Masaya, the front line in Nicaragua's violence

Joshua Howat BERGER

From little boys with skinny arms to old women with creased faces, it seems everyone in Masaya, Nicaragua is ready to go to war. Toting home-made mortars, their faces covered with balaclavas and bandanas, the young men of Masaya stand guard at myriad barricades, determined to keep out President Daniel Ortega's riot police -- whom they accuse of pillaging the city and massacring its people. Built with tree trunks, cobblestones, scrap metal and whatever else is at hand, the barricades depend on an improvised logistical network that seems to involve almost every one of the city's 100,000 inhabitants. Masaya has become the front line in the Central American country's escalating crisis, which started on April 18 with a crackdown on protests over a much-hated pension reform. That unleashed a wave of protests and repression that has now left more than 120 people dead. It is not the first time this tree-lined city just southeast of the capital, Managua, has found itself at the center of a battle to decide the nation's future. Ramona Garcia, 83, remembers working on the supply chains for barricades just like these in the 1970s, when Ortega was a guerrilla leader and Masaya was on his side, fighting against the brutal regime of dictator Anastasio Somoza. "Back then we fought just like we are now, bringing food and water to the barricades," said the diminutive woman with a wrinkly brown face. "But (Somoza) wasn't like this one, he didn't kill as many people," she said, referring to Ortega -- the man who has dominated Nicaraguan politics since his Sandinista rebels ousted Somoza in 1979. At the other end of the demographic scale, a 14-year-old boy helping volunteer paramedics evacuate the wounded from the nearly nightly clashes with police has put his childhood on hold to join his city's struggle. He asked that his name not be used. "This isn't normally something for young people," he told AFP Tuesday night as bursts of gunfire sounded from the direction of a local police station and mortars -- a sort of glorified firecracker -- exploded in response. "But we're all fighting the same struggle. Work, school, all that's on hold," said the boy. - History of resistance - Masaya is the birthplace of Augusto Sandino, whose revolt against the US military occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s and 30s inspired Ortega's guerrilla army. The city played a crucial role in Ortega's leftist rebellion, giving the Sandinistas refuge when they staged a tactical retreat from Managua on June 27, 1979 -- today, a national holiday. After regrouping in Masaya and enlisting many in the city in their cause, the Sandinistas overthrew Somoza less than a month later. Ortega -- who lost power in 1990, regained it in 2007, and is now serving his third consecutive term at age 72 -- appears to have taken it hard when this one-time Sandinista bastion turned against him. Residents accuse police and pro-Ortega gangs of looting and pillaging Masaya and twice torching its artisans' market -- a symbol of a city that prides itself on its traditional crafts. - 'Nerves on edge' - That's what prompted residents to organize to protect themselves. But the city has paid a heavy price. Snipers posted at its besieged police stations regularly pick people off, while mobs led by riot police attack the barricades and pillage the city almost every night, residents say. An evening walk through the city is a strange mix of sprinting past cross-streets where snipers are feared to lurk, only to come across a group of neighbors casually chatting on a stoop a block away, enjoying the cool air on a summer night in the tropics. The constant terror, though, is how quickly those separate realities can collapse into one. Zeneyda del Rosario, 34, learned that when her 17-year-old son Elias Josue was killed in a hail of gunfire. Now she has trouble sleeping, fearing she could hear church bells any minute -- the signal that an attack is under way. She only has one child left -- a 14-year-old son -- and is terrified she could lose him, too. "My nerves are constantly on edge because of all this. I can't hear a 'boom,' I can't hear mortars exploding," she said. "I don't think I can take this violence anymore." - 'We are warriors' - Nearby, at a field hospital set up in San Miguel church, a doctor working the night shift is also haunted by memories of the past several weeks. The impromptu hospital has a staff of some 30 volunteers, rudimentary equipment and limited supplies. "It's been very, very difficult, horrible in fact," said the doctor, 51, who also did not want to give his name, for security reasons. "We feel a sort of impotence as doctors. We don't have the equipment we need. This is a medical post we just set up spontaneously.... But a lot of times our patients die on us because we don't have the means to save them." But in this city that takes pride in its fighting spirit, there is a sense this may only be the beginning. "People in Masaya are warriors," said Elias Mendoza, a 27-year-old father of two, readying his mortar at a barricade during a recent confrontation with police. "We can go to war if we have to."