MATAGALPA, Nicaragua — After six years in opposing armies, Francisco and Luis Adan Fley met in the hills of central Nicaragua to try to persuade each other, as brothers, to stop fighting.
Eight days later, one of the oddest encounters of the Nicaraguan war ended in a standoff, with both soldiers clinging to the deep convictions that are tearing their country apart.
Their story illustrates how intractable the Nicaraguan conflict remains, even within the closest of families. It also dramatizes the failure of the Sandinista government's strategy of undermining the Contra insurgency through appeals by relatives of the rebels.
The Fleys' reunion started as a peace mission led by 1st Lt. Francisco Fley on behalf of his Sandinista army superiors to try to get his brother to commit 1,200 rebel troops to a cease-fire in eastern Matagalpa province.
But for Luis Adan Fley, a senior rebel leader whose code name is Comandante Johnson, the meeting last Oct. 11 was a trap; he agreed to it only to capture his brother and embarrass the army.
The Defense Ministry has never acknowledged publicly what happened: Lt. Fley and another Sandinista officer, isolated from 70 backup troops by the seizure of their walkie-talkie, were marched as Contra prisoners through a string of rural hamlets before being released ceremoniously to a preacher and a gathering of villagers.
What happened along the way, both brothers recall, was an intensely emotional exchange of boyhood memories and unyielding political argument. When all was said, Lt. Fley returned to duty at headquarters of the 311th Brigade in Matiguas, and Comandante Johnson vanished into the nearby hills dominated by his 15th of September Regional Command.
"For eight days, he walked peacefully with me," Comandante Johnson said in a recent interview outside Nicaragua. "We talked, slept and ate together, as brothers, not as enemies."
"We both understand that war is a political struggle over many issues," Lt. Fley said at his home here. "My political ideas are different from his. He held firmly to his ideas."
Brothers Among 14 Children
The Fley brothers are among 14 children of a modest coffee-growing family from Matagalpa. Both have curly black hair and broad faces that break easily into smiles. Each speaks with deep respect for the other but disdain for the other's views.
Francisco, now 30, always looked up to Luis Adan, who is taller and six years older. With two other brothers, they fought together in the Sandinista insurrection that toppled President Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Francisco, then in high school, gave Luis Adan his school ring for safekeeping, so the name engraved in it would not betray the guerrilla's identity.
After that war, Luis Adan returned to the thriving general store he ran in El Cua and became manager of the town's government-owned coffee warehouse. Francisco stayed a soldier; he is a founding member of the Sandinista People's Army and a militant in the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front.
In 1981, the first rebel bands to take up arms against the new regime harassed Luis Adan because he worked for the government. Later, the police arrested him for attending a political rally in support of Alfonso Robelo, then a non-Sandinista member of the government junta and now a Contra leader.
Went Into Hiding in 1981
After a rival businessman denounced him as a rebel supporter, Luis Adan was arrested again. Both times, Francisco got him out of jail. Then, hearing rumors that the local army commander had ordered his death, Luis Adan went into hiding in April, 1981. The army confiscated his home, turning it into a barracks.
Three months later, Luis Adan and a band of men with hunting rifles robbed a bank and ambushed an army patrol in El Cua, killing six soldiers.
As on so many other issues, the two brothers disagree on why Luis Adan became a Contra.
"The last time I saw him, in 1981, he was afraid," Francisco said. "The Contras were suspicious of him and the Sandinistas had him marked. The Contras involved him in that ambush so there could be no turning back. He left the country without clear ideas or political objectives."
Luis Adan, now Comandante Johnson, insists he quickly became disillusioned with Sandinista rule and organized the ambush gang himself.
"We got rid of the Somoza dictatorship because it denied the people their liberties," he said. "But the Sandinista remedy was worse, much more repressive. They confiscated farms, but the state became the new exploiter. The peasants had their food rationed and were forced to take up arms to defend a communist system."
One of 28 Rebel Commanders
Luis Adan's detailed knowledge of the rural northern provinces, where he had worked as a government fumigator in the 1970s, made him a natural rebel commander.