We came here suffering," the young Miskito Indian woman said sadly.
Maria held a healthy newborn baby in her arms. Her husband was outside their makeshift shack working on a small but solid new house. The prefabricated wood walls, the little plot of land, the tools he used were all supplied free by Nicaragua's Sandinista government.
The kinds of measurements that go into a central planner's statistical abstracts show that Maria and her family are much better off than they were six months ago when they lived in the primitive village of Esperanza on the troubled border with Honduras.
But Maria talked with resigned pain about her separation from her mother and sisters, the screaming and tears as Sandinista troops forced the evacuation of her village in January during the massive, bitterly controversial relocation of the Indian population along the Coco River that marks part of the Honduras-Nicaragua border. After being moved to this camp, Maria was reunited with her family.
U.S. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. has used the term "genocidal" to describe Nicaragua's treatment of the Miskitos in congressional testimony and in comments to U.S. labor leaders. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane J. Kirkpatrick has accused Nicaragua of a "campaign of systematic violence" against the Indians. More temperate statements by diplomats in the region refer to "the cynical destruction of an indigenous culture."
The Sandinistas say they are in what amounts to a state of war against what may be U.S.-backed bands of "counterrevolutionaries" who would use the Miskitos as "cannon fodder." This, Nicaraguan officials say, forced the evacuation of thousands of Miskitos from the Coco River area, a move that began at the end of last year. The Sandinistas emphasize the efforts that have been made since then to give the Miskitos a better life than they had before and make the best of a grim situation.
Miskitos who fled to the Honduran bank of the river when they heard of the planned relocation have told journalists and other visitors to their camps in Honduras conflicting stories about what happened during the move: of defenseless civilians slaughtered at the town of Leimus and of some buried alive. Others talk of combat and firefights.
No one interviewed here claimed to know more than rumors of such events.
What Maria remembers is her sisters and mother shouting hysterically from across the river as the Sandinista troops took her and other pregnant women, the old and the sick away in a boat.
"They'll kill you. They'll kill you," Maria recalls her mother screaming in the panic of the moment.
The rest of Maria's family, her husband and her children above the age of five were led away on a forced march that would bring them all together again, finally, after five days, in this clearing amid towering tropical forest.
Sahsa is no more isolated than the river bank where they had lived, but it is nowhere that they ever wanted to be.
They had seen their houses burned along the river, their few cattle and chickens and a horse slaughtered to make sure that they could not go home again and that the antigovernment rebels could not scavenge supplies.
Sahsa is a model camp, with a smaller population and more extensive facilities than the other three in the area. Of about 16,000 Miskito Indians who lived in 39 communities along the Coco until December, only 572 have been brought here, according to statistics supplied by the government.
About half of the Coco River people fled into Honduras, according to these accounts, and during January and February the Sandinistas relocated the rest, about 8,300, to this untilled piece of jungle along the dirt road between the mining town of Rosita and the coastal town of Puerto Cabezas.
Diplomats, journalists and relief workers in Honduras and the United States have estimated that about 10,000 Miskitos fled to Honduras and a similiar number have been resettled in Nicaragua.
A February report by the Nicaraguan Permanent Human Rights Commission, an independent group that often criticizes the government, said that the Miskitos were sharply restricted in their movements and essentially prohibited from leaving the camps.
Sandinista officials say, however, that the Miskitos can leave freely as long as they have some place to go. Few had any place but the Coco River area, which has been designated a military zone, and is now off-limits, but about 1,000 have left the camps since February and gone to Puerto Cabezas on the Pacific coast, officials said.
At Sahsa there are more than 150 neat little two-room houses with broad porches nearing completion and a total of 500 planned. There is a clinic that, according to the resident physician, sees as many as 70 people a day. There is an ambulance to evacuate the seriously ill. There is a little thatched-roof school in which children can be seen learning to read Spanish from Miskito teachers.
To the north is a temporary settlement camp that is reputedly worse. It is not on the program for government tours or in the special area the government named Tasba Pri, Miskito for the "promised land."
The Truslaya settlement has a population of 3,392 people who eventually should be distributed among Sahsa and two other permanent camps, according to Sandinista officials. At the moment, however, government-supplied statistics and reports indicate that the people of Truslaya do not have access to the schools, housing or the level of other facilities that representatives of the Organization of American States' Inter-American Human Rights Commission and a group of journalists were shown here this week.
The reporters were told there was not enough time to see any camp other than Sahsa in the government-run, one-day trip. When the Indians were evacuated, the region was declared a military zone and many requests by journalists to visit the area on their own have been turned down.
The road to Sahsa appears to have been paved with good intentions from the start.
The Atlantic Coast is a different world from the rest of Nicaragua, populated by different peoples, separated geographically by rain forests and historically by a vast cultural chasm.
While most Nicaraguans feel their roots in Spain, those of the Atlantic Coast--about 68,000 Miskitos, a handful of Sumu and Rama Indians, approximately 30,000 slave-descended blacks--trace their sympathies back to Britain since the 1600s and two centuries of Miskito kings backed up by the British crown.
When Britain pulled out of the Central American scene during the last century, Miskitos and other residents of the coast developed an affinity with the Americans who built up mining and fishing enterprises in the region.
So when representatives of the Sandinistas came here after their 1979 victory talking about the abuses of the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship they had overthrown and the evils of "Yankee imperialism," their words had little resonance here.
One young, Managua-educated Miskito leader, Steadman Fagoth, whom the Sandinistas apparently hoped would help interpret their revolutionary goals to the Indians, turned against them and now leads an antigovernment movement based across the border in Honduras.
Sporadic fighting between "counterrevolutionaries" and Sandinista troops became commonplace in Zelaya Province, which covers most of the East Coast of Nicaragua, and in December there were serious confrontations along the Honduran border.
The government has since said that the heavy actions along the Coco River in December were part of a U.S.-backed plot called "Red Christmas." About 180 people have been jailed in Puerto Cabezas and Managua in connection with this and similar alleged conspiracies, and some have received sentences of up to 30 years.
At the end of December, the evacuation of the Coco River began.
Asked about criticism of their policies here as "paternalistic," some Sandinista officials grew visibly irritated.
"If somebody is dying of hunger and disease," it is ridiculous "to say you're paternalistic when you are trying to help," said Galo Gurdian, head of social work in the camps. "You have to give the people the chance to learn to have better health and living standards."