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

By Andrew Sharp
From the May 2013 Beacon
(Read Part II here)

In 1978 and early 1979, Anastasio Somoza’s powerful and oppressive dictatorship in Nicaragua crumbled as rebels called “Sandinistas” launched increasingly violent attacks against the dictator’s “Guardia,” or National Guard. By June 1979, the seesaw violence had broken out into full-scale war. At the time, RMM missionaries and Voluntary Service workers were serving around the country, with headquarters in the capital of Managua. Those who had not left the year before were soon swept up in the events.

Wilbur Bender, VS Director at the time, shared a typical story. “We had a VS retreat in Costa Rica and on the way down… I was driving and a couple Sandinistas came out and stopped us. One of them pointed his gun in my ribs, and I got out and had to show him the papers and stuff, and that was sort of scary.” Sort of scary indeed.

The following accounts are the experiences of RMM workers after the violence exploded in June. The stories are drawn from reports and articles from the time and recent interviews.

Lois (Swartz) Orozco

Lois, a VS worker from Michigan, taught missionary children in Managua. When the nationwide strike started in early June, she was unable to leave the VS center. She wanted to stay, although many VSers had already made the decision to evacuate from Managua. But as things fell apart, she questioned the wisdom of staying. “Normal life ceased to exist,” she said. “Some days students were not able to get to school… when we could no longer work, travel, or even buy what we needed to live, it was time to go.”

The evening she packed up to leave, “Shooting close to the house sent us all to the floor several times. The night was noisy—shots and bombing seemed close and furious.”

Along with several other workers, including VS Director Wilbur Bender, she tried to leave on June 10. Their progress to the airport was blocked by barricades of burning tires and cars, and troops were out on several main highways. After navigating all these formidable traffic hazards (Lois made the trip twice to ferry more mission workers), they discovered it would be virtually impossible to go anywhere. “The airport on June 10 was an absolute madhouse,” Wilbur recalled.

“Hundreds of people were desperate to get out of the country at any price, but the airport officials were unable to help,” Lois wrote. American journalists swarmed Managua, and ABC reporter Bill Stewart came up and spoke with one of the missionaries Lois was with. (Ten days later, Stewart would become famous for being shot dead by a government soldier in cold blood.)

Lois couldn’t get a flight, and so she went back to the VS center. Later, Wilbur called from the airport asking Lois to come pick them up, as they had also been unable to get a flight. On impulse, she called a missionary who told her that there was heavy fighting on North Highway and there was no passage to the airport. “That impulse was from the Lord,” she said. (Wilbur, Assistant VS Director Marc Hershberger, and his wife June were able to book the last seats out of town late that evening.)

Lois found out she would be able to leave from the American embassy early the next morning. Or so she thought. While she and other Americans waited at the embassy, troops struggled to clear their route to the plane. That they were having some trouble doing this was evident by the gunfire that broke out just outside the embassy gates, prompting the embassy guests to run for cover inside and stay there while the firefight went on for an hour. The evacuation was postponed until the next day, so they were taken to the ambassador’s residence for the night. “It was really a haven but… we could look down and see the town burning, bombs being dropped, and we knew there were hundreds of people suffering while we stood there and watched,” Lois wrote.

In the morning, U.S. Marines came to escort the U.S. citizens to their flight. The convoy flew through town, ignoring red lights and even a flat tire.

Their flight was on a cargo plane and definitely was not first class. The bathroom consisted of a pail, ringed by a curtain. In these conditions, the two-hour flight seemed very long and “none of us felt that great by the end of the ride!” Lois wrote.

Lois returned to Nicaragua after the war was over and resides there to this day. She and her husband, Marcos Orozco, a pastor, live in Managua. She recently retired from teaching at Nicaragua Christian Academy.

Clayton and Thelma Nisly

Clayton and Thelma were working with other team members in the village of Puertas Viejas, north of Managua. They lived in a state of great uncertainty. “You heard the faint rumblings of war on the fringes of daily life,” Thelma said. “Would it come near enough to endanger our lives? Would the rumblings go away and be resolved?” Rumors about what the Sandinistas were up to and how the government troops would respond kept people worrying. “No one wanted any shred of incriminating evidence anywhere near them—Somoza was famous for arresting people for the smallest suspicions of subversive activity,” Thelma said. “Hour by hour the rumors changed and grew. And we waited. For what? Well, even we didn’t know.”

After the general strike was called in June, effectively shutting down the country, they called the VS center. Things seemed calm, but that evening on Voice of America news they heard the Sandinistas were advancing in five cities and had announced an attack on Managua that weekend. Things were not calm.

Naturally, they tried to get in touch with Managua again, but communication had now been cut off. Assistant VS Director Marc Hershberger and his wife June had to drive the 40+ mile trip from Managua to Puertas Viejas to inform them the decision had been made to evacuate personnel.

A milk truck that was burned and used
to block a bridge.
But since communication had been cut, someone also needed to drive 180 miles southeast to the village of La Esperanza and let Jay Yoder, Alan Miller, Verda Mayer, and Dan Byler know about the evacuation. The Nislys volunteered for the trip, taking RMM’s Scout (a vehicle similar to a Jeep). About halfway there, however, a man came running up to their vehicle and warned them to stop. His vehicle, he said, had just been stolen by the Sandinistas. They wavered, but still felt responsible to make contact with the team in La Esperanza.

They cautiously (or rashly, depending on how you look at it) kept driving. After only a few miles, a vehicle whipped out across the road in front of them. Two men immediately ran up and pointed automatic rifles at their windshield. Clayton quickly held up his white handkerchief as a sign of neutrality and began trying to explain their mission. The Sandinistas, however, piled into the vehicle with their weapons. The Nislys argued and pleaded, which was gutsy considering they were considerably outgunned, but the Sandinistas left them standing on the road. “Hardly believing our eyes, we stood on the bridge with our few belongings and watched them drive away,” Thelma wrote.

They were very shaken and upset that their mission had failed. They stayed overnight with a local family and then hitched a ride back toward Managua. Their ride got them to the village of Acoyapa, where they decided to stay for the time being with a missionary lady who lived there. It seemed relatively safe, but they were stranded nonetheless.

“Over and over, we begged [God] to keep us from being paralyzed by fear. The devil worked hard to upset our imaginations, minds and emotions. We felt so alone,” Thelma wrote.

They were stuck in Acoyapa for a week before they got word that their Scout had been found and was at the Guardia station some miles away. Clayton went to get it. He found it sunk deep in a mud hole, covered in mud inside and out, with 70 extra miles on the odometer of what Clayton optimistically called “rough use.” Through immense effort, Clayton managed to get it out and back to Acoyapa, where they continued to stay.

That weekend, they heard the Sandinistas were going to attack. Before long, a plane circled the town, then there were five or six loud explosions. They rushed to the back bedroom, which seemed slightly safer, and finally the plane left. “At that point I was finally able to be very honest with the Lord and pray that God would take either both or neither of us in death,” Thelma wrote.

At that point, they prudently decided to change locations and headed for Managua. But they ran of gas, then got a flat tire, and despite a valiant effort had to abandon the Scout. They had to hitch a ride the rest of the way to Managua. Their volunteer mission had been more or less a failure, except that they were still alive and back in Managua in one piece. They were dropped off at the airport to try to leave by whatever plane they could.

They struggled with the decision to leave. “We could soon see the end of these long days of uncertainty and fearfulness. But on the other hand, we couldn’t help but think of all our national brothers and sisters. They couldn’t leave—they had to stay and face whatever came. Now our help is needed more than ever. The struggle went on down in our hearts,” Thelma wrote. But they realized they were burdening the Nicaraguans with two more stomachs to feed, and they were very limited by not being able to buy gas. Also, Thelma was pregnant (with their first child, Duane), so they decided it would be prudent to leave.

On their last night before leaving, it was absolutely quiet, until they both awoke at 3 a.m. to the sound of machine gun fire. “As we listened, we could hear a plane flying somewhere in the distance, strafing the area,” Thelma wrote. “We listened and the plan came closer. We wondered if we should get under the bed, but instead we just prayed. Finally, the silence returned.”

By the night of June 27, they were in Columbus, Ohio, “very thankful to be alive,” Thelma said.

“My faith grew stronger as we saw how God opened the ‘Red Sea’ so we could pass at a safe time, but how he also kept us tucked away safely when it was dangerous to press ahead (when we were unaware of the dangers),” Thelma said.

Allen and Carolyn Roth

Note: the Roths were unable to answer questions about their experiences because of a busy international travel schedule, so this account is drawn exclusively from their reports at the time.

The Roths, with their daughter Lanita, were living in a Managua neighborhood called Villa Libertad (which roughly translates to “Freedom Town,” oddly appropriate for a soon-to-be center of revolution).

By June 6, martial law was enforced. That meant everyone had to be in the house by 8 p.m., or face the consequences—getting shot. On June 8, the neighborhood exploded into war. The Roths had gone inside to avoid being shot for the evening, when the electricity went off and they heard shooting in the distance.

The next day, the neighborhood noisily joined the revolution, as people built barricades and shouted slogans. The only traffic was Sandinista jeeps. Planes circled threateningly overhead and the Roths heard heavy firing not far away. Rumors flew—there were fears of bombing reprisals and reports of contaminated water. Allen was standing outside when he heard a bullet whine and a man fell not far from him, badly wounded.

He spent his day reading Scripture and keeping up with the rumors. Exercising a remarkable ability to mention catastrophe in passing, as simply part of the day, he noted he was “doing some research on Theological Education by Extension for our convention—if we survived.” He described that night as “a beautiful moonlit night punctuated by heavy arms fire.” The family slept fitfully, needless to say, in their clothes.

The next day, the neighborhood had lost its revolutionary swagger and was terrified that government troops would come to “clean up.” There was chaos as people fled. A number of neighbors were gathering at the Roth home for prayer. Allen wrote, “I have no fear of death—it will be my ‘graduation exercise,’ but I do have a lot I’d like to do yet. I haven’t won very many people to Jesus.”

In the afternoon two planes circled overhead and fired on an opposition post about a kilometer away. That was followed by very heavy firing that involved some tanks. Then the dismaying news spread that troops were coming to kill all the men and boys, so people continued to flee in large numbers. At a neighbor’s house, a group gathered to read scripture and fervently pray, confessing sins and pleading for protection and guidance. At the end of their prayer time, a drizzling rain turned into a downpour and the government troops retreated.

On June 11, Allen wrote “Awoke—alive!” Planes bombed an opposition trenches on a nearby hill most of the day. People were at their house all day because “from our house there is a good view of the bombing and because we have some rooms that give protection.”

The next night the government started a vigorous bombing campaign in Villa Libertad, so they took shelter in a Red Cross station. “People crowded everywhere. Wounded babies, crying, panicky people, circling planes, zinging bullets. Laying down on muddy floors and ground to avoid bullets. It was a long four hours till the planes finally stopped. We passed a long, dreary night,” Allen wrote. He spent the night in the infirmary, praying for wounded and dying people.

He tried to think of a way to get Carolyn and Lanita out, but couldn’t. Then on June 16, they were contacted by a doctor who had worked with RMM, who insisted that things were going to get worse—more bombing was planned—and that they needed to leave. Although they didn’t feel good about leaving, they reluctantly packed some things and gave some things away, and with the doctor’s assistance they were able to get out on a flight that afternoon. “In tears, prayers, handshakes, and embraces we left, all in a daze, with deep sadness … Lanita was so happy and thoroughly enjoyed the flight. It was hard to share her joy as we thought back to our friends,” Allen wrote.

Gary and Ruth Troyer

The Troyers lived with their two young children in the small town of Rio Blanco, about 125 miles northeast of Managua. When the strike came, all telegraph and phone communication was cut. An unfortunate milk truck driver trying to keep working was stopped, stripped, and tied to a tree. His truck was strategically placed across the one bridge into town and set on fire, which Ruth noted effectively stopped traffic.

Government troops were building barricades, and rumor had it that the Sandinistas had taken over nine cities and were coming for Rio Blanco. The troops made Gary go to places they thought the Sandinistas were hiding out and come back to give them reports. So then a rumor started that he was a CIA agent, which, Ruth said, was “a very very dangerous position to be in.”

Ruth and Anthony Troyer hiding out
in the La Ponzona Church.
Another time, they were traveling near curfew time and were surrounded by a dozen or more troops who pointed their guns at them. The Troyers could hear the safeties click off. “We were all so calm; that is until we got home and really thought about it. Many times we wished we could die—it was the thought of what we may have to go through before that, that was frightening,” Gary wrote.

By June 17, the Sandinistas were in town, searching village houses for arms and food. Society was breaking down. “People took advantage of the chaos to fight their own wars, settling grudges or scores,” Ruth said. They could hardly tell the difference between the private wars and the larger revolution. “Murder is rampant these days,” Gary wrote on June 19. “Last night, a woman that lives by the church was shot at four times and hit twice.”

Conditions were miserable. People continued to flee. Those who stayed were losing heart, Ruth said. Their guns were confiscated, their food was stolen, rodents destroyed their gardens. Stray animals wandered everywhere—dogs, chickens, and destructive pigs. Pigs and chickens ate each other when they died. By the end of June and early July, the Troyers were running short on food. Gary was sleeping poorly. “I really feel incapable to do the job of a missionary here,” he wrote.

Finally on July 13, they fled to their church in the countryside outside town because they “didn’t want the children to have lasting effects from what they would hear.” There was no latrine at the church. “My fear was that I would see my children starve,” Ruth said. Eventually, she stopped cleaning the maggots out of their rice. “I figured that was more protein,” she said.

After Somoza and then his replacement left the country, taking plane loads of troops with them, Rio Blanco was one of the last outposts to fall. The Guardia there certainly had no reason to suspect they would be welcomed as brothers if they surrendered their weapons. The night of July 20 was punctuated with lots of bombing and shooting as the two sides resolved the situation. The Sandinistas surrounded the barricade until the troops ran out of ammunition, then killed them as they tried to break out, although some made it through. The Sandinistas then rounded up people, shot them, and buried some of them in the churchyard in Rio Blanco.

Since the fighting was over, Gary and Ruth finally could escape and get back to the United States. They spent some time wrapping up, saying goodbyes, and trying to see if they could get food to people. The scars of the war were everywhere. In one town, Gary wrote, “there was still a strong smell of decaying bodies.”

They had survived, so they no longer needed the goodbye letters Ruth had written to their families, just in case.

Continue Reading:

Read Part II, stories from Verda Mayer and Dan Byler in the village of La Esperanza, from the June Beacon.

The Extraordinary Dr. Parajón.

Editor’s note: the stories featured here were greatly abbreviated to fit in the Beacon. We welcome past missionaries, and their friends and families, to share their stories and memories from this time so we can post them on our website.
Email info@rmmoffice.org
, or post your memories here.