JINOTEGA, Nicaragua — Tim Takaro and Susan Cookson are American doctors in Nicaragua. They wage a two-fold crusade in this northern war zone.
In six months here, the husband-and-wife team has been trying to stop the spread of deadly tuberculosis and diarrhea in villages isolated by fighting between the Sandinista army and Nicaraguan rebels.
They are also campaigning to stop U.S. aid to the insurgency by writing to hundreds of people back home that the war makes their task almost impossible.
The couple belong to a close fraternity of American volunteers who share the physical risks of a five-year-old conflict to support the Sandinista revolution and play an active role in opposing U.S. hostility to it.
This week the fraternity was shaken by the first death of one of its members, Benjamin E. Linder, in a rebel attack. But rather than frightening them into leaving the war zones, the killing seems to have deepened their commitment and raised their hopes for influencing an end to U.S. involvement.
Linder, a 27-year-old engineer from Portland, Ore., suffered a fatal head wound Tuesday while building a plant to furnish electricity to the town of San Jose de Bocay in northern Jinotega province.
Takaro, 30, and Cookson, 34, both 1985 graduates of the University of North Carolina Medical School, were close friends of Linder. In their work for Nicaragua's Health Ministry, they have traveled many of the same ambush-prone roads that he did.
"We are going to have to be more cautious, but nobody's going home," Takaro said. "We couldn't live with ourselves if we abandoned these people now. Tuberculosis doesn't just snuff itself out. We're not here to die, but to live, and our lives are richer for what we do."
"Ben's dying makes us want to stay here more," his wife said.
About 300 American volunteers work on a variety of Sandinista projects, according to the Committee of U.S. Citizens Living in Nicaragua. Many are supported by grants from private U.S. agencies, peace groups and churches.
At least 100 Americans are estimated to be in war zones. Some drive ambulances and organize cooperative farms. Most are activists for Witness for Peace, a Washington-based human rights group that says it will continue its three-year-old presence here.
At a memorial service for Linder on Wednesday, 15 Americans who live in Jinotega province signed a statement saying they believe that he was targeted for death by the contras because of his work.
"Rather than being intimidated," the statement said, "we reaffirm our decision to stand alongside the Nicaraguan people in their struggle for peace and justice."
Vigil at Embassy
Their decision was endorsed the next day as more than 100 Americans met for their 181st weekly vigil outside the U.S. Embassy in Managua to protest the contra war.
"The United States now has a martyr for a free Nicaragua," Ellen Montague, a volunteer construction worker, told the crowd. "The contras are not going to stop us. We will create new waves of resistance in the United States against this immoral war."
The Sandinistas have tried to capitalize on such sentiment. Last month, Ortega congratulated eight U.S. veterans of Vietnam after they marched unarmed for a week through a war zone to dramatize their opposition to U.S. policy.
On Thursday, Ortega embraced Linder's parents, accompanied them to their son's funeral and gave them a medal in his honor. Several Americans have been quoted in the Sandinista press this week as saying they are ashamed of their government.
This has led to criticism by some Nicaraguans who say the volunteers identify blindly with a repressive government.
"You cannot deny that some of these volunteers really want to help the people, but most of them come simply to support the Sandinistas," said Lino Hernandez, head of a human rights commission that catalogues government abuses.
American diplomats echo this criticism privately, saying that the volunteers' opposition to U.S. policy clouds their objectivity about the Sandinistas. "They are in a frame of mind to forgive a lot of what goes on here," said one.
In interviews, several American volunteers said their experiences in Nicaragua have made them critical of the Sandinistas in some ways, but they said they feel it is not their place to criticize the regime publicly.
More important, they said, their life in the war zones has led them to see ordinary Nicaraguans there, even those who resent the Sandinistas, as heroic people struggling to survive a conflict that they believe is kept going by U.S. funding of the contras.
"Within our group you find a variety of views about the Sandinistas, the military draft, their economic policies," said Ed Griffin-Nolan of Staten Island, N.Y., one of 80 Witness for Peace activists in Nicaragua. "But these issues are not overriding. The real issue is that U.S. policy is making Nicaraguans suffer."