On a windy hillock, a small boy with a fierce stare and a banged-up Soviet-design AK47 rifle guarded the entrance to the main base camp of the U.S.-backed Indian rebels.
It was no fortress. The camp, in rain-drenched grasslands along Honduras' eastern border with Nicaragua, consisted of half a dozen tents and wood shacks, three jeeps, a short-wave radio, and several perimeter trenches, haphazardly dug.
The sleepy "central base," as guerrillas there called it, was all but empty. About 40 Indian warriors were chopping wood and doing chores.
The $100 million aid for Nicaraguan contras (the name comes from the Spanish word for counterrevolutionary), approved by the Senate Aug. 13, is still a long way from reaching fighters here. But instead of waiting, most of the estimated 2,000 predominantly Miskito Indians who form a rebel army named KISAN headed into Nicaragua weeks ago anyway, said rebel officers at the camp.
Indian rebels "don't need much to keep going. A fish and a banana serve for two meals," said KISAN's intelligence chief, Jose Antonio Borgzinner, known as Commander Nutri.
U.S. officials and contra leaders are paying new attention to the Indians fighting in the muggy jungles of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. KISAN rebels have wide manuevering room and strong ethnic bonds to that area's mainly Miskito Indian inhabitants, U.S. and contra strategists noted.
The Indians' ability to tie down on the Atlantic Coast some of the Sandinistas' 65,000 regular troops may be a crucial factor in upcoming campaigns by other contras in the less concealing hills of Nicaragua's Pacific regions, contra planners calculated.
KISAN rebels said in interviews at their camp and elsewhere that they will press U.S. officials and non-Indian contra commanders to increase KISAN's share of the U.S. assistance but will take no orders about how to conduct the Atlantic Coast war. Some interviews were granted on the condition their location not be published.
Emerging from accounts by KISAN leaders is a picture of a headstrong, independent but undisciplined army of Indian guerrillas who readily acknowledge they are pitted against a numerically far superior Sandinista foe.
Roger Herman, KISAN's principal spokesman, said his force's goal for the coming year is to block the Managua government's access to all sea and river ports on the Atlantic Coast with sabotage operations and powerboat ambushes.
KISAN leaders expressed doubt about a plan attributed to the CIA in a March report by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee for the contras to use the $100 million aid eventually to seize and hold territory, probably on the Atlantic Coast, with the possible aim of declaring a provisional government.
"There will be a slaughter if it's not planned right," said Herman, the head of KISAN's political commission. "Without fighting to divert the Sandinistas on the Pacific side, they will bury the Miskito people in bullets."
In contrast to commanders of the main U.S.-financed contra force, the 14,000-fighter Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), KISAN leaders were less interested in obtaining sophisticated support weapons and cargo aircraft with the U.S. aid than in supplying rifles and rounds to their guerrillas.
KISAN hopes some fighters will get U.S. training, by Green Berets or the CIA, in the use of underwater explosives and SA7 antiaircraft missiles. The training is not expected to take place in Honduras, said a diplomat familiar with U.S. plans.
Indian contras said they want to receive aid directly from the United States instead of through the FDN -- as was the case with their share of the $27 million in nonlethal aid from the State Department over the past year.
"We don't want to see the FDN put over us," said Miskito leader Clayton Mitchell, 58, a member of the seven-man Elders Council that is the civilian arm of KISAN. The acronym stands for Indians and Coast People United in Nicaragua.
Mitchell added: "We are Indians and we can't mix together with Spaniards," the term used by indigenous Nicaraguans to refer to non-Indians.
Several KISAN leaders charged the FDN and the CIA had not shared aid with them fairly in past years. They will demand the $100 million be divided up among different contra forces according to the number of armed guerrillas in each.
The FDN "is always holding us back," Commander Nutri asserted. A foreign refugee official in close contact with KISAN said the alliance between it and the FDN remains firm, and such comments stem from a long-standing Indian distrust of other cultures.
Indian contras enjoy close links to government military forces in eastern Honduras. At least 38 Indian guerrillas have received training since February with the Honduran Fifth Battalion near the village of Mocoron by Honduran Special Forces instructors, according to soldiers and to one KISAN fighter.
The Indian warriors took four- and six-week courses in sharpshooting and officer training, soldiers said. The Indians have separate barracks and uniforms from Honduran soldiers but train together, they said. KISAN "is our vanguard, our protection," said a Honduran corporal.
KISAN spokesman Herman said the training "is news to me."
Officially, Honduran leaders have acknowledged that contra units rove across its sparsely inhabited southern border. But they deny the existence of fixed camps or direct links with the Honduran armed forces.
Recently Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez Contreras said that no supplies for any contras would pass through Honduras. "That's been decided," he said. But a well-placed diplomat said Lopez Contreras' comments were designed to satisfy the nationalistic Honduran public. He said there appeared to be "no basic change in Honduras' policy or its relations with the United States."