When Dorothy Callison and Mary Alice Clagett bring out the slides of their vacation, their friends should not expect to see pictures of an RV in the piney woods, secluded Hawaiian beaches or Gothic churches in Europe. This year, they decided to visit a war.
Callison, an Irvine resident and an administrator at the Fullerton Arboretum, and Clagett, a nurse from Los Alamitos, returned Saturday from two weeks in Nicaragua with Witness for Peace, a controversial, war-zone watch group. Callison, 51, and Clagett, 52, said it was worth spending their vacations and $1,200 each in a country decimated by revolution and civil war.
Callison said she would even do it again. "But not right away."
Along with an estimated 40,000 other Americans expected to visit Nicaragua this year, the women said they wanted to "see for themselves" what is happening in the Central American nation being pulled in opposite directions by the leftist Sandinista government and U.S.-backed rebels.
Their purpose, they said, was basically to gather facts for Witness for Peace, a national Christian interfaith organization that operates an information hot line and publishes a newsletter on Nicaragua that seeks an end to U.S. support for the contras . The past three years, the group has sent 1,800 people to Nicaragua, two or three groups a month, at the invitation of Nicaraguan churches. Next month, seven delegations will go, Clagett said.
"We were greeted in the warmest way," Callison said. The strongest impression she received from the trip, Callison said, was that Nicaraguans "are not angry or resentful of American citizens, but they are resentful of American government. They're not against people."
Some Nicaraguans, she said, "don't want to be on one side or another. They call the contras the 'people from the mountains.' "
The delegation included 11 women and five men, ages 25 to 67, mostly from Arizona and Southern California. The group first flew to Mexico City for an orientation by Witness for Peace members who live in Nicaragua. They said they were taught nonviolent responses to violence, how to reach a group consensus in 30 seconds, and some cultural mannerisms of Nicaragua. They also took part in a "sociodrama" where volunteer Salvadorans "attacked" them, yelling in Spanish while they were praying in a vigil.
Led by Witness for Peace veterans, they spent one week in Managua visiting hospitals and day-care centers, bureaucrats, church leaders and journalists and another week in Jinotega and the Pantasma Valley--the countryside to the north where fighting and kidnaping still occur.
Resettlement Camps Visited
There they delivered medical supplies, toured clinics, stayed with families and visited resettlement camps within earshot of what they said was mortar fire. While visiting one camp, Asentimiento Daniel Teller Paz, they heard from German peace workers that 12 of their colleagues were kidnaped May 17 by the contras. Four escaped, they said. But eight are still being held, according to the West German Foreign Ministry, which is negotiating for their release.
The group also heard gunshots and later were told that eight people had died, including three employees of the Nicaraguan housing authority, they said.
Witness for Peace members believe their presence usually deters violence, Clagett said. "There's a strong feeling that . . . any incident involving Americans would be an unwise tactic," she explained.
With other group members acting as interpreters, they asked Nicaraguans to compare their lives under the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza-Debayle, who was overthrown in 1979, and under the Marxist-led Sandinistas.
Some people--especially those who have had to relocate--are unhappy, Callison said. Others who now have land, food or property are happy, she said. "It's so difficult to get a pure answer," Callison said. "It's not strictly a change pre- and post-Somoza. It's more what life is like today as a result of the war. There's a lot more mixed feelings among the ordinary person on the street about living in Nicaragua than probably right after the triumph of the revolution when everybody had high hopes."
One taxi driver said his wife wanted to take their children to the United States. "They're an example of people who had hope but because of the war feel nothing is left for them there anymore," Clagett said.
The effects of war were worse than she had expected, Callison said. "Three teachers were killed when we were there. In a country town, a young man, the director of the school and a young woman teacher said they felt reasonably safe but those teaching in outlying areas are really afraid. Just carrying books marks them."
At the end of the trip, the group wrote a report concluding that what they called "the contra war" was "destroying Nicaraguan family life, education, church organizations, health care and economy."
'Learning Situation' Expected