Natividad Vargas shifted his weight from one foot to the other, awkwardly folding and refolding his arms as he answered questions from the visiting journalists. The Honduran peasant sounded confused and a little frightened. It is the way refugees always sound when war sweeps over the countryside and drives them from their homes. He did not understand, he said, why two foreign armies were fighting in his native land — Nicaragua’s Sandinista army and the American-backed contras.
“We campesinos don’t understand politics,” Vargas said. “I don’t know why they’re fighting. The contras say they are fighting communism. But I don’t understand that.”
Eight days earlier, Vargas and his family, along with scores of others, had abandoned their farm a few miles from the Nicaraguan border after the Sandinista army had attacked contra strongholds there. In all, at least 15,000 Hondurans, perhaps many more, have been displaced by the war and forced to find squatter homes in towns away from the fighting. Neither the Honduran government nor the United States has provided them with any help.
Another peasant, a gaunt old man with white stubble on his dark face, gave a vivid account of the bomb, mine and mortar explosions he had heard as the opposing forces fought across his fields. “I was really frightened,” he said. “I don’t want to go back as long as there is firing.”
“The Sandinistas only come in because the contras are here,” said Eldermarina Gonzales, a displaced mother with five small children. “If the contras were gone, the Sandinistas would not come.”
The refugees we talked with were living in Nueva Esperanza, a hillside barrio outside of Danli, a quiet little farm town about an hour’s drive from Tegucigalpa and only fifteen miles from the border and the fighting. The contras operate a small hospital in Danli to treat their sick and wounded.
The more the peasants talked about the contras, the angrier they became. They did not like having to live with a foreign army in their midst — men who are well armed and well financed by the United States. “Look around you — this is a very poor country,” Jose Amaya, a merchant, said. “If we had money, we would all go to the United States. I think the contras should get out. They have no business being here. These countries are sisters. We should find a way to exist in peace.”
“I’m going to tell the truth, even if I get in trouble,” Natividad Vargas declared. “The truth is the contras treat us very badly. Imagine. You’re going to town and the contras are guarding the road and they ask us for papers. What right does a foreigner have to ask us for papers in our own country? They accuse us of helping the Sandinistas. They killed one of my neighbors and they killed his son. We don’t know why. It’s not our land anymore. They do whatever they want.”
As we were touring the neighborhood, we could hear the distant clatter of helicopters. Children pointed knowingly to the north at a few small, dark specks that were passing above a far mountain ridge and moving down the valley. Soon the specks became a swarm as more than a dozen American helicopters, Cobras and Chinooks, crossed overhead and disappeared to the south. They were ferrying Honduran soldiers to the war.
“The people have become so used to it,” a woman said. “They don’t even get scared anymore.”
Later, we drove a few miles south from Danli to the site where the helicopters were landing. It was a small airstrip built by the United States in the valley of Jamastran. Honduran soldiers — some serious, some loose and joking — were disembarking in the swirls of dust and trotting off down the country lanes. They were pulling heavy mortars behind them as they fanned out to set up defensive positions on the surrounding farms. An American army lieutenant named Lappas stepped forward from a circle of Honduran officers and told us to get lost. He pretended to be puzzled by our questions.
“What war?” he asked blandly. “I didn’t know we were at war. What makes you think there’s a war here?”