Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans are living in bleak refugee camps or shabby farmhouses here in southern Honduras after fleeing the war, the draft or what they call government repression across the border in their native country.
Poor Nicaraguan farm families, who account for most of the refugees, form the largest clearly identifiable base of civilian support for the Nicaraguan antigovernment guerrillas known as contras, or counterrevolutionaries. Many peasants here have relatives fighting with the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, or FDN, which is the largest contra group and has semiclandestine bases nearby.
Rebel commanders regularly visit the camps in search of recruits, and informers among the civilians keep an eye out for Sandinista infiltrators, who occasionally are turned over to Honduran military intelligence, refugees said.
"We support the FDN. A victory by them is the only way that we have to return to Nicaragua," Roger Angel, a self-taught veterinarian from Nicaragua's northern Nueva Segovia province, said in the United Nations-sponsored refugee camp here.
The refugees also include many young men from urban, middle-class backgrounds who fled Nicaragua to escape the draft. Some already are fighting with the rebels, but many do not wish to fight for either side. They have little to do except wait for their parents to send them money so they can try to emigrate to other countries.
"What do we do with our time? Cook, sleep, bathe and play baseball," Walter Fornos, 22, said. He left his home in Nicaragua's northern city of Matagalpa in February to avoid the draft. "We weren't born to carry rifles," Fornos said.
The number of refugees has ballooned in the past three years as the war has dragged on between the contras and Nicaragua's Sandinista government. International relief workers estimate that as many as 50,000 Nicaraguans currently are living inside Honduras in this mountainous border area, compared with a few thousand in 1981. Thousands of other refugees live in the isolated region along the Caribbean coast inhabited by Miskito Indians.
So far the Honduran government has tolerated the Nicaraguan refugees because it sympathizes with their anti-Sandinista views and because the Nicaraguans are not thought to pose a serious threat to Hondurans' jobs. The Nicaraguans have fewer problems with the authorities than Salvadoran refugees living in western Honduras, who generally support El Salvador's left-wing guerrillas and whose presence arouses longstanding fears in this country of an "invasion" of Salvadoran settlers.
There are indications, however, that the Honduran government and the contras may have started to pull back the welcome mat. The rebels have stopped escorting families across the border as they once did, apparently because they wish to keep their supporters inside Nicaragua and thus expand their political base there, according to two international officials familiar with refugee affairs.
In addition, Honduran migration authorities are turning back many young Nicaraguan men at the border unless the youths agree to join the rebels, these officials said.
These changes in policy appear to have contributed to a decline in the influx of refugees in recent months. The number of new arrivals at the U.N. camps here and in Jacaleapa has dropped from 300 a month in the spring to 20 a month during the summer, relief officials said.
But these officials and other observers also said that the current escalation in the war, and the Sandinistas' resumption of the draft last week, were likely to lead to a new exodus of refugees. The suspension of the draft from May until August removed one of the main incentives for young men to leave Nicaragua, they noted.
More than 5,000 refugees live in the two camps run by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or in homes rented by the U.N. agency in nearby towns.
The refugees live on a simple diet of corn tortillas, rice and beans, supplemented by two eggs per person per week and one ration of meat each Saturday. The peasants are used to such fare, but the draft dodgers had eaten much better in their mostly middle-class homes in Nicaragua and complained bitterly about the food.
Residents of the camps are not allowed to leave them without hard-to-obtain permits from the Honduran Red Cross and migration authorities. Honduran military security personnel regularly enter the camps and round up persons who lack valid refugee identification cards.
The large majority of refugees live outside the camps in abandoned homes, shacks or anyplace else where they can find shelter. Many slipped across the border illegally and pay modest bribes, reportedly $5 a month per family, to Honduran officials to avoid being deported.
One of the largest concentrations of refugees is in a triangle of Honduran territory -- the eastern part of the border province of El Paraiso -- that juts into Nicaragua. The contras have their main base camps there, and the area has been nicknamed "New Nicaragua."
Peasant refugees said that they left Nicaragua to escape the fighting in the countryside and because they did not like the Sandinista government. They said that they objected to rationing of many foods and household goods, to state controls on marketing of farm products and to pressure from Sandinista activists to join various revolutionary organizations.
Some refugees said that Sandinista Popular Army or security personnel had tortured them or subjected them to other physical abuse because of suspicion that they were rebel informers. Enrique Herrera, 34, showed a three-inch scar on his right arm where he said he had been whipped with a rope while detained at an Army command post in the town of Santa Maria in Nueva Segovia on May 26.
"They let me go on condition that I work with them. I came straight across the border," Herrera said.
The draft dodgers admit readily that they left Nicaragua because they did not want to fight. Most paid between $1,000 and $3,500 to operators of an "underground railroad" that smuggles people across the border.
Several youths said they would join the contras if the United States would resume military aid to the Nicaraguan Democratic Force and thus give it a better chance of winning. Otherwise, the draft dodgers face a highly uncertain future as they wait for money to arrive from their families and for Honduran or Nicaraguan authorities to complete paperwork so they can obtain documents necessary to leave the country.
Asked what he was doing at the refugee camp, one youth responded, "Waiting." Asked what he was waiting for, he grinned and simply pointed toward the sky.