This account of life in the Nicaraguan war zone was excerpted from letters and journals written by Mira Brown, 27, a Washingtonian, an avowed anti-contra and one of some 1,500 Americans working in Nicaragua. Brown, who has a degree in energy systems, lives in the remote village of El Cua' and works for the local government on a project to bring electricity, drinking water and sanitation to the region.

One of her colleagues was Ben Linder, 27, an Oregon engineer who was killed April 28 in a contra ambush of a work crew. The contras claim Linder's death was justified because he was armed and returned fire; others claim he did not return fire and was killed at close range after he was wounded.

10 March 1987 Managua Dear Mom and Pop, Leah and Ian, and friends --

It has been three months since I've written. It is partly that everything is so new, so overwhelming. And partly that I have so little time. But it is mostly that I have been trying to censor myself -- not willing to put in writing some things about my life here. Things like the deaths, the attacks in the zone, the danger and my reaction to it. And most of all, I have not wanted to write that I am carrying a gun.

I decided months ago that it was right for me to carry the gun, but I lacked the faith that others would see the rightness of it, and so I wrote nothing.

Well, people really have to carry guns. Development workers in war zones have consistently been the target of contra ambushes. When the contra ambush unarmed people, they either kill everyone, or kill some and kidnap the others. When the contra ambush armed people, sometimes some are killed. But almost always some survive. When the ambushed return fire, the contra almost never move in. They are not fighting with the type of moral conviction that leads one to advance in the face of {automatic-weapons} fire.

In the end, I took the gun. I carry it everywhere I go. I still don't know if I would be able to point it at someone and pull the trigger. I hope I never have to find out.

I'm sorry I haven't written. {So now that you know about the gun,} I'm going to go back through my journal and copy {for you} the passages I've written these last three months.

From my journal El Cua', 25 November 86

The last few days . . . . Arrival in El Cua' in the armed convoy, "handed over" to the town. Getting up at 5 a.m. Sunday to go find my truck driver and drop off mail, and then go with our volunteer crew out to El Golfo to do the first-step rough surveying for a hydro site. Volunteer crew, well-armed, because the contra were run out of there not so long ago.

December 18, 1986

Tuesday I walked back from El Golfo, leaving there the wood Ben needs for the weir {a small river dam to measure water flow at a hydroelectric site}, getting lunch and data on the cooperative's corn consumption (I am thinking about mechanized corn-shelling, using an electric motor we "recuperated"), enjoying the sun on the road. On the way into town, I stopped to talk to Don Adolfo (more or less the mayor) about collecting on this month's electric bills, got myself made an official member of the People's Health Brigadistas' Training Commission

1 January 1987

New York's Day. Vigilance in the panteon (graveyard) last night. What a crew. Don Wilfredo and his 12-year-old son. Alayo, the old guy who seems to eat at Don Wil's all the time, who didn't know how to put a bullet in the chamber of the gun Wil borrowed for him. Don Jorge, his oval Indian features not showing his 48 years, and his lumbering half-limp not giving away that he just spent 32 months mobilized in the mountains in the militia. And me. A scared gringa, her clothes all damp from the lessons on how to roll across the grass hilltop into the ditch without losing her gun. Shifts one at a time until 4 a.m., when we are all awake and on alert. "The contra are near." But the light grows slowly, the first day of the New Year goes from gray to green and soft and rose around the edges, and there are no contra. Don Wil says, "Maybe there will be peace."

23 January 1987

Today Alfonso came by the shop, the little dark kid from Santa Rosa who was in Donald's workshops {for training electricians}. He wanted to talk with Donald about the possibility of attending the new workshops in February.

He also came by, I believe, to tell us that Jesus died. "Jesus who?" I ask, thinking of the carpenter who was working next door. "Jesus Huerta Montenego. A little white kid. He worked here (in the shop) also. We hung out together." "Oh . . . he was the kid from Santa Rosa who just got killed." "Yes."

They say 10 contra died in the same battle.

It doesn't seem like a victory. Ten other young kids, maybe kidnapped, or confused, fighting without desire to do so . . . . The only good thing about these deaths is that they are 10 more the U.S. will have to replace. And they can't. New recruits to the contra are few and far, far between. I can feel the edge of sickness in people's thoughts when they ask themselves, "Will we have to kill the last contra before the U.S. gives up?"

January 24, 1987

I just received four little volumes of the writings of Sandino, Fonseca and Escobar as recognition of my "outstanding" participation in nighttime vigilance.

I thought it was just an assembly to try and recruit more people for vigilance, and to give an update to the town on the military situation. But I get there, late, covered with clay, to find all the "vigilantes" are lined up in front. I feel extremely uncomfortable, the only woman in the group (and of course the only foreigner).

I don't think I deserve this prize. My participation cannot be compared with that of the regular "vigilantes" -- I go to a well-protected position, in the graveyard, trenches dug, territory known. The worst that has happened is that I get my blanket wet and can't sleep for the cold.

Today I had my first real-life, close-up, face-to-face look at a dead person. It was a kid from Bocaycito. Eight days ago he joined the SMP (the Patriotic Military Service -- obligatory, but you can volunteer early) as a volunteer, when 70 "cachorros" (bear cubs -- the nickname for the young men in the SMP) from the local battalion were demobilized after finishing their two years in the service. He was one of the ones in the ceremony, receiving a gun from those that were leaving, dressed in his camouflage uniform, already worn and dusty. He lay in the back of the Agrarian Reform pick-up truck, in front of the Health Center, under a camouflage poncho. An old man steps up and lifts it, and then an old woman -- sons in the SMP? Probably.

4 March 1987

Yesterday a contra was captured in Don Fermin's cornfield, just outside of town.

There were lots of rumors all day. I didn't get the whole story until that night when I went up to the graveyard to do vigilance. There was a little circle of men there, listening to Merlo tell the story:

About 9 a.m., Don Fermin, an old toothless farmer who lives next to Merlo, was out in his cornfield, and he saw an armed man in a military uniform picking ears of corn. Don Fermin politely asked if he could be of any help, and the guy (a 15-year-old, it turns out) asked where was the road to Jinotega. "Down there -- I'm going there now. Come on, I'll show you." Don Fermin is in the self-defense, but he didn't have his gun with him. The kid went along with him but, passing a little house, said, "I'm going to stay here," went inside and sat down.

Don Fermin ran to Merlo's. Merlo ran into town to tell the Ministry of Interior -- it is their job to deal with contra who are turning themselves in. On the way, the lieutenant who is in charge of the battalion in town passed in his jeep. Merlo flagged him down, told him the story. "Don't wait for the MINT. Go get some of your people and go get him." "His people" meant his neighbors, armed civilians who participate in the self-defense.

So Merlo, Don Fermin, Don Juan, his son Juan Ruiso and one other kid went out to capture the contra. Only Merlo and Juan Ruiso had any combat experience.

I can't begin to describe the whole operation to you, as it unfolded in Merlo's story telling. He walked around, crouched, pantomimed the actions, all of the landmarks -- places like "the orange tree above Don Juan's" or "that little rise where there are some bananas and the stream comes down." They are all farmers and all seem to know every wrinkle and bush in the terrain around here.

Basically what happened is this. They took up positions. Merlo crept up close to the house, came around a corner, saw the contra about 15 yards away and called out for him to give himself up. Merlo came closer, and the contra throws a grenade at him. Merlo threw himself over backwards and started to shoot. The grenade hit a branch of a mandarin tree and bounced back toward the contra, exploding and knocking him to the ground. Merlo gets up, sees that the guy is rolling on the ground, reaching for a second grenade. Juan Ruiso sees this too, and shoots.

{Merlo continued:} "After he was shot, I wasn't paying attention. I was watching the hill behind us. Then I turn around and I see Don Fermin, with his rifle pointing at the Guardia's head. 'Hey, what are you doing?' 'Why don't we finish him?' 'No, Don, we can't do that. We'll take him in alive. There is no need to kill him.'"

I look at the faces around me, trying to make out expressions in the light of the setting new moon. I think that some of my companåeros here would have done the same as Don Fermin. I wonder how many children he has lost to the contra. Don Wil, who watched the contra behead his 12-year-old son, is shaking his head. "No, man, we can't kill people just like that." Both he and Merlo are politicos; they are thinking about the broader consequences of the moment. It is essential that the Sandinistas not kill prisoners, that they really turn free every contra who turns himself in under the amnesty law, that they continue to build credibility as the contra loses it.

That's why the rehabilitation hospital in Managua is making artificial feet for contras who set mines, right alongside the people who are getting artificial feet because they stepped on the mines. (And the people who paid for the mines?? How are their feet?)

I am left thinking about the kid, the contra, wondering what was in his head when he pulled the pin of that grenade? He had every opportunity to give himself up. There were no other contra around to see him, to kill him.

Many contra actually give themselves up during battles, under much more dangerous circumstances. It is hard for me to understand, but when Sandinistas talk about getting people out of the contra, they are not talking about a physical process of removing people. They are talking about a political process of changing people. The faith in people's capacity to change is immense. End of journal notes.

27 March 1987

The biggest blow we've suffered is losing Donald, the Canadian millwright who was the project field head. He applied for permanent residency and was indirectly denied it and decided to leave. A very hard decision for him, and a big {bureaucratic} error on the part of the government here, I believe, rather than a political rejection. Though Don is a communist -- and an outspoken critic of the Sandinista commitment to a mixed economy and the creation of a new bourgeois state.

July 7, 1987 Ben's Birthday Dear Pop, Mommy, Leah, and Ian, and everyone else --

Hello family dear. I write by the light of a kerosene lantern in San Jose' de Bocay. Rebecca is across the table from me, doing the calculations on our two days of rudimentary surveying. She has a quiet steadiness I love, and having her female perspective on things make me ache, realizing how much I have missed this. And she's damn good engineer. She wants to come work full time on the project.

Realizing how much we lost with {Ben's} murder is a continuous process, leaving me a combination of alway newly appreciative of who he was, always sad, and always angry. Going through his work notebook, I see all the notes from his first trip to Bocay, the care with which he found out who was who from which institution, the community leaders, etc. He spent time getting to know the community. He wasn't tempted to make my technician's error of putting short-term results over making the project truly belong to this community.

Up at the weir {are} Rebecca, Clifford and I, some soldiers and Don Fidel Molinaris, the neighboring farmer who takes the daily readings. Don Fidel is saying, "No, the contra (he called them 'those other people') don't pass by here. On the other side of that ridge they've gone by, but here, no. Unless they come to do something like on that day."

He's not telling me anything new, I know they came here looking for Ben, came here to torture and kill him. But, standing in the spot -- seeing the mountains they had to climb, thinking about the days' march from Honduras, all to kill Ben, a technician who dared think about San Jose de Bocay, nestled into the hills here at night, electric lights glowing into the surrounding darkness -- standing there, I boil with anger.

The water has risen so much. It's washed the rocks around the pool, taking away the bloodstains and the last of his brains. The thought of the bits of grey gush and the flies buzzing on them makes me faint. And outraged. And amazed that I didn't feel faint the day I saw them.

It was seven days after Ben had been killed. Perhaps it was needing to finish the weir that kept me from feeling faint that day. It kept me going. I am glad. Looking back now, I am happy with my decision to stay here working. I couldn't really have done anything else. Choices.

I said something to Donald about his having chosen to come back. "It wasn't really a choice," he said. "What else could I have done?" Being him? Nothing, Nothing at all. We have no choice. And we are making our own decisions, as free individuals. Both things are true, completely contradictory, and completely true.

The day Oscar {a Nicaraguan co-worker} and I finished the weir, we hiked up this path. There it sat, a cubic meter of cement Ben had died for -- elecricity and drinking water for Bocay, the sheet of water falling through it, glittering in the sun. No one had known if it would work, no one had made a weir like this before. "Oscar, it works! Ben wanted to build a weir like this so much, he wanted to see this . . . ."

Written on the weir, in the cement when it was wet, it says, "Aqui' murio' Benjamin Linder, su obra seguira'." ("Here died Benjamain Linder, his work will continue.") And on the other side, it says, "Sergio Hernandez, Pablo Rosales, Presente, Presente, Presente." (Meaning that the other two men killed with Ben "are present with us.")

On the concrete base that holds up the scale the weir's readings are taken from, I also left a message, under a foot and a half of water now. "Ben -- I love you."

And I love you all. Mira

During the night of Sept. 12, Ben Linder's weir was blown up with plastic explosives, presumably by contras. Mira Brown is back in the United States to speak and raise funds. She will return to El Cua' in January and rejoin the project.