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Miskito Indians Forced to Flee : Their Dreams of Returning to Nicaragua Fade

August 02, 1987|DOUGLAS FARAH | United Press International

ALONG THE MOCORON RIVER, Honduras — Thousands of Miskito Indians, forced to flee their homeland in Nicaragua in recent years, are now trapped in a world they do not control by a war that most do not wish to fight.

They are refugees in Honduras, a country that does not want them, and want to return to Nicaragua, a country they fear will persecute them. Many have lost faith in their leaders, who are asking them to resume a war against Managua's leftist Sandinista government.

"People are only asking that there be no war, that we live in peace," said Cebelia Benjamin as she sat on a front porch made of rough-hewn planks in Ilbila, a Miskito refugee village 30 miles north of the Nicaraguan border.

"We support the struggle, but too much blood has been spilled. We no longer want war," she added.

More than 15,000 Miskitos live in about two dozen villages like Ilbila, scattered along the Mocoron and other rivers in the Honduran Mosquitia, a vast jungle savannah on the Atlantic coast, with the Coco River serving as the border between Nicaragua and Honduras. It is a virtually unpopulated area except for the Indians, who travel mostly by dugout canoe.

Rely on U.N. Agency

The refugees are almost totally dependent on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, which provides them with food, education and health care.

The villages are carved out of the jungle, the single-room houses built on stilts on the banks of the river, the walls made of planks and the roofs of palm thatch. Each house has the traditional covered porch where the Indians, who cannot work and have little land to plant, spend much of their time in hammocks and on crude benches, visiting, talking of home and staring into space.

"What we want is for the war to stop so we can go home, because here we are miserable and have nothing. But only God knows when that will be," said Candido Olvides, 30, as he lay in his hammock on the porch of his hut in the town of Ilpauni.

As he spoke, rain driven by strong winds off the Atlantic fell in almost horizontal sheets, turning the village paths to mud.

"I am thinking about going back, but I am afraid," said another young man on the porch. "Here we have no work, no land; we suffer greatly. Sometimes I think it would be better to go back to Nicaragua and die."

Olvides' tale is similar to many others: He left Nicaragua in 1984 after the Sandinistas burned his house and tried to kill him.

Cut Off From Country

"They burned it because it was on a good road they thought the contras were using," he said with a shrug. "They left me with only the shirt on my back and were looking for me to kill me, so I left."

The Miskitos have always been cut off from the rest of Nicaragua, and they were strongly influenced by the English, rather than the Spanish, accounting in part for their unusual names. They have maintained a separate language and culture; most are Protestants belonging to the Moravian Church, not Roman Catholics.

Never close to the central government, the Miskitos began to actively oppose the Sandinistas in 1982 when authorities killed more than a dozen Indians, burned villages, forcibly recruited young men into the army and tried to relocate others. Thousands of Miskitos poured across the Coco into Honduras, and many took up U.S.-supplied arms to oppose the Nicaraguan government.

Their struggle has always been separate from the main contra forces. The Miskitos say they are fighting for autonomy for their homeland, but they do not trust the main contra group to grant them that if they ever gained power.

To the dismay of the United States, the Indian forces splintered, and most Miskitos had quit fighting by last year.

In an effort to draw the Indians back and prevent the opening of a new war front, Sandinista officials have publicly apologized for their past actions against the Miskitos and offered a limited autonomy proposal.

Miskito leaders are bitterly divided by personal disputes and differences over whether to try to negotiate with the Sandinistas or continue fighting.

Meeting of Leaders

After the United States threatened to cut off funding to their armies if the bickering continued, the three main leaders--Stedman Fagoth, Brooklyn Rivera and Wycliffe Diego--agreed at a meeting last month to unify their forces and fight rather than negotiate. But many Miskitos doubt that the agreement will last.

"All three want to be No. 1 still. I do not think they have learned anything," said one Moravian pastor who attended the assembly. "But if this does not work, we'll all die here, because we will never get home."

"I used to support the war, but too many of our young men have died," said Juan Charles, in the village of Klannia. "We are not many, and so many have died. What we need is peace."

Indian fighters also lost support by trying to forcibly recruit young refugees into their ranks, threatening those who did not want to go at gunpoint or knifepoint.

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