Bullets & Jesus Christ: Interview of a Summer in Nicaragua

This summer, some of us worked, some of us traveled to warm beaches, and some of us (you know who you are) watched Netflix for three months. On July 17, 2018—just a couple months ago—while I was enjoying my summer by the beach, more than 2000 paramilitaries were flooding the historical city of Monimbó, Nicaragua in an armed attack against the citizens accused of being anti-government. That same night, Brown University student, Aidan Reilly ‘21, snuck into Monimbo as part of a film crew to capture the lives of people living in this barricaded city. He spent four weeks following the stories of survivors, families—people—struggling to cope with their new lives in the midst of extreme sociopolitical chaos. Some summers are worth sharing—this is one of them.

The Nicaraguan crisis has arisen occasionally and briefly on our news feeds. As I spoke with Aidan about his summer, he summarized the background of the conflict.

The violence began in April of 2017, and it has been building ever since. Current Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega came to power as the revolutionary hero who overthrew the country’s dictator of 12 years, Anastasio Somoza. Ortega claimed to be the savior who would restore the democracy and justice that had been stolen from the country for the past decade. Although the first few years of his presidency proved uneventful, gradually, he began tweaking policy; he lengthened term limits to secure his lasting power, appointed his wife vice-president, extended his personal power over the judicial system, and made his children owners of news channels all over Nicaragua. For all intents and purposes, he became the new dictator. Although the Nicaraguan people had been unhappy for a while, the final straw came when he eliminated pensions for the elderly. Nicaraguans took to the streets to peacefully protest the oppressive government, but Ortega sent out trucks filled with masked men, a paramilitary mob known as “Turbas,” which attacked violently and blindly. The killing was so indiscriminate that the first to die was a 14-year-old who was bringing waters to people marching.

The nation exploded. Citizens were outraged as the government continued to inflict violence on its own people. On April 18th, the crisis blew up when more protesters left their homes. The paramilitary was sent to kill as many as they could-- a task that the military had refused to do. The death toll has only grown since then.

To protect themselves from government attacks, historical towns like Monimbó built physical barriers and barricaded themselves in their cities. So did the students at the University of Nicaragua (UNAN) as a sign of protest and protection.  

Aidan and the rest of the crew planned to travel to a place of social unrest, not just to stream to the world the violence that has been so frequently ignored, but also with a unique focus on an especially relevant issue: the U.S. immigration crisis. Why do people even want to flee their home countries? They were about to find out.

The original plan was to hide camera equipment and sneak into Monimbó, the barricaded town and perhaps the heart of the revolution—one that the government had not been able to breach since the start of the conflict. However, on the dawn of July 17th, when organized attacks broke through the country, the plan changed radically. The people of Monimbó fought for hours until they eventually had to flee to the jungle to avoid being killed or imprisoned. That same day, the students barricaded in UNAN also encountered government forces. After hours of fighting, they were finally overwhelmed and fled to Church of the Divine Mercy. Aidan pointed out that one clear distinction between the paramilitary and the people were the people’s lack of arms. They fought with anything they could get their hands on, including homemade weapons and fireworks, in an attempt to combat government-issued guns.

Nicaragua is a very Catholic country; religious institutions are highly respected and in general, there is a line between political conflict and the church that is not crossed under any circumstance. This day was different. The paramilitary shot at the church filled with students for twelve hours straight. A picture depicts a woman overcome by emotion, incredulous, to see a picture of Jesus Christ with bullet holes all over it. Priests and nuns had to stand between the paramilitary and the students, praying they would not be shot as well on this day when nothing and no one was safe.

“It now became about the aftermath of this day. We began following the life of the family of Gerald Vasquez, a 20 year old student killed during the university attack. He was five days younger than I was.” Aidan continues telling me about the people’s stories, stories they shared with him. They told him how the government went door-to-door shooting known protestors, or that some would vanish off the face of the earth. To many people, these disappearances were worse than dying: it meant you were going to face Chipote, an underground prison that gave no visiting rights, and no information to family members, just darkness and torture.

"We visited the town just outside of Chipote. It was a community of mothers and children living outside the prison, waiting for news on their loved ones. They were holding up pictures.”

As the government continued barging doors down, masses of people were forced to flee the country. Many crossed the border illegally into Costa Rica. “The people that have not fled are either dead or put in the political prison. Except one that made it out, but I don’t think I will ever hear from him again.”

Meanwhile, the president was giving interviews claiming that all was perfectly well. He had declared his victory and claimed that peace will be renewed in the streets of Nicaragua. Aidan was in those streets during these interviews; he shared: “This was absolutely not the reality.”

The people are angrier than ever. Nicaragua was one of the safest countries in Latin America—a booming economy, few issues with drug cartels, and strict gun control laws all contributed to some of the lowest crime rates on the continent. They expressed their opposition to an oppressive government in a non-violent way and were met by indiscriminate shooting—so indiscriminate that the military refused to be a part of it. Aidan stated, “the question now is whether they (the people) are taking to arms and guns. Now they’re angry and want to fight back equally. They’re urged not to do that because it can become like Syria. A full-scale civil war. All they can do really is peacefully protest while people are dying and vanishing left and right.”

The footage taken during his four weeks in Nicaragua is currently being edited by students and professionals. Aidan talked to me about the intensity of the struggles the Nicaraguans are facing every day, but also of the unity and hope with which they cope. As arms were fired all throughout the land, the radios would play a symbolic song of revolution, which goes: el pueblo unido jamás será vencido. This translates to: when us, the people, unite, we will never be defeated.  

*Note: If you want to help a particular case, one volunteer paramedic who escaped the country is a good friend of Aidan and a hero. He lost his job because of his assistance to protest victims, and has a son and a baby daughter. He had to leave them and has no way to support them. To help, donate via Venmo to @sosnicaragua