FONSECA, Nicaragua — An uncertain truce has taken hold around 11 farming villages in southeastern Nicaragua, raising hopes for permanent relief from the guerrilla war.
"There has been no shooting, no helicopters, no bombing, no death, none of that since Tuesday," said Sebastian Ruiz Martinez, a 70-year-old farmer. "If it stays this way, we are going to have a beautiful harvest."
Ruiz fled his rice field near this village Tuesday when elements of the Sandinista army and the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Resistance clashed on a neighboring farm. It was the last fighting reported in the 175-square-mile area around Fonseca and 10 nearby settlements.
The next day, the Sandinista government garrisoned 1,000 troops in the area, declared it to be a cease-fire zone and called on the estimated 150 contras operating inside to surrender and accept an amnesty.
The unilateral cease-fire, the first formal halt in six years of hostilities, also took effect Wednesday in two sectors of northern Nicaragua as the government moved to comply with an agreement among Central American nations to end armed conflicts by Nov. 7.
Over the next month, these small truce zones, comprising 550 square miles and an estimated 600 of the contras' 12,000 troops, will become testing grounds for the Sandinista tactic of trying to split contra ground forces from the rebel high command. If the effort works, officials say, the zones will be expanded.
Top rebel leaders say their guerrillas will ignore the cease-fire because the government in Managua refuses to negotiate truce terms with them.
By Friday, not a single armed insurgent had surrendered in this southeastern truce zone, residents said. But some rebel chiefs sent down word from the lush green hills that they will not attack inside the area.
On Wednesday and Thursday, travelers on the muddy clay road that winds north from Fonseca through farms and cattle pasture saw no troops from either side.
Oscar Mendoza's dilapidated yellow bus, often turned back by fighting on the road in recent years, made its two scheduled daily runs between here and the zonal capital of Nueva Guinea, crammed with passengers.
"There are no contras around here," said Jose Santos, 12, who was riding horseback with his 7-year-old brother on the road to go pick corn. "They're all up there in the hills."
Claudia Guzman, a Roman Catholic catechist who travels in the area, said: "There is a new atmosphere here. Before, one army or the other would stop you. Now you don't see either."
The Sandinistas hope the cease-fire will make it easier for relatives of contras to go looking for the rebels and encourage them to accept amnesty.
Officials said this area was chosen as a cease-fire zone because many of the contras fighting here have families in the villages and are members of the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance, a small rebel faction believed to be unhappy with its subordination to commanders from other parts of Nicaragua.
'Tired of War'
"We are expecting positive results because people here are tired of the war and want their sons to come home," said Wilfredo Barreto, the top Sandinista official in the area.
Key to the Sandinista efforts are peace councils made up of religious leaders and other prominent non-Sandinista citizens in each village. Though created by the government over the past two months, these councils are now independent.
With encouragement from Sandinista officials, some council members have hiked into the hills to urge the contras to surrender.
Ruiz, the old rice farmer who heads Fonseca's village council, walked 10 miles Wednesday to deliver the text of the amnesty decree to a contra messenger. By doing so, he said, he hoped to persuade his two sons to leave the contra ranks.
Barreto and the Sandinista regional military commander, Lt. Col. Roberto Calderon, said they hoped such contacts will lead to cease-fire talks between them and contra field commanders, bypassing the exiled Resistance directorate.
However, peace council members who have spoken to contras in the field say it will not be so easy. Pablo Calero, a Protestant minister up the road in Yolaina, said the contra chief known as Panther told him last week that his 50 fighters will respect the truce, at least for a month, but will not lay down their arms "until Nicaragua has a new government and a new army."
"It is going to be a long, slow process to end the war," said Antonio Vivas, a Protestant minister in Nueva Guinea. "We cannot just go to the mountains with a message of surrender. There has to be a reconciliation."
Anti-Sandinista sentiment runs high in this part of Nicaragua, and the peace councils have channeled popular pressure on the government to remove some of the grievances that the contras are fighting against.
'A Real Dialogue'