NUEVA GUINEA, Nicaragua — The war was only a distant murmur to Lorenza Granado until Sandinista soldiers landed at her ranch in Punta Gorda, declared it a combat zone and ordered her family to board a helicopter.
Forced to leave behind livestock and personal belongings, she was resettled on a state-run cooperative farm. Her two grown sons were arrested as suspected contra rebels.
Several weeks later and 45 miles away, contras burst into Carmen Luques Vasquez' dirt-floor shack in the sleepy town of Rio Rama. They were looking for her husband, a government soldier.
Fleeing Into Night
Refusing to believe that he was gone, the rebels slashed her chest and legs with a knife. Then, as she fled into the night with her five young children, the intruders poured kerosene on the house and set it afire.
For five years, these two women had managed to hold large peasant families together on opposite sides of a vaguely threatening war that ebbed and flowed around the edges of their agrarian communities.
Today, however, they are victims of a sudden upsurge in the fighting, which has erased several villages from the map of southeast Nicaragua and made it a region of nomads.
Their stories were told in quiet settings that seemed, at least that day, to be remote from the war. But they only underscored the random nature of the conflict and the precariousness of civilian life in much of rural Nicaragua, where survival often depends on avoiding identification with either the leftist Sandinista government or the U.S.-backed contras.
'War Was Over There'
"We had our pigs, our turkeys, our cows," Granado, 44, told a visitor to her new home at the Jacinto Baca collective farm. "The war was someplace over there. Then one day in December, a soldier told my daughter that things were going to get rough."
Indeed, the pace of the war has quickened since the end of last year, when several thousand contras began trickling south through Nicaragua's mountainous midsection from bases in Honduras.
In this southern cattle region, three Sandinista battalions, of 1,000 infantrymen each, are trying to keep 2,500 contras dispersed and on the run so that they cannot link up with the infiltrators still marching from the north, military specialists say.
Lt. Col. Roberto Calderon, commander of the region's Sandinista forces, says his troops fought 214 battles in the first six weeks of 1987--compared to 900 all last year--and took the initiative in 90% of them.
Government soldiers have moved south from Nueva Guinea through selected hamlets in the last three months, removing about 1,000 settlers and dropping crude bombs on rebel positions in the surrounding hills, according to government and church officials.
Hundreds more peasants have fled on their own to this town of 12,000 people, 175 miles southeast of Managua.
A Roman Catholic missionary who has visited 40 villages around Nueva Guinea says eight of them have recently become ghost towns. Other religious workers report that the bombings from helicopters have killed seven noncombatants and wounded 12.
The army offensive, however, has not stopped pressure on government targets in the area. Rebel forces have burned down nearby army command posts in Rio Rama and Verdun.
Valentine's Day Siege
In Rio Rama, a sultry town of reddish dirt streets and tall palm trees, seven soldiers and a 12-year-old girl died in a Valentine's Day siege by about 150 contras, who also burned the general store, townspeople said.
The contras captured 19 automatic rifles, 6,000 rounds of ammunition, 20 army uniforms, 10 pairs of combat boots and an anti-tank mine in a six-hour nighttime occupation of the town, according to Francisco Delgadillo, a spokesman for the rebel southern front in San Jose, Costa Rica.
A week later, a smaller rebel band went to Rio Rama, attacked the soldier's wife and burned down his home, but Delgadillo denied any knowledge of that raid.
The pattern of fighting reflects the patchwork presence of the Sandinista National Liberation Front in the south since it won a guerrilla war by overthrowing President Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
Settled by Homesteaders
The region had been settled largely by homesteaders on land parceled out by Somoza and was hardly touched by the Sandinista uprising.
Not surprisingly, efforts by the Sandinista regime to set up cooperative farms met resistance among homesteaders and made them natural allies of the contras. Around here, the contras are often referred to as los primos , or cousins.
In Rio Rama, population 2,400, the Sandinistas have built a school, a medical clinic, a visible party structure and an army command post that have made the town an occasional rebel target for hit-and-run harassment.
However, in many villages of a few dozen families, like Punta Gorda, the front hardly ever existed. Visitors say rebel organizers often filled the political vacuum, using churches as meeting halls and giving away watches, cigarettes and radios to win converts.
Contras Control Towns