The Nicaraguan government has begun to move thousands of peasants out of remote villages in the northern mountains, where marauding anti-Sandinista guerrillas have found recruits and refuge.
Sandinista authorities have explained the evacuation as an effort to prevent peasant families from getting caught up in the three-year-old guerrilla war and to provide them with a better life in agricultural cooperatives equipped with schools and clinics.
Relief officials and soldiers from an elite unit of the Popular Sandinista Army said the program also is designed to get the civilian population out of the way for large-scale attacks on Honduran-based rebels who have used the isolated northern mountains as a haven from the pursuing Army.
"There will be nobody left there but them and us," said a soldier from the Simon Bolivar Irregular Warfare Battalion posted in this area of heavy guerrilla activity.
"What they are going to have is a free-fire zone," commented a foreign diplomat discussing the relocations.
The total number of peasants being moved is unclear. President Daniel Ortega said last Sunday that up to 7,000 families, or more than 35,000 persons, will be moved this year in the northern war zones. Thousands already have been resettled, some after fleeing battle areas, others on orders from the Army or Interior Ministry troops.
In some ways, the Sandinista program parallels the "poles of development" used by the Guatemalan Army in its fight against leftist guerrillas or the "strategic hamlets" set up by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. But it also fits the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front's long-term goal of expanding the role of cooperatives in Nicaraguan agriculture.
"This is an opportunity to reorder the population, which has been very dispersed" on mountain farms, said Miriam Lapa and Jinotega regions, have not reported similar destruction of peasant homes during evacuation of villages there.
Refugees in settlements near the Jinotega town of Yali told European journalists this week the soldiers who ordered them out of their villages explained carefully that the move was necessary to avoid the dangers of war. Similar reports have come from journalists who interviewed peasants in southern Nicaragua.
Sandinista authorities have said relocated peasants will receive parcels of land or join cooperative farms created on land purchased or confiscated from large owners, they have said.
"From the economic point of view, the state provides, in addition to the land, technical assistance and financing so the peasant joins the most important projects for cultivation of basic grains, potatoes, tobacco and the production of cattle in the zone," said Agustin Lara, a regional political secretary of the Sandinista National Liberation Front who described the program in an interview with the official party newspaper Barricada.
Nevertheless, some have questioned whether conservative and highly independent peasants can adapt easily to a new life far from their subsistence-level family farms. A similar evacuation of Miskito, Sumo and Rama Indians along the Coco River at the beginning of 1982 led to widespread dissatisfaction among the Indians, helping turn many into armed rebels despite facilities provided for them in settlements.
Youths training with anti-Sandinista forces have said repeatedly in interviews that they left to fight their government because of the military draft and Sandinista interference with the traditional peasant way of life.
The anti-Sandinista guerrilla commander, former National Guard colonel Enrique Bermudez, said in a recent interview that rebel troops have made agricultural cooperatives a target in an effort to prevent consolidation of the changes in peasants' lives.