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Main Street, Managua : War and Fear in the City of the Sandinistas

March 08, 1987|MARJORIE MILLER | Marjorie Miller is a Times staff writer based in Central America.

To the architects of the Reagan Administration's foreign policy, Managua is the heart of the Sandinista beast, the capital of a Marxist state that threatens to infect all of Central America with communism. More than a city, it is a symbol--one so powerful that it has prompted the bizarre series of clandestine dealings of the still-unfolding Iran- contra scandal.

But Managua is also a living city, the heart of a poor nation of polarized ideas and divided families; of tired, angry, determined and frightened people who are often overlooked in politicians' polemics. It is a city of scarcity and fear, of grinding poverty and Sandinista fervor. It is a city best understood in scenes from the streets, where the wounds of a violent revolution and an unofficial war with the United States are painfully fresh.


A Rumor of War

I FIRST HEARD THE RUMOR from a boy in the market. He seemed to be asking me rather than telling me, although he stated it as fact. He watched closely to see how I would react. Clearly, he wanted an outside opinion.

"There is a woman who is stealing children. She is sucking out their blood and selling the meat."

"Where did you hear that?" I asked.

"Everybody says so."

The rumor spread like a virus through Managua's markets and poor districts, frightening mothers into keeping their children at home, raising the suspicion of strangers and , finally, erupting into rock-throwing hysteria in the district called Jorge Dimitrov, where no children were even missing. In fact, there had been only one child reported stolen, in Tipitapa, about 10 miles to the north. But gossip and rumor are a way of life where telephones are a luxury; fear is a natural state in a country at war.

At dark that evening, just when the rumors had reached their peak, a dirty, half-crazed stranger wandered into Jorge Dimitrov. The woman had matted hair and wore three dresses, and a few of the residents decided that she must be the thief. She would steal a child, they surmised, then shed one of her layers so she could escape without being identified by her dress.

Eventually, about 300 men, women and children surrounded the confused woman and led her to the voluntary neighborhood police. As word spread, more people flocked to the wooden guard post where she was being held, until the crowd numbered more than 2,000. Suddenly, some of the angry neighbors decided they wanted her back from the police and began shouting for them to give her up. The people were going to take care of this bloodsucking baby killer on their own. "They wanted to lynch her," said policeman Alberto Conrado Cruz.

The armed and uniformed volunteer police are Sandinista loyalists working for free in their spare time "to defend the revolution." Usually they investigate burglaries, disputes or reports of counterrevolutionary activities. This was the first time Conrado and his colleagues had had a riot on their hands.

"We had to protect the physical integrity of this woman," Conrado said. "There were eight of us and about 2,000 of them, and they wanted to take the law into their own hands."

The mob began to throw rocks, gouging fist-sized holes in the flimsy walls of the guard post and bruising a few policemen. Conrado sent a colleague down the road to telephone for help. He tried to calm the crowd.

Sandinista police units arrived, dispersed the group and ushered the woman away. But the confrontation made front-page news. It was the first time a volunteer police post had been attacked, and in such a pro-Sandinista neighborhood it was baffling. These people had received free land from the government on which to build their houses; they had attended neighborhood Sandinista Defense Committee meetings. The revolution was made for them. What had happened?

Rumor. In their war to overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza the Sandinistas had spread countless rumors, in one case suggesting to highly Catholic Nicaraguans that a volcano eruption was the wrath of God against Somoza's rule. Now the contras were doing the same to the Sandinistas. They reported on their clandestine radio station that children were being sold and that their blood was being used for transfusions for wounded Sandinista soldiers. In the fearful fantasy of the poor, the blood became meat--their children for sale as meat--and the rumor grew wildly in markets where there is a shortage of beef. After six years of the contra war, the pressure has rubbed Nicaraguan nerves raw. The contras' broadcast sent a jolt through those exposed nerves.

The next day, Police Chief Doris Tijerino called a meeting to halt the rumors and calm the battered feelings of residents who felt that the police had been more protective of the crazy woman than of their children. Officials said the confrontation was proof that Nicaraguans were not afraid of the police.

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