"That's how we got that pickup truck over there: We shot six guerrillas driving in it." The lieutenant pointed to a grimy cream yellow Ford parked near by.
It had been a long, hot boring day for the journalists waiting at a National Guard post six miles from Esteli, and the troops were getting chatty.
"When was that?" someone asked.
"Just this morning. We saw them coming up that side road. And they had the gall to just park there. We saw them from up here; we saw them get out of the pickup and mop their faces. Boy, they looked relieved. They were smiling."
The lieutenant punctuated his statements with his whole body.
"And when we fired they started to run, Blam, we got one here. Blam, another one there. Blam, a third one."
The group of journalists had grown very quite.
"How did you know they were guerillas?" one man asked.
"You can tell from looking at them. Something inside just lets you know."
Everyone studied the pebbles on the ground.
Later a journalist asked casually, "Did you find any arms?" The lieutenant did not blink.
"No, because, you see, they always throw them away. I mean they threw them away beofre. You understand?"
The main thing we understood as we waited and roasted in the parched winter landscape of Esteli was that we were being kept farther from the fighting than ever before. An airplane dropping rockets was barely visible as it circle the city. Occasionally a dull mortar blast would echo.
It was only back in the hotel, in Managua, the capital, that hard information was available. The daily press release from the Guard (a combination of army, navy policy and air force units) announced the death of the Sandinista National Liberation Front's commander in Esteli. Francisco Rivera Quintero, alias Reuben, leader of the September insurrection at Esteli, "fled after sowing terror and death when the National Guard patrol entered into action. He was chased and shot at the exit of the city."
During a brief civil war between Sandinista guerrilla-led civilians and the National Guard last September, the small, Spanish colonial-style town of Esteli took the heaviest beating of five cities under attack. Air-launched rockets and heavy government artillery destroyed most of the downtown area.
The National Guard's public relations chief had said earlier that Esteli was encircled but that a single passageway was being left for the guerrillas to escape. The reason, he said, was to avoid a high number of casualties. Today the troops at the checkpost said much the same thing.
After the news of the leaders' death, it appeared that the open route was a setup for ambush.
The troops at our checkpoint, on the other side of Esteli from the "escape route," may have already known about the death of the major guerrilla leader. They were feeling good. Late in the afternoon journalists persuaded the troops to pose for photographs. At first they stood about uncomfortably in the eye of the clicking cameras, then relaxed and posed with their weapons.
The photography session done with, the reporters insisted on contact with the refugees. Obligingly the troops let us go a few hundred yards down the blocked-off road to where a few refugees stood in front of a thatched house.
It was the entrance to a tiny peasant village of painful poverty. Big-belied children playing in the dust were the only ones not distrubed by our presence and that of our military escort.
A woman giggled and blushed as a photographer took pictures of her threadbare dress, skimpy plastic sandals and leaky water bucket. The men standing in doorways shifted their weight uncomfortably.
A group of women and children came up the road from Esteli. The troops stood shoulder to shoulder with us as we asked questions.
What had they seen? Nothing. Were there any corpses? They did not know. Any fighting? They had not seen any. Was there not a lot of noise? Oh, yes, terrible, all the time. Why did they decide to leave? There had been no water or electricity for the last two days.
Did they have any difficulty getting here? The women glanced uneasily at one another.
"Well, only a little," one woman finally began. "After we left the school, but it was really by accident. The soliders were really very kind, you know. I'm sure they didn't really see us when they started shooting at us. It was all a mistake. We just heard the shots, not all that many, and we threw ourselves on the ground.
"And then of course when they heard us screaming and heard the children crying they stopped. It was an error, and they were very kind. They took us back to their base with them later. It was very good of them."
The women refused to give their names. The troops followed us up to where a new couple was standing in the yard of one of the houses. Someone asked if they knew anything about the bombing, and as the woman was saying that she did not, a man's voice spoke up behind me.
"It's a terrible thing; we are full of terror," he said. "They have been bombing all around here for days now. Every time we hear the airplanes we think this is the end. They bomb everywhere. We're all terrified."
There was a tense silence. I turned around discreetly to see who was saying such bold things, and to my horror discovered a frail middle-aged blind man standing under a shady tree, holding on to a branch. Gently, another man walked up to him and led by the arm back into the house.The troops moved away. CAPTION: Picture, Refugees from beleaguered Esteli were led to safety by woman at right who held white flag tied to stick. UPI