Afterwards she got up and showed us the place in the backyard that had once been the hole her family would hide in to avoid being captured by the Nicaraguan military.
It’s one thing to read about the brutalities of history, it’s another to hear about them right from the mouth of someone who has lived through the unfathomable while sitting in their yard in what was once a civil war zone.
Brace yourselves people…
How we ended up here?
A friend gave us some extremely vague directions to the house of her aunt in a small city in Northern Nicaragua and said “go visit my aunt”, so we did.
Rolling up two people on a large motorcycle with so much luggage that we have one huge green bag tied on top of all the motorcycle luggage. We stood out a little in this non-tourist town.
The directions said the house was located across from a particular car dealership; once found the dealership was big enough to have ten houses across from it. So like any random foreigner does in the city of a country known for its crime you start by banging on the door of the first house.
That house had an 8ft steel fence with coiling barbwire around it like you see at prisons and I was unable to actually get to the door or any door bell, so I started to bang on the gate and yell. Needless to say no one came excitedly running to the door, thou the neighborhood sure started to notice us. After five minutes of this I asked the kid next door if the Aunt lived there or if he knew of her. No again however he did speak English and let us use his internet to make some calls and eventually four doors down the Aunt came out to greet us.
Like long lost cousins we were invited in and asked to spend the night in the yard in our tent as the house was full with her and another visiting Aunt. The house was a good size and of typical Nicaraguan style with only one level, made entirely of cement and the front half had been rented out to a security team who worked for the car dealership.
This wouldn’t be the first yard I’d camped at in Central America, quickly we were set up and made to feel right at home by the Aunts. However we might have thrown off the people renting when they came back to see a couple of North Americans living in the driveway!
Aunt Flor, Angie and I pulled up a round of plastic chairs and got to chatting. The Aunt had big cloth wraps around all of her limbs with what looked like iodine staining them. She explained she had come back to Nicaragua to visit her ageing mother and get some treatments done on her aching bones by a well known Dr. who uses only natural herbs to heal anything from aches and pains to broken bones.
The testimonials of healed bones were said to be so unbelievable that she had to try it on her own aches to see of if the results were real. It was in the early stages thou she felt as though it was going well and she was feeling better.
Living through a civil war.
After a quick round of small talk about how we all came to know one another & her niece the Aunt quickly drifted into the history of Nicaragua and the battles to survive before she would eventually migrate to Canada.
Flor explained that during the 70’s and 80’s Nicaragua was in the midst of first the Nicaraguan revolution where FSLN violently began to oust the Somoza dictatorship and eventually take power. The FSLN would then lead the country from 1979-1990 as a dictatorship and the Contras would fight back from 1981-1990. During the 80’s Nicaragua was a bloody mess of governments and gorillas, this would be the time Flor would recount surviving.
She said that no one was really safe from either side, if the government felt they needed your bike or car or cows or home they would come to you and tell you that the government need those items and they would take them. The same would hold true for both sides when it came to men and boys. If the government wanted your husband or son to help fight the war they would come and take them. The rebels would recruit members and you were likely never to see them again.
She said if the men did come home it was in a box delivered by soldiers with the persons name on the outside and you were not allowed to open the box and identify the body as the body was likely in many pieces or missing parts. She said she remembered hearing screams in the streets as mothers would have their sons taken away and hear them screaming again as another would have a box dropped off on their doorstep.
The lighter grey part on the ground is where the family hiding hole used to be.
Hiding to survive.
To avoid having her brother taken away by either side the family decided to dig a hole in the backyard big enough to fit the family in and disguise it with wood and trees so it looked like just a little shack in the backyard. Flor recounted the nights the family would spend in the hole in the backyard to avoid capture, they would hear soldiers banging at the house door to recruit family members and they all had to remain silent in the hole as long as it took not give up their cover.
Hiding out also meant supplies would be dwindling and with government taking control of most of the food in the country it would be hard to find sources. One brave sister would need to sneak out during the evening to go looking for food for the family.
It think by this time my eyes had begun to steadily drip onto my cheeks as I pictured a family stuffed in their own backyard, starving and scared while they sent a daughter out searching for family food as it was less dangerous then sending a son.
The lowest moment of her life.
Flor divulged the details of how the government would ration some basic things and her lowest moment in life.
The dictating FSLN would need to ration everything to the people and items like chicken were thrown out to waiting ladies in mass crowds. A solider would have something like five hundred portions of chicken for two thousand people and simply toss a chicken breast or leg out into the restless hands and they would need to fight over it like lions in order to possibly take some to their families.
You would be given notes to exchange for toiletry items like toothpaste and one tube of toothpaste was given to each family of six for one month. One day Flor was to pick up the family toothpaste and as they were only a family of three the distributer would cut the tube of toothpaste in half and give them half.
She said this was the lowest moment of her life, feeling less then a dog, only given half a tube of toothpaste to return to her family with. Things would certainly get worst before they got better.
Later in the years she recounted needing to catch buses to a neighboring cities with her now son, she said one bus would show up for hundreds of people and if she was unable to get on she would often pass her six year old son through the window and have a friend take him to the next town.
Relying on your neighbours.
The neighbouring countries of Costa Rica, Honduras & El Salvador were the closest places of escape for anyone looking for refuge. For a period of time Flor and her family along with thousands of others had made it into more peaceful Costa Rica. She was amazed by the kindness and welcome of the Costa Ricans, they took the Nicas in like family, gave them clothes and feed them while in the country.
Once returning things got more desperate so the family sold some property at a huge discount and used the money to escape to El Salvador, while they were there many people had been talking about the possibilities to migrate to welcoming Canada though it would be difficult.
At first the entire family including twelve children had purchased plane tickets from El Salvador to Toronto and when they arrived at the San Salvador airport the authorities would not let them on the plane as no one had any type of documents of any kind. They had merely escaped with the clothes on their backs and certainly no paperwork. The family argued profusely, yet in the end they had lost the chance, the plane tickets and the money spent on them.
Undeterred and using the same plan they then purchased another round of plane tickets to Canada and arrived at the San Salvador airport at a later date. Like all great miracles the airline let the entire family board the plan without documents and warned them they would not be allowed into Canada.
In the mean time the Seventh Day Adventist Church in El Salvador had been in contact with the same church in Toronto and upon arrival and after several hours of questioning the original family including my friend, eleven other small children and several adults were released into Canadian winter and the loving arms of people who knew nothing more of them then their story.
Life in a new world.
By this point neither me nor Angie has said a word and the two spots on my shirt under my face seemed to be getting increasingly wetter.
Sometime later Flor and her small son would use the same system to enter Canada, upon arrival in Toronto they were separated into rooms and questioned about their previous lives and how they came to be in Canada with no documents.
Flor could not prove who she was let alone that this was even her son, so the Canadian RCMP asked the small boy to tell them about his mothers face. Flor then had a very obvious birthmark on her face and they wanted to see if the boy could remember it. They asked him to describe her face and her son said she was easy to describe as she was the most beautiful women in the world.
They laughed, and probably cried too, and pressed for more details. He eventually described the birthmark in detail and the RCMP reunited them to be greeted by Canadian winter, the original family and families from the church.
Over the next while she described some of the challenges of Canada like learning the language, finding work and everyone slowly etching out their own lives. It had probably been close to an hour and a half by this point and I still had said nothing and didn’t even know where to begin. Picturing my friend who I had known for many years and the life she had now been living in contrast to where she might be today or the life she had marginally survived during war times.
As if not knowing where to go from here either, Flor skipped to the story of their first bus ride in Toronto where a line of roughly twenty people had been waiting for the bus. Her now seven year old son was beside her and when he saw the bus approaching he began to yell frantically to the people on the bus to open the window while he put his arms up and yelled “Mommy I’m ready”. Up until this point through a window was the only way he’d boarded a bus. The three of us burst into laughter and a round of tears.
Viewing life as a miracle.
Flor wound things down explaining she was so happy and proud to be Canadian, she was sure she was living a miracle. She wanted to share this feeling with others and over the years had helped several other Nicaraguans with paperwork and money who had wanted to immigrate to Canada.
Having never missed a day of work in 32years her life long dream and retirement goal was to drive across all of Canada to know all of the rest of the beauty the country has to offer.
Angie said she was completely stunned and with each part of the story, felt her heart aching more and more. Sitting in silence, and tears slowly falling down her face as she tried to grasp for a moment what that experience would have been like. It impacted her, and made her feel something she’s not sure she’d ever felt before, truthfully. It made her recognize how incredibly fortunate she is, and how much she takes for granted on a daily basis. Appreciating her life at such a different level after hearing all that. Such an unexpected sharing of a families tragedy, strength, bravery, and ultimately vulnerability.
As for my friend, it turns out after living in Canada for thirty years she had only just heard
versions of this story and others a week before us.
At one time her uncle who had been a pilot for the Contra got word that he was going to be killed so he stole one of their helicopters, put his family in it and escaped to El Salvador with all of their lives.
In another part of the country her Dad had owned a farm near the Honduras boarder and both the Contras and the FSLN would use it to cross. While he fed & sheltered them her Dad remained neutral to the conflict. Eventually the Contras said he was either with or against them and he refused to pick a side. Some days later a friend came to warn that night the Contras were planning to kill him so the family fled. When they returned weeks later the house was riddled with bullet holes.
This was just before my friend was born, so had this plan came to fruition her life certainly would not have.
And for me, the next time I hear someone bitching in a fast food line about had hard it is to get a cup of coffee,
I’m either going to quietly chuckle to myself, or knock them out :)))