Of Time And Tedium: A Slow Life For Draft Dodgers Of Nicaragua

Posted: April 16, 1986

TEUPASENTI, Honduras — They spend their days building latrines and chopping wood under a scorching sun. The rest of the time they simply hang around their overcrowded wooden shacks, playing cards, taking naps, killing time.

It is a dreary, monotonous life for young men - not one they like, not one they expected and not one they can easily change.

These are Nicaraguan draft resisters. They fled to Honduras hoping to continue their studies, perhaps get a job, maybe move on to another country.

Instead, they have ended up tenants of a crowded refugee camp - a fenced-in, dust-choked shantytown with no electricity, no running water and virtually nothing in the way of diversions, except playing cards.

"It's boring," said Ulysses Ramon Corrales 18, who has spent the last 13 months at the camp. "Here, I don't have any kind of entertainment. I'm just isolated here. You can't go out and enjoy a movie. There is nothing of that."

Added Justo Ruiz, 18, "We're not here because we like it."

In all, about 300 single men ranging in age from 16 to 25 currently live in the camp, which is situated above a river in a remote, hilly region in southern Honduras near Danli. They share the camp, which opened in March 1985, with 2,576 other refugees.

Unlike the other refugees, who are peasants, many of the young men were the sons of urban, middle-class parents and had been studying in high school to become engineers, university professors, factory managers and the like.

Then the Nicaraguan Sandinista government lowered the draft age from 21 to 18, and suddenly these students were faced with trading in their comfortable lifestyles of classes, parties, baseball games and girls for a drab, olive- green uniform, a metal canteen and a high-powered rifle.

They chose instead to hire a guide for about $25 and trek through the mountains for days to seek refuge in neighboring Honduras.

Guillermo Escobar, 19, was expecting to find opportunity here, a chance, he said, "for intellectual growth."

But draft dodgers like Escobar quickly found the life of a refugee so disillusioning that many have ended up in the military after all - enlisting with the anti-Sandinista rebels, known as contras.

The exact number of refugees who have joined the contras is impossible to determine. Luise Druke-Bolewski, an official with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said more than 1,000 refugees from Teupasenti and another refugee camp close by, many of them single young men, have disappeared during the last year. Draft resisters in Teupasenti place the number of contra recruits among the refugees in the hundreds.

Although soldiers and representatives of political organizations officially are banned from refugee camps, many of the young men here quietly admit that contra recruiters visit Teupasenti at least once a month. They arrive dressed in civilian clothes to get past the Honduran Red Cross officials who administer the facility.

Then the recruiters, generally commanders, hold meetings with the young men, who have little else to do but attend.

"Their main objective is to talk to the people, to convince them to go with them," Corrales explained.

The young men say that many find the offer attractive because the contras promise better food, nicer clothes, a chance to fight for democracy and, perhaps best of all, status. According to the draft resisters, when the contra representatives walk through the camp, they command respect.

The young men say they do not feel any pressure to enlist, either from the recruiters, their peers or brothers and cousins who may already have joined.

"If you say no, they don't say anything," said Corrales. "It has to be born from the will of each person."

Many of the draft resisters say that they find the thought of enlisting alluring, even Daislo and Guadaloupe Escalante, two cousins who said they have rejected the offer so far because they "are afraid to die."

Asked if they thought they might ever change their minds, Daislo, 18, replied: "Yes, yes. It might be that someday, we'll be bored of being in the camp."

Added Guadaloupe, who is 16, "Could be. Not right now, but maybe in the future."

For the present, life for most of the draft resisters at the camp is an unpleasant mix of hard labor, boredom, false hope and despair.

They live in small wooden shacks, about 15 assigned to each one. They walk on dirt floors and sleep on beds of thin straw mats atop frames strung with nylon cord.

Chickens scoot around inside the shacks.

The young men complain about the food and the lack of social activities. Games of baseball - Nicaragua's national sport - used to be played on a barren dirt field in the camp. But too many balls were hit into the shacks and tents where hundreds of refugee peasant families live, so the games were stopped. Now the only sports activity is pick-up basketball games played nearly every afternoon at a schoolyard in a neighboring village.

The young men also complain that once they turn 18, they are not allowed to attend the local refugee school anymore. Instead, they must work up to six days a week, constructing buildings, water tanks and latrines, cutting down trees and chopping wood. If they fail to show up for work, they said, they are not fed.

"Those of us who are students like to work, but we're accustomed to moderate work, not like the work they demand from us," Escobar said.

In their idle hours, when they are not playing cards or sitting around smoking cigarettes, the young men fantasize about ways to leave the camp legally. Most have little money and no immigration papers, and would face almost certain arrest if they simply walked out and tried to find a job or go to another country.

Some of them write letters to relatives in the United States, hoping that an aunt or an uncle can arrange passage up north.

Corrales told a visitor that he had applied to a school in Los Angeles, and he proudly displayed two packets of information he had received from the institution in the mail.

The institution, it turned out, was a correspondence school that advertises inside matchbooks.

Jose Arite Espanoza, 20, said he does not share the hopes of his friends at the camp because he has no relatives in the United States.

"I'll wait here until this ends," he said, referring to the contras' effort to overthrow the Sandinista government. "Until Nicaragua is repaired."

Asked when he thought that might be, he glumly looked down at his feet and shook his head, saying simply, "I don't know."

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