I was frantic to recover the voices.
(a) my belongings were scattered across a banged-up wooden desk;
(b) uniformed men were regarding me with suspicion; and
(c) there was only one exit.
The mood in the room—even before the Brooklyn accents emerged—vibrated with distrust. And I, the Dean’s List student returning from a church-sponsored trip, was the miscreant.
It was odd to see my possessions on display, odder still for them to be under investigation. My stomach lurched: hell bent on recovering my things, I hadn’t considered the possibility of an unfriendly reception. During my twenties, my persona tended towards teachers-pet-ness. Color-within-the-lines-ness. Please-like-me-ness. Faced with authority, I erred on the side of compliance: a tactical error, very seductive to bullies.
Smarting beneath three sets of eyes, I kept my face calm, my thoughts unspoken, while performing a quick mental inventory of the desktop, trying to intimate how I and my possessions could have shifted from “innocuous” to “incriminating.”
Exhibit i: A young female collegiate who, shortly after arriving by train in Boston, suddenly flew back to
New York City, spending outrageous sums to reach an out-of-the-way substation.
Exhibit ii: An ugly waxed charcoal military-issue field bag containing an eclectic assortment of items that didn’t appear to add up to the cost of round-trip airplane and cab fare.
Exhibits iii-vii: Wallet and passport (certainly these were innocent looking?), microcassettes (ditto?), an army belt (this could be questionable), a wooden button featuring Che Guevara (this could really mean trouble), and a few pieces of frayed cinnamon bark (uh-oh).
Each possession took on a new and slightly sinister meaning when examined through a stranger’s eyes. It felt worse than someone pawing through my underwear drawer. Undies, at least, were basically predictable, as even kinkier bits of lingerie were recognizable within the world of blue-collar men. No Big Deal.
This investigation was more intimate, due to emotional attachments spanning such a wide array of conflicting philosophies I could have qualified for multiple personality disorder. A pacifist who couldn’t stomach horror films yet owned army-issue gear? A war protestor with a Che Guevara icon? The display revealed the hypocrisy – no, the incongruity – of my possessions vis-à-vis my values. My stomach did a few more somersaults. Was I supposed to explain the inexplicable?
The night before, at an undisclosed location along the East Coast, a pounding rattled my private compartment, mimicking the wheels’ narcoleptic da-dump-da-dump-da-dump and yanked me out of a deep slumber. Opening the door, I blearily greeted a conductor who instructed me to gather my belongings. Time to move: we were all switching passenger cars as our train was reconfigured and attached to a new engine.
During the switch, I left a small travel bag in one of the sleeping compartment’s nifty miniature storage cabinets, cleverly designed to latch flush into the metal walls. So nifty, so clever, that once their doors were shut, the cabinets became invisible. The oversight went unnoticed until I jolted awake hours later in Boston and automatically reached for a bag that was no longer present. As I absorbed my predicament, my psyche became a malfunctioning lab experiment cycling through differential states: hot (confusion), cold (denial), warm (understanding), freezing (dread), and finally boiling (panic). The more I contemplated the loss, the more I became convinced the most critical bits of my life were contained in the missing bag.
Still discombobulated, I disembarked in Boston’s Back Bay Station, grabbed the rest of my luggage, and raced to the nearest customer service counter. Several frantic conversations later, I learned the train car containing my bag had returned to the outer boroughs of New York City. There was no question: I had to get there. With just enough pocket change to take the Green Line back to my university yet without any form of identification, I managed to finagle a cash advance, hotfoot it to Logan Airport, and board a flight to New York within less than three hours. (Airport security was more accommodating in the eighties.) From LaGuardia airport, a taxi brought me to an address scribbled on a piece of paper, a train yard overlooked by a nondescript building with grimy windows and the air of a place where ambitions curled up and died. I tried one door after another until a solidly built man in uniform materialized and barked down the hallway, “You Miss Pyfer?”—a query simultaneously intimidating and hilarious due to the butchering of my surname.
“Yes sir,” I replied, choosing not to correct his pronunciation while following him to a side office where two more officials waited. Lowering myself into the proffered chair, I stared at my things, my stomach tightening and my fingers itching to sweep everything off the damn desk, strap the bag tightly to my side, and flee.
“You sure got here quick,” the first uniform continued, as if that fact, all on its own, implied malfeasance.
A lengthy silence ensured while we continued to contemplate the desktop. I don’t recall if I fidgeted. Probably not—I was too preoccupied while my investigators’ perspectives percolated into my consciousness. The wallet didn’t have that much money in it. The license and credit cards, OK, anyone would be eager to get those back, but the rest? There had to be some ulterior motive. Something the kid wasn’t admitting. Just what was she doing in Central America? Was she one of those radical types? Must be that suspicious plant-looking stuff. Nothing else in the bag seemed to be worth the effort.
I chuckled silently over the cinnamon bark. Mercy. I doubted these guys would peg me as such a goody-two-shoes that I’d never touched anything resembling illegal drugs, despite countless opportunities growing up in hick-town Florida, and more recently during a semester abroad in Bogotá. This was serious, and I’d better behave if I wanted all my stuff back. Yet being mildly interrogated by Amtrak officials wasn’t part of my pre-trip briefing. What was I supposed to do?
It was winter 1986. My train ride was the penultimate stage of a return journey from Managua via Miami, one of a dozen-plus Mennonites taking a novel sort of vacation. A vacation that inspires one, decades later, to hiss and spit at childish ‘reality’ and Survivor television shows. On our vacation, as members of a Witness for Peace (WfP) delegation (1), we deliberately placed ourselves smack in the middle of a civil war. (2)
Our “tour” was something I worked toward for years, beginning with two photojournalism books titled El Salvador and Nicaragua I found in a local bookstore during my senior year at Lancaster Mennonite High School. Those books grew me up. Paging through unflinching imagery of the aftermath of successive military regimes and the ensuing resistance provided a thorough, shocking immersion in real politik. A bloody glimpse of what our neighbors did to each other.
The teenager who turned the first page was not the same teenager who lingered over the last. I had no idea, I thought repeatedly, the gritty images knocking the scales from my parochial-school eyes. Why didn’t I know about this? Worse, why aren’t we stopping this?
My people, the Mennonites, are über-pacifists. In the face of conflict, we are mandated to extend love, to forgive, to turn the other cheek. We avoid anything with even a hint of violence: boxing or wrestling, football or rugby, or any type of media fictionalizing harmful behavior. We eschew profanity and strong words. We shun lifting our voices in anger or thoughts bordering on quasi-pseudo-violence. We are lambs who go very, very far out of our way to stay meek and unblemished, quietly minding our own business, raising our children.
We were such innocents. A handful of us city folk (most Mennonites originate from farming communities) with experience protesting the Vietnam war or nuclear stockpiling or corporate investment in the South African apartheid regime were familiar with civil disobedience exercises—let your body go limp when the police start dragging you off – but travel to an area with an explicitly violent conflict was new.
In truth, any in-your-face violence, other than the routine slaughter of livestock, was new. Even those killings usually took place off-farm, the meat returned to the owners in neat, skinless, eye-less, hoof-less forms (unless we were pickling pigs’ feet, in which case you leave the toenails on). Members of historic peace churches—Mennonite, Amish, Quaker, and Brethren-in-Christ—were non-combatants and conscientious objectors before either term was invented. Most of us had never dealt with abuse, rape, hold-ups, hijackings, military brutality, or torture, despite our religion’s extensive history of martyrdom (3) in both the Old and New Worlds.
Our refusal to fight on American shores officially began with the Revolutionary War, a stance that ruined our 18th century popularity rating and set the tone for future waves of martyrdom. Not that we cared about being popular—quite the opposite. “Be in the world but not of it” (4) was the constant refrain as I grew up, the answer to every whining query, from “why can’t I wear makeup/halter-tops/short-shorts/bikinis?” to “why can’t I hit Debbie back?”
Then came the era of Latin American right-wing death squads and assassinations of priests and nuns and laypersons, provoking a theological conundrum. Our brothers and sisters in Christ were being murdered while doing God’s work amongst impoverished, beleaguered communities. We were prohibited from going on the offensive, but we had to do something. Following hundreds of impassioned Sunday School discussions in hardback church pews across Middle America pondering the biblical exhortation, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for another,” (5) we decided it was time to do exactly that.
In the 1980s, the tangle of guerilla and civil wars throughout Central America provided ample opportunity for stepping into harm’s way. Our more intrepid members joined “Christian Peacemaking Teams” to serve as nonviolent witnesses—actual human shields—for months at a time in war-torn regions, with their home congregations supporting them through offerings and prayer circles. Our all-Mennonite WfP trip to the epicenter of the Nicaraguan Contra War was another perfect fit for do-gooder/bleeding-heart types.
Our naïveté was evidenced during one heart-stopping incident during a pre-trip training. On the afternoon of day two, our instructors lined us up in short rows of folding chairs inside an empty meeting room to simulate a bus ride. A few minutes into our pretend journey, the lights flicked off and the trainers staged a mock attack: yelling, wearing facemasks, waving guns, and roughly shoving us around, separating us from one another.
To the trainers’ credit, this was typical of a rural Nicaraguan bus ride during the war. Despite relative safety in the capital city of Managua, Contra soldiers (resistors to the revolutionary Sandinista government) were constantly launching incursions throughout the countryside, including the areas on our proposed itinerary. Passenger buses were targets. Open-bed trucks were targets. Anything moving was a target. Tractors. Bicycles. Children.
During the training simulation we delegates turned into jello-filled non-action figures. We melted into putty, bleated like sheep. Useless. Although our trainers quickly pulled off their masks and revealed the guns to be plastic pistols shooting blanks, we couldn’t stop shaking during the post-simulation debriefing.
The Contra War ultimately claimed between 30,000 to 40,000 lives, mostly from the below-30 generation. The death toll was equivalent to wiping out the entire undergraduate population at Boston University, and Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After the war ended, countless more deaths came from 27,000 land mines remaining in Nicaragua. The psychic deaths were immeasurable.
This was our chosen destination: a tiny, war-torn country in the pre-cellphone, pre-internet era, when it was impossible to Google-map the terrain to see where recent attacks had taken place or bridges had been blown up. We were about to go potlucking through the middle of an active shooting range.
As the first 100% dyed-in-the-wool Menno WfP group, we had a special mission to bring support to our kindred in a Mennonite community—an anomaly in a devoutly Catholic nation—residing in the village of La Esperanza (translation: “Hope”), on the other side of a Contra-besieged zone in Nueva Guinea, southeastern Nicaragua. We were farmers, nurses, educators, students, and white-collar professionals, visiting our counterparts in the countryside. Our average age was twenty-nine.
During our acclimatization in the WfP Managua headquarters, a modest one-story house with screened windows and doors, our group received the “Top Ten Things You Can Look Forward To,” reverse-incentive talk. First we reviewed handouts covering mosquitoes, chiggers, fleas (oil of pennyroyal recommended), tetanus, polio, tuberculosis, malaria (take Chloroquin), diarrhea, constipation, heat exhaustion, and general stress. Then the staff unrolled a map, traced our proposed route, and matter-of-factly repeated the statistics regarding our likelihood of being shot at, detained, kidnapped, or killed by the Contras, who specifically harassed international volunteers, reporters, and peace workers. (6)
Might as well paint bulls-eyes on our foreheads. It was worse than reading the fine print on a no-fault insurance policy, or the list of side effects for a newly approved yet potentially lethal pharmaceutical. Our hosts emphasized that it was perfectly acceptable for us to decline the next stage. Newbies were given one final chance to raise our lily-white hands and say, “OK, we get it! Too gnarly! We’ll stay here and wait, crocheting afghans in weird color combinations, baking shoe-fly pies, and reciting obscure Bible verses.”
No one backed out. Meeting over, the WfP resident staff put us to work: repacking medical care kits and procuring field supplies. Presented with massive piles of devalued córdobas, which we recounted and crammed into brown paper bags while joking about never having seen such huge wads of cash, we walked out into city streets with very little traffic to the government commissariat where we bought bags of rice, beans, sugar, and salt to gift our host families in La Esperanza, so they wouldn’t starve while feeding us.
In the village, Anne, a Mennonite WfP staffer and I were assigned to a family of five: mom, dad, grade-school age daughters and son. The family took our sacks of food, thanked us, and placed them in the kitchen. Every day, the moment we sat down at the family’s table we were confronted with acts of generosity that sent me over the edge: a few tiny tomatoes in a bowl, some slices of fried plantain, or a small bony fish.
My eyes (and mouth) watered. These gifts of hard-won food displayed on the roughly hewn wooden surface profoundly moved me. As a friend put it later, I’m an American and my country is screwing them over and yet they are giving me more than they give themselves. Initially I didn’t touch the precious gifts, mindful of the household’s limited resources. Eventually I wised up, stopped denying my hosts their dignity, and ate everything on offer: down to the last rice grain, running my finger around the plate to wipe it clean.
Our tour took place during the rainy season. Muck everywhere. We pushed our open-bed truck out of one mud hole, and then another, traveling deeper into the war. Our interviews intensified: we stopped more frequently to talk through the aftermath of recent incursions with families as we: followed in the trail of Contras who targeted agricultural cooperatives, schools, and health care centers. We spoke with the survivors of attacks that assassinated civic and religious leaders, farm laborers, conservation workers, electricians, and agricultural technicians: ordinary people, trying to make life better for their communities.
Our door-to-door surveys were quite different from those typically performed. No clean white forms or crisp columns of straight-edged boxes. No filling in the blanks or multiple choice. Instead, we were documenting the messiest, grossest, bloodiest, most heinous experiences these people had ever lived through.
As a child, when my sister’s best friend was killed by a neighborhood psycho, and her body dumped in one of the orange groves lining the sidewalk route the two girls walked to middle school, for years afterward my sister refused to go to bed without a nightlight blazing.
I mentally tried to multiply that feeling by hundreds of thousands of beating hearts.
But that wasn’t the worst of it: those guns had my name on them.
We conscientious Mennonites, and the other two hundred million Americans who allowed the carnage to continue through several presidential terms, were complicit in the violence bought by our tax dollars and our silence, while our government blocked international aid to Nicaragua, imposed an embargo, and disallowed accurate coverage in the U.S. press.
As a Witness-for-Peacer, there were times I felt I was pouring blood-sweat-tears into a sieve: our spanking new passports, our limited time in the country, our prayers, our reporting back, were incapable of raising the dead or stopping the insanity. The Contra were too well funded, our government’s policies too well entrenched. Our government played with us, mocked us, did whatever the hell it wanted.
When Congress refused to approve military aid to the Contras in 1985, the Reagan administration orchestrated a secret arms deal with Iran and sent the proceeds to the Contras. The poster-child of this era, Officer Oliver North, lied to Congress when questioned about the simultaneous drug-trafficking that accompanied arms shipments to the Contras (7), was granted immunity for his testimony, carried on with his mistress-secretary, Fawn Hall, and held a document-shredding party. His felony sentence, later reversed and dismissed, involved a three-year suspended prison term, two years’ probation, $150,000 in fines, and 1,200 hours of community service.
Lady Justice stood blindfolded, middle finger upraised on her right hand, the left one amputated.
I did not experience a war littered with high-tension, shuddering explosions, like made-for-Hollywood bomb scenes. Instead, it was one of quiet destructions, those largely unseen and unreported. Shots fired across newly planted cornfields, early-morning ambushes in remote corners, people gone missing and never recovered. Our WfP sponsors aimed to bring this hidden war into the light: to literally go where no one else was willing to go: to listen, record, and transmit the horror back to the world. During our tour we spoke with dozens of people across hundreds of kilometers, word of the attacks traveling from mouth-to-mouth. What most remains with me are the voices; the ones slicing my life into distinct phases of knowledge.
Knowledge of Evil, 1.0: reading about atrocities in a book or newspaper or magazine.
Knowledge of Evil, 2.0: seeing the abandoned fields, the simple gravesites, the bloodstains on schoolhouse walls.
Knowledge of Evil, 3.0: listening to details in person, haltingly spoken by those left behind.
Post-Nicaragua, I became a modern-day Eve, having eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil, the bitter seeds caught between my teeth. Evil was no longer a debatable concept. Now I knew Evil: the choices of Evil, the stink of Evil, the mind-blowing realities of Evil.
At some point during our trip, I became a Tourist of Evil. After witnessing precisely what Witness for Peace intended for us to witness, I was soul-weary, processing the geopolitical realities that produced war zones with permeable borders. That I – or anyone, for god’s sake – could travel into the middle of a war and then travel out of it, while other fine, decent people stayed and risked death: that was crazy-making.
I don’t remember much of the Nicaraguan terrain, other than copious quantities of rust-colored clay coating the roadsides. Each time we had a break in our schedules I tried, unsuccessfully, to handwash the stains from my ankle-length skirts during laundry sessions on river rocks. Finally a sympathetic bystander reached out and took my skirt from me, whacked it repeatedly against the stone and scrubbed with practiced vigor until the material turned soft and bright. Handing it back to me with a smile, she waved away my thanks.
At each interview site we sat with family members around wooden tables, coffee cups untouched. Our interviewees testified how their loved ones were killed, mutilated, or dismembered. Then these kind people described how they found, and buried, the bodies.
Our group sat still and quiet while I translated words in Spanish that, immediately after the syllables left my mouth, I desperately wanted to un-translate, to shove back into the pages of my dictionary. Words that never should have been associated with someone’s daughter or son or spouse or sibling or cousin or parent or aunt or uncle or grandparent; words that should be outlawed from the human experience. Words provoking streams of tears down my cheeks while the speaker’s eyes remained dry.
My penance was contained in the interviews, recorded on microcassettes. The cassettes were stored in my travel bag. Cassettes lost, then found, then strewn across a Brooklyn desktop.
One night the guys in our group hauled me over to the house of a local Sandinista comandante to serve as their translator while they relentlessly yet good-naturedly quizzed the young commander and debated politics. There was a bottle of rum, a bunch of limes. Another bottle. Possibly a third. My tongue grew thick and fuzzy, until my simultaneous translation mechanism was too impaired to function.
“Sorry guys,” I announced. “We’re done. I’m fumbling too much. My mouth is so worn out I can’t wrap my lips around another sentence.”
My tour-mates got up from the floor, stretched, and recovered their flashlights. I stayed seated. Regarding me with raised eyebrows, they said goodnight and trekked back to the dormitories.
Mr. Sandinista, with whom I exchanged looks but no spoken agreement, was fine-featured, well-muscled, intelligent, single, and hetero. He made room for me in his hammock. We talked some more, and eventually dozed off.
In the middle of what proved to be a quiet night, I awoke with the sudden realization of having chosen the riskiest spot in town if there were to be a Contra attack.
I mulled the thought over for a while. Closed my eyes. Slept.
The morning after, I set out to buy a newspaper. On my walk through the neighborhood, distant gunfire echoed faintly beyond the town’s corrugated rooftops. It took several tries to find the doorway of a small tienda (store), its shelves largely empty, the room spare and otherwise unoccupied except for a petite, dangerously thin, elderly woman.
“Todavia comemos - We are still eating,” she declared, her white hair primly captured in a braid. Her tone was defiant, her gaze unyielding as she rocked back and forth in her chair. Using her chin, she pointed at the latest Sandinista news bulletins lying on a stool near the door.
I took a copy, folded it beneath my arm. The woman accepted my fistful of banknotes. Her eyes remained on me, a question now, so I paused before I left.
“Sí, lo veo—yes, I see this,” I answered gravely.
Lo veo—I see this.
I can do nothing but see this.
1 Founded in 1983, “Witness for Peace (WFP) is a politically independent grassroots organization of people committed to nonviolence and led by faith and conscience. WFP supports peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing U.S. policies and corporate practices that contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean. We stand with people seeking justice.” http://www.witnessforpeace.org/
2 An ecumenical assembly of short- and long-term placements hailing primarily from the United States, our delegation joined thousands of Witness for Peace representatives travelling to war zones between 1983-1990, documenting atrocities committed by Sandinista or Contra. The vast majority of the offenses were committed by the Contra.
3 Every Mennonite child grows up with the 1660 text Martyr’s Mirror (alternate title: The Bloody Theater), an encyclopedic volume describing why and how Christians, especially Anabaptists (“re-baptizers” choosing adult, instead of infant, baptism), perished for their faith. The graphic text is still given as a wedding gift to newly married Amish, Old Order, and conservative Mennonites.
4 This statement refers to the Holy Bible, New Testament verse John 15:19, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” It can also refer to Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
5 The Holy Bible, New Testament, John 15:13.
6 WFP volunteer Richard Boren, 30, of Elkin, North Carolina, was kidnapped by the Contras in March 1988 from a farm cooperative in Mancotal where he traveled to document a recent kidnapping, torture, and murder. Boren and ten other Nicaraguans were force-marched by the “Larry McDonald Task Force of the FDN” (Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguanse, the main Contra army) introducing themselves as “Regan’s [sic] freedom fighters.” After all Nicaraguans were freed or escaped except Victor Rodriguez, Boren negotiated with his captors, delaying his own release until Rodriguez was freed. A year earlier, on April 28, 1987, Ben Linder, 28, of Portland, Oregon, a mechanical engineer funded by Veterans for Peace was murdered by the Contra in Jinotega; my close friend Don MacLeay worked with Ben as an original member of the El Cua hydroelectric team and continued doing so after Ben’s death. The Ben Linder Café in Leon, Nicaragua, the Linder House Co-op at the University of Michigan, the 2008 documentary American/Sandinista (Jason Blalock, director) and Sting’s song “Fragile,” on the 1987 album Nothing Like the Sun, are all dedicated to Linder. The micro-hydroelectric plant Linder and others helped build still functions. The Association of Rural Development Workers-Ben Linder (ATDER-BL) continues to provide micro-hydro projects to rural communities (www.greenempowerment.org/about-us/ben-linder). See Ed Griffen-Nolan, 1991, Witness for Peace: A Story of Resistance (Westminster, John Knox Press) and Lee H. Hamilton and Daniel K. Inouye, 1995, Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran/Contras Affair (jointly published by the US House of Representatives and US Senate).
7 CIA Central America Task Force chief Alan Fiers lied to the House Intelligence Committee about a CIA-financed plane, shot down by the Sandinistas in 1986, carrying 10,000 pounds of ammunition and supplies to the Contras. He was later convicted. His boss, CIA deputy director of operations Clair George, had instructed him to lie. In 1992 George was also found guilty of making false statements to Congress.
An ethnoecologist focusing on biocultural diversity, Dr. Pfeiffer publishes meta-analyses in scientific journals, micro-documentaries, and books on conservation. Her award-winning essays have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and appear in Bellevue Literary Review, Portland Review, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, Hippocampus, Silver Needle Press, The Guardian, High Country News, Sky Island Journal, Langscape, Nowhere, and elsewhere. Learn more at www.jeaninepfeiffer.com.