Gracias, Gracias


In Northern Nicaragua, in 1986, in the midst of the Contra War, in Lent, I am walking along a dry, dusty dirt road. I am here, as I have explained in the letter I sent around to raise money for this journey, for renewal of my spirit. I am tired. I have been working and living with homeless people in the United States, and I have lost hope. I have lost hope in humanity. I see nothing but a downward spiral of violence and poverty and selfishness.

I have heard stories about Nicaragua, stories of spiritual vitality. I am here, now, in Nicaragua, to see if there is any hope left.

I am walking this hot, barren road with several hundred Nicaraguans and a handful of Norteamericanos, part of the Via Crucis Por La Paz y La Vida - The Way of the Cross for Peace and Life. In the United States, the Via Crucis is known as "the stations of the cross." It is an enactment of Jesus' journey to Golgotha.

The Via Crucis is a common Lenten activity in Nicaragua, but this Via Crucis Por La Paz is grand in scale and scope. Conceived by Nicaraguan Secretary of State Miguel D'Escoto, it is aimed at ending the Contra war. The Via Crucis will end after fourteen days, corresponding to the fourteen stations of the cross, in Managua, a distance of about 160 miles. It began, and I and the group I am travelling with have joined it, in the north of the country, in territory frequently haunted by Contras. It is the third day. The day Jesus falls for the first time.

We feel no danger for ourselves, no fear of falling victim to the Contras. Sandinista soldiers can be seen on distant hilltops, surveying and protecting. But there is a certain tension. Smoke in the distance. Bombed bridges. The distant presence of those same soldiers. Crosses at the roadside, marking Contra ambushes.

As we walk a piece of news comes to us, passed from person to person. We summarize it the following day in a statement sent home to Vermont:

Six people were killed Sunday, February 16th riding home from a march for peace and life in the depths of Chinandega, Nicaragua. The six, and nine others who were injured, were ambushed and shot after their truck hit a land mine. They were returning to their homes after the walk. More than two hundred bullet holes were counted in the truck. A twenty-nine year old Swiss national was among the dead. The rest were unarmed civilians. One woman who was injured told reporters that she was trying to breast-feed her baby after the truck had been stopped by the mine, when she heard rifle shots and the screams of other women. According to newspaper accounts the attack was carried out by the Contras with CIA help. The headlines of one paper read, "Reagan Responsible." This is the most recent of the attacks by the Contras on the civilian population.

My first reaction, which I never communicate to the group, is suspicion. I feel it is a set-up at best, or a complete fabrication. I can't believe it has happened. A woman breast-feeding after the truck in which she is riding hits a land mine? Obviously designed to tug at heart strings without any grounding in reality. What could the Contras possibly gain by killing civilians and a Swiss man? It is too strange, too loaded with contradiction, too far outside what I might have called "normal." So I privately side with the US government and assume that the Sandinistas are playing an ugly trick on us.

Having solved the dilemma in my own mind, I set it aside. We leave the Via Crucis, already worn out after only one day of walking.

Three days later the group gathers in our cement and brick hut in the village of German Pomares to discuss the next day's plans. We are due in Managua by supper, but the day is open. Someone suggests that we might go to Somotillo to see the scene of the attack, to talk to witnesses, to find the families of the victims and express our sorrow. With that, all my contradictory feelings came back: the anger, the suspicion, the guilt.

I tune into the conversation to find that the idea of visiting Somotillo is dying. It is too difficult, we are too far away, we had agreed not to go into dangerous territory. Coming out of my private thoughts and feelings, perhaps for the first time on this trip, I speak.

I have to see this, to make it real, if it is real. How can I go home and tell everyone that six people have been killed when I only have second or third-hand information? Who will believe me (How can I believe it myself)? Somehow I have to touch this event. Nothing else matters.

More discussion follows, but the conclusion is the same: too difficult. Then Susan, our translator, suggests that we might try to find the survivors of the attack who are still in the hospital, instead of visiting the scene of the deaths. "After all," she says, "ours is the God of Life."

Hearing those words, I cry. What am I feeling? I hardly know. It is as if I have been given my heart's deepest desire, without having known that my heart was longing for anything.

The grip of practicality is broken, and the group decides to try. We are not sure where the survivors are, but Susan has heard a rumor that they are in Chinandega and Leon, both on our route to Managua. We do not know any names, nor do we know if Nicaraguan hospitals will be open to us, nor if anyone is still hospitalized. But we will try.

In the van on Friday morning, we decide that a small group will have better luck entering the hospital than a large one, so three of us are chosen: Susan, because we need a translator; Fran, who is a retired doctor; and me, because my insistence turned the tide away from giving up.

Our first stop is the hospital in Chinandega, about 40 miles from the scene of the ambush and 80 miles up the coast from Managua. While the rest of the group stays outside and forms a prayer circle, Fran and Susan and I enter the unmarked, inconspicuous door that is the main entrance to the hospital. Susan explains our purpose to a nurse who stands behind a chicken wire wall.

She gives the nurse one of our pamphlets (a flyer with our pictures and names and the purpose of our visit to Nicaragua) and explains that only three of us actually want to go in. It takes some convincing, but eventually the nurse calls someone else, and within a few minutes a young man appears, to show us into the hospital.

He is not completely sure where she is, but he thinks that there is still one woman in this hospital. Fran later says she got the sense that this attack was not an extraordinary event at the hospital even though it was to us. The Nicaraguans have come to expect this sort of thing. Such is my first taste of what it means to them to be at war.

He can not locate the woman. We wander from ward to ward. The beds are full. Curious eyes watch us come and go. It seems crowded, perhaps understaffed and poorly supplied, but clean and calm. Finally we find a doctor who knows the situation. Six people were brought to the hospital in Chinandega. One, a woman, died on the operating table. The other five were sent to Intensive Care in Leon, a larger facility. So we leave the hospital with our first real information, thankful for the time and attention we have received.

Leaving Chinandega, the group discusses whether it is worthwhile to try again in Leon. I feel that God was walking with us in the hospital (believe me, I do not say such a thing lightly). Our visit there, whatever its result, was the right thing to do. I am not sure whether we still need to go to Leon. There is some sentiment that we should head for Managua because we are giving a ride to a woman with four children, and it is not fair to them to make them wait all this time.

Susan points out that travelling in our air-conditioned van is much better than our passengers would be experiencing on Nicaraguan public transportation (people jammed into and on top of old busses), and that we are now reasonably sure of finding people, especially if the hospital staff in Leon is as helpful as that in Chinandega. I cheer silently as we decide to try again.

I am overwhelmed by a sense that the path is being cleared in front of us. This is what I am praying for, and this is what is happening. In Leon, the secretary of the hospital administrator takes us herself, as far as she is able. She is pregnant, and after two flights of stairs calls it quits and gives us verbal directions to the Intensive Care unit.

She has called ahead, so when we arrive we are met by a woman wearing a red flower. We are taken to a pale green room. We have no idea what the age or sex or condition will be of the person we are going to see. The first person I see in the room is an elderly woman in a bed by the wall. She seems to be in very poor health. There are several people in the room, apparently family and friends. But the person we have come to see, it turns out, is the girl sitting in a chair in one corner of the room.

She is about thirteen. Her name is Xochilt. She has a bandage on the left side of her face. Bullet wounds, small round reddish scabs, cover her tan left leg. The attack was reported as coming from the left. She is a little apprehensive about us, but as she talks with Susan, she begins to loosen and smile. She has a beautiful smile.

When she came into the hospital, she explains, she could not walk or talk. Now she is talking, although with a husky voice, and this is her first day of walking. This is not her room; she has just come for a visit.

Twice a nurse comes in to see the two patients. The first time she is also a little apprehensive, but I give her one of our pamphlets and Susan explains that we have come to express our grief and our hope that Xochilt will recover quickly. As the nurse leaves the second time, she takes my hand and says, "Gracias. Gracias." She seems about to cry. I am already close to tears, as I have been from the first time Xochilt smiled.

Xochilt leads us to her own room, where we meet her brother. He is very excited about our presence and wants to know if we have visited the other two victims of the attack who are still in the hospital. No, we have not. So, leaving Xochilt with a cross that Fran has been wearing around her neck, we follow her brother to the pediatric ward, where we are taken to a corner bed in a room full of beds, and a younger girl, eight years old.

She is clearly in worse shape. She has a cast all the way up her left leg and on her left arm. Susan discovers that shrapnel has penetrated to the bone. That is the reason for the casts. At first Marta Lorena is very subdued, almost depressed, or perhaps frightened. But as we visit she perks up. I have no idea what Susan is saying to her, but it doesn't matter. I am staring into Marta's eyes. I am watching them brighten as the energy and vitality in the room increase.

I am lost. I am lost in her eyes and smile.

I leave her eyes and look around the room. Everyone is smiling and laughing on the edge of tears. The room is full of people smiling. The presence of life and love is so strong that I am practically doing somersaults. I must look like an idiot, with my mouth and eyes wide open, taking in every little detail. I want to jump and sing for joy and howl in agony all at the same time.

Some of the people in the room are nurses and some are women from AMNLAE, the largest Nicaraguan women's organization. They are coming and going, everyone curious about what we are doing here. Everyone excited that we are here to express our love and concern. The fact that we walked with the Via Crucis means a lot to them.

Susan offers Marta a ceramic pendant with a picture of a dove and the word "peace." Asked if she wants to wear the necklace right now, Marta explodes with excitement, vigorously shaking her head up and down. Susan places the pendant around her neck, and we each kiss her before we reluctantly leave. I do not want to leave at all. I feel as if I have found real life and love for the first time, and I do not want to lose it.

The AMNLAE women stop us in the hall to tell us that Marta's grandmother came into the hospital at the same time as Marta, but died shortly there after. Marta does not know this yet. In fact, Marta is saying, "Grandma will get out first because she is such a strong woman." Marta's mother does not know how or when to break the news. She is at least going to wait until Marta is stronger.

They also tell us that one more girl is still in the hospital, but she is in very bad shape and can not have visitors. The three of us thank everyone (Fran, the doctor, comments that she has never seen such a friendly, open hospital in her life), and we return to the group that is still worshipping on the sidewalk. Several Nicaraguans have spontaneously joined the group, so it is a large circle that opens to receive us.

As we begin to relate what happened inside, one of the women from AMNLAE comes out and says that she has arranged for us to see the third girl. I jump at the chance to go back inside, then realize that it would be best for someone else to have the experience. Fran also relinquishes her place, and Susan and John and Roddy disappear into the hospital.

Their story I hear later as we drive south to Managua. They met a girl in her teens. She was in a body vice that keeps the spine and neck aligned. She was unable to speak or gesture or make any sound. Our delegation said she looked frightened as the nurses turned her to face them. But John, characteristically, started to wink at her, and was very surprised when she winked back. Then he blinked and she blinked. He did crazy things with his eyes and she mimicked everything until finally she broke into a smile and John started laughing. Roddy and Susan watched in amazement, along with the nurses who had never seen Pilar make any movement at all.

After our return to Vermont, we learn that Pilar has died.

In Lent of 1987 I carry a white cross bearing Pilar's name across the state of Massachusetts.

And now, today, here, I carry Xochilt and Marta Lorena and Pilar in my memory. And now, sometimes, somehow, I lose track of myself again, and a way that feels like no way clears before me, and I return to a home I never knew I had left. I come home to love. And nothing else matters.