cheap." Now there were only empty houses and overgrown citrus groves.

During the march, they heard on a transistor radio that Costa Rican President Oscar Arias had won the Nobel Peace Price for his work on the Central American accord. The contras were unmoved, even though it seemed clear that renewed U.S. military aid for the rebels was even more unlikely.

"We will continue our struggle, as we did in 1984, when they cut off aid before," said Principe. Everybody else recited the same response.

The assault force forged closer to populated areas. Talk was confined to whispers and no one fired a weapon. The squad ran across the litter of Sandinista patrols - some of it, they judged, was only days old. They posted guards at night to watch for movement in the hills.

As the squad passed a ravine where the Sandinista army twice before had ambushed rebel patrols, they skittishly scanned the forest. A twig snapped, drawing a score of glares. It was only the wind.

They changed into the new uniforms they carried in their packs.

Now, near dusk on the fourth day after they left Buitre, the contra troupe was about to come on stage.

Descending a mountain, they passed a cane field and a plot of corn and then approached a house.

A 27-year-old woman welcomed them with cups of a gluey beverage made from warm cane juice and flour. Her brother, she said, was a contra, too. She sold the squad a pig, a bushel of corn, some cabbage and a few staples. They camped for the night in her front yard.

For three days they made about 20 house calls on peasants, most of whom had family or friends in the contras. The rebels bought food and gathered intelligence. The peasants recited grievances against the Sandinistas and complained about the sorry state of the economy. They were poor - often their skin peeked through the tattered threads of their clothing.

The contras nodded in agreement. But they delivered no speeches.

Many of the peasants were natural contra supporters. One complained that a Sandinista patrol had invited itself into his house four days earlier and the soldiers helped themselves to his wristwatch on the table. "It would be beautiful if they (the contras) could change the situation." he said. He shook the rebels' hands as they left.

The contras could only visit briefly, and they left the peasants with a sense of dread. Whenever the contras pass through, they said, the Sandinistas follow with reprisals against civilians who fail to report a rebel house call. "I have to go to town tomorrow," one man said as the contras departed. "What should I tell them?"

"Tell them there were only a few of us," he was told.

Every house they passed - including the abandoned dwellings and the houses of their supporters - was posted with a Sandinista appeal to defect. "Your family awaits you," the posters said. "Return." The contras carried no leaflets of their own. Nor did they bring cans of aerosol paint to spray messages as they went, a standard guerrilla practice.

Only once did the contras appear unwelcome. They stopped at the farm of a man named Marcelo, whose wife glowered from the door. Marcelo seemed uncomfortable with the contras on his land, but he agreed to sell them a bull.

"His son's a piriquaco," said Principe. "He's already told us that he's going to report us to the authorities the first thing in the morning. There's a lot of people like him, who play both sides." The contras posted four guards outside Marcelo's house for the night.

The next morning, wary that the Sandinistas were alerted, Principe ordered the column to advance hastily. The commanders discussed where they would position the troops for their ambush. Principe assigned a patrol to scout routes for their escape afterward. One rebel joked that the squad was going to eat lunch on an IFA, one of the East German trucks the Sandinistas use as troop transports.

But an hour short of the highway, the column came to a dead halt. There would be no lunch on a truck. Instead, Principe was buying two pigs for dinner.

"We've learned the highway is full," he said.

Full of traffic?

"No, full of Sandinistas," he said. An attack would surely result in heavy contra casualties.

The squad reversed course. For several hours they moved away from the highway, buying dozens of chickens and ducks that they tied squawking to their backpacks9later.

That night, they camped in the yard of a peasant, near a mountaintop. In the morning, the squad planned to scram to the safety of the jungle, retracing its route five days back to Buitre. Later, they hoped to find another, easier target.

After dinner, some of the rebels followed Principe up the mountain next to the camp. They sat on the bare summit under a ceiling of brilliant stars.

Ten kilometers away, the lights of Siuna blazed. Despite the attack three months before by the other contra force, the electric plant appeared to be functioning now.

In the darkness on the hill, the rebels reflected on potential targets - the electric plant, a military post, a gold mine, an airstrip. Someone noticed a pair of headlights moving across the horizon. They said it was a truck, moving down the highway.

The highway - there was always the highway.

"Those are all good objectives, good targets," Goliat said, without a hint of regret. "Some day."

But not this day. home page   
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