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Caught in the Crossfire Part II: RMM Workers in Nicaragua’s 1979 Revolution

By Andrew Sharp
From the June 2013 Beacon
(Read Part I here)

As the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza crumbled in late 1978 and early 1979, RMM missionaries and Voluntary Service workers were swept up in the events. These accounts from the team caught in the village of La Esperanza are drawn from reports from the time and from present-day interviews.

Verda Mayer

Despite the unrest in September 1978, Verda decided not to leave Nicaragua. “We had to be really careful about where we could go, and it was just a real tense time,” she said. She was associate director of RMM’s rural health program, so she traveled around a lot. At one point she went with VS Director Wilbur Bender to a little town in northwest Nicaragua. A meeting with the local health committee came to an abrupt end when shooting broke out nearby and the committee ran to hide. Verda and Wilbur found out later that some people were killed in the shooting.

In June 1979, when the national strike broke out that paralyzed the country, Verda was in La Esperanza, a village some 200 miles from Managua. She had just helped train one of the local health leaders and she felt it was important to help him get started. The strike and subsequent fighting cut both communication and travel, so Verda was stuck in La Esperanza with fellow VSers Jay Yoder (from Pennsylvania) and Alan Miller (from Delaware).

VSers in the capital, Managua, were now leaving on emergency flights, so Clayton and Thelma Nisly began their misadventures traveling out to La Esperanza to try to tell the team what was going on (see May 2013 issue). The Nislys never got there, but the team was able to keep up with the national news via shortwave radio. Dan Byler (currently working with RMM in Thailand) was in the region, but no one knew where. It was a real relief, Verda said, when he showed up after a week. He had been out in a remote location called El Castillo working with a growing church there.

The VS house and the clinic had been robbed a number of times, so government troops were posted to guard them at night. These guards warned them that if they came out at night, they would be shot. “So we were pretty tense,” Verda said. They were tense enough to consider trying to take a five or six day hike through the jungle to Costa Rica, but decided to try to get to Managua instead.

1979 - The VS house in La Esperanza
became the Sandinistas' command post immediately after the war began and
they placed their flag above the sign.
Jay and Verda were able to catch a ride to Managua on a troop transport plane that they shared with 25 government soldiers, sitting on the floor of the plane without seat belts or security belts. Once they landed they got a ride to the VS center. “We were really shocked by the destruction we saw as we rolled across (Managua) on the back of a Red Cross pickup truck,” Verda said. None of the North American workers were at the VS center, but Nicaraguan believers who had fled from heavy fighting near their homes were staying there.

Alan Miller was still in the La Esperanza area, but eventually got out on the last plane that left before the Sandinistas took over the area. It was a good thing he did, because he was coming down with an illness from the drinking water that turned out to be hepatitis (swelling and inflammation of the liver). Verda said it would have been disastrous for him to be stuck out in the village with hepatitis.

As the situation deteriorated in Managua, Verda took the advice of RMM administrators and left for Costa Rica, but when the fighting ended a few weeks later, she came back. She discovered a detachment of Sandinista troops camping in the clinic in La Esperanza. In one room, guns were lined up all along the walls, and her former bedroom was the commander’s quarters. When the Sandinistas realized the RMM workers had come back, they graciously gave back the clinic and all the medical supplies they had appropriated for their use.

Verda moved to San Antonio, Texas, after her time in Nicaragua, where she helped Henry and Esther Helmuth plant Abundant Life Christian Church, a Hispanic congregation now part of CMC. She is still very active in this church. She recently retired from substitute nursing as an RN with a local school district.

Dan Byler

As the country moved toward revolution, Dan moved out to more peaceful rural areas like La Esperanza and El Castillo, which were still very calm, so he was able to continue his work. Since these areas were very remote, staying in touch with RMM was difficult for Dan even at the best of times, and of course he was completely cut off when the war started.

As the heavy fighting started, communication began to buzz between the RMM missionaries, the base in Managua, and the offices in Ohio, but nobody knew where Dan was or what he was doing. The first thing the rebels did was cut the roads, he said, which made it impossible to get to Managua.

Such a situation would be expected to cause some stress, but Dan’s description made it sound almost like a relaxing vacation. “We were doing just fine in that area, because there was no activity, no war … we were having church every night, it was a really wonderful time for churches to grow … I enjoyed staying there. There was an abundance of food.” In fact, there was more food than people could eat, he said, because that area supplied food to the surrounding villages, which were now closed to business.

After about ten days, Dan decided to strike off for La Esperanza to see how the VSers there—Jay Yoder, Alan Miller, and Verda Mayer—were doing. He had to cut cross-country on foot, taking a route he had never taken before, then hitchhike on the main road. After he got there, Verda and Jay were able to get out, but Alan stayed a little longer, unsure whether to go or stay.

Alan Miller
A friend of Dan’s, a Sandinista sympathizer, gave him a tip that the Sandinistas were going to attack the village, and that they wanted to take the mission’s shortwave radio. “I remember thinking, I wish I didn’t know that,” Dan said. Knowing too much was dangerous. Keeping the information to himself meant government troops would consider him a rebel collaborator; sharing the information would make him a government spy.

Dan told Alan if he was going to leave, he needed to leave immediately, but he refused to tell Alan why. He didn’t want to burden him with the same excess of knowledge he had. So Alan left, on the last flight out.

Why didn’t Dan leave when everyone else was getting out? “I didn’t want to,” he said simply. “I wanted to be with the people who were there. I don’t know if it crossed my mind.” He also knew if he could get back out to El Castillo, he would feel safe there. “There was a lot of church work going on. It was a wonderful time … for churches to grow,” he said. “It was too good to leave and it looked like the war was winding down.”

Dan was not the only person who knew the Sandinistas were coming to La Esperanza. Government troops were waiting for the guerillas when they arrived, ambushing and killing four of them. “The whole village was in an uproar. It was probably the most stressful time I had during the whole war was that night,” Dan said. The troops rounded up villagers and tortured some of them to find out who was collaborating with the rebels. They shot some of them. Dan’s friend, the one who told him about the attack, was a believer and also a rebel collaborator. He stayed with Dan while the army jeeps rumbled past outside, and was understandably quite worked up. But he and Dan were left unharmed.

Dan, worried that he would be questioned, took a journal that he had kept for six years and threw it down the latrine. “You do things differently during a time of stress like that,” he said, laughing. “It was a time of stress but it was also a time when the Christians had banded together to pray, and God did really protect us.”

A few weeks later it was the government sympathizers’ turn to worry. The war was over, and now it was the Sandinistas who were looking for collaborators. Dan said they were relatively humane and investigated cases before they killed anyone—not a high standard, perhaps, but more scrupulous than the government troops.

As it turned out, during the fighting Dan had refused to turn over a VS vehicle to Sandinista sympathizers, feeling it was intended for clinic work, not revolutions. These sympathizers denounced him to the Sandinistas as a government sympathizer. So they imprisoned him overnight until they could look into his case. Dan led a service that night among the prisoners, who requested a message from Acts 12—the story of the angel releasing Peter from prison. Some of the prisoners were taken out during the night and shot, but Dan again downplayed the danger. “They just hadn’t gotten to my case.”

The next morning, some of the Nicaraguan believers went to the Sandinista commander and vouched for Dan, so the commander released him and even gave him a signed pass giving him safe conduct.

“That whole time showed how vulnerable people are in times of conflict,” Dan said. One side would come and demand something from people at gunpoint. If they complied, the other side considered them collaborators. Some Christians he knew were killed by government troops because they had given food to the Sandinistas.

But it was also a good time, he said. “It was a wonderful time for the church to grow.” Starting in 1978 when the violence escalated, “There was a wonderful spiritual opening that lasted the whole time I was there up to ’86 when I left.”

The churches in Nicaragua have now started sending their own mission workers out. Some of these are working in Bangkok, Thailand, where they are learning about missions from a veteran RMM worker—Dan Byler. “A lot of what happened back then built a strong church,” Dan said. “That is what we’re seeing the result of now in missions.”

Continue Reading:

The Extraordinary Dr. Parajón.

Read Part I, from the May Beacon.

If reading these stories brought back memories, whether you were in Nicaragua—or in the States worrying about someone in Nicaragua—send us your story so we can publish it on our website. Photos are welcome as well!
Email info@rmmoffice.org