It was a routine Monday afternoon on December 21, 1981. Roberto Vidal, an 18-year-old Indian mine worker, his two brothers, and 57 other fellow mine workers from Indian villages in Nicaragua were anxious to receive their well-earned pay. With Christmas just four days away, they hurried eagerly along the Rio Coco, a snakelike river separating Honduras and Nicaragua. Upon arriving for their pay, they were surprised to discover their money was not in the mining town as usual, but it would be waiting for them in Waspan, a village downstream. They thought it strange, but didn’t protest since Waspan was the perfect town for Christmas shopping for their families, who were waiting for them in their home villages.

Vidal recalls that as they anxiously navigated their dugout canoes on a path of menacing rocks and rapids, they were confronted by approximately 200 uniformed, armed Nicaraguan soldiers. They were quickly ordered into a large school that was being used as a jail. All 60 of the miners were kept under guard for two days. The tensions mounted as the miners began to suspect serious danger. Their only hope was to attempt an escape. Two days later, seven miners from the village of Asang were taken by guards some distance from the detention area.

After a short, silent interval, the soldiers returned, this time selecting Vidal, his two brothers, and another youth. As they were marched to the location of the first group of seven miners, they noted with concern that the Indians were lined up at the edge of a freshly dug hole, obviously a site for a human grave. Roberto and his brothers watched as a soldier triggered his machine gun, sending all seven to an instant death in the muddy grave. Vidal was silently ushered back to await what he knew might be his fate: digging his own grave, only to be mercilessly riddled with bullets and left to be buried by his comrades. He shuddered at the thought that he would never be heard from again by his beloved family and villagers.

Around ten o’clock that night, Vidal and the other three Indians were taken in the moonlight to the bank of the river. They quickly decided this was their only chance for escape and immediately dove into the Rio Coco. The soldiers reacted by spraying the water with machine gun fire. Vidal sustained shots in the chest and elbow, but managed to swim across the river with his one uninjured arm. Another youth with bullet wounds in the stomach died shortly after reaching the other side. Vidal’s two brothers never made it. Vidal lay injured and bleeding on the beach until morning, when he was found by Honduran soldiers and taken for medical treatment. The bone in his arm was so badly shattered that his arm had to be amputated from the elbow, but he was grateful to have survived and now shares his story freely. The other miners were never heard from again.

Article continues below

Vidal now lives in a Honduran refugee camp with thousands of others like himself. Men, women, and children of all ages, who lived and worked in Nicaragua, now recount the horror stories of villages being burned, cattle and livestock massacred, and their crops destroyed. Churches were the first buildings to be wiped out, including destruction of all literature. Torture, imprisonment, fighting, fear, hunger, sickness, and death resulted. These homeless, proud, and friendly Miskito Indians with stories similar to Vidal’s left everything to travel dangerously along the border to the safety of the Honduran side.

In Mocoron, a Honduran town 20 miles north of the Rio Coco, a refugee camp was established to feed, clothe, and provide shelter and medical assistance to these displaced and homeless Indians. World Relief, the international relief agency for the National Association of Evangelicals, is busy preparing what could turn out to be the largest settlement in all of Honduran Mosquitia (Miskito territory). There are 9,400 refugees in Mocoron today, all living in small villages closely adjacent to one another. The United Nations High Commision for Refugees, using money from foreign governments, provides much of the funding to operate the camp. Others helping in this emergency are the Peace Corps, CARE, Save the Children Fund, French doctors and nurses, a Swedish disaster unit, Swiss volunteers and other volunteers from agencies working with World Relief. The camp director, 25-year-old Tom Hawk of World Relief, a former football player and homebuilder, grew up in Honduras where his parents were missionaries. Hawk knows the Spanish language and culture of Hondurans and adeptly handles the logistics in the fast-growing and highly populated camp.

The Miskito refugees, who have crossed the river to safety, wait near the border on the Honduran side of the Rio Coco. Two or three days a week, a World Relief truck picks up those who wish to journey the 20 miles inland to Camp Mocoron. Piling on a truck with their meager possessions, the refugees travel over muddy, almost impassable roads, trusting they will now be cared for with provisions of food and shelter. They are greeted upon arrival by relief workers and brought to a canvas tent shelter where they will remain with their families, perhaps 15 to 20 in one tent, until they are able to build themselves a more permanant shelter of wood and bamboo. Food is distributed, and, although scarce, used clothing is provided.

Article continues below

The refugee camp at Mocoron consists of clusters of thatched and split-bamboo shacks where entire families live in one room, often cooking inside as well. Ditches are dug along the perimeter of the huts to ward off water during the rainy season. Scantily clad children play with sticks and makeshift toys, often remaining close to home while being cared for by older brothers and sisters. There are frequent long hikes to the river for cooking and drinking water. The water supply is contaminated and must be boiled or treated for safe drinking.

Bathing is done in the river by older children and parents, where clothes are also washed and spread to dry on the dusty clay dirt banks. Approximately half of the camp’s population is 12 years old or younger. The food provided is familiar to their diet—rice and beans, flour for tortillas, with eggs, fish, and meat when available. Music is a favorite pastime, and singing, accompanied by guitars and accordions, can be heard throughout the camp on special occasions.

With disease and malnutrition as serious problems, milk and feeding stations have been established for small children. More than 20 refugees, most of them children, have died since the beginning of the year from tuberculosis, malnutrition, dysentery, nephritis, and other diseases. Efforts are under way to increase health care and an adequate water supply, as well as to provide better sanitation facilities and improved camp conditions.

It is difficult to evaluate the Miskitos’ prospects of returning to Nicaragua. Will they involve themselves politically in counter-revolutionary efforts, as some have already done, or will they resign themselves to making Honduras their permanent home, becoming self-reliant in their new environment? “The refugees want to go home,” said Tom Hawk, “but when they will be able to is anybody’s guess.”

JIM and MARY WHITMER in Honduras

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.