QUILALI, NICARAGUA -- Several new peace commissions, formed to supervise a halt to fighting between the Sandinista government and Nicaraguan rebels, ventured into the countryside this week to coordinate truces in three rural provinces and discovered that many villagers have serious reservations about backing the cease-fire plan.
The presence of peace commissions in some towns emboldened many peasants to speak frankly about their family ties to the U.S.-backed rebels, known as contras, fighting the Sandinista government. In other towns, Sandinista officials serving on the commissions were forced to listen patiently to complaints from the villagers over government policies.
As cease-fires took effect Oct. 7 in two small, remote zones in northern Nicaragua and one in the south, it became clear that the government had given birth to a new political animal in Nicaragua: a far-reaching network of commissions made up of citizens who can express a wide range of viewpoints without fear of Sandinista control.
Since the five Central American presidents signed a peace agreement Aug. 7 in Guatemala, peace commissions have been sprouting all over Nicaragua. More than 100 are now scattered across the country and their primary duties include verifying the cease-fire and monitoring a declared amnesty for the contras.
The Guatemala plan, employing vague language, requires a nationwide cease-fire in Nicaragua, among other nations, by Nov. 7. Nicaragua has declared its first cease-fire in six years of war in three zones, which total only 1,450 square kilometers. President Daniel Ortega said the objective was to "move gradually" toward a general cease-fire.
In and near the two northern cease-fire zones, residents told the commissions they would cooperate with the cease-fire only if the government would free local farmers jailed on suspicion of helping the contras.
In a third cease-fire zone in Nueva Guinea, in southern Nicaragua, many peasants said they would not trust the unilateral Sandinista cease-fire unless the government stopped its compulsory military draft, according to press reports from the area.
At first, when the Sandinista National Liberation Front took charge of naming the peace commissions, some localities balked at forming them. But on Sept. 2, Ortega named Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the government's most formidable critic, to be president of the "national reconciliation commission," which oversees the smaller commissions.
Sandinista officials followed suit by adding names of well-known opponents to local commissions, which start at the provincial level and reach out to mountain-bound hamlets. Soon, in remote towns like Quilali, residents formed their own commissions without waiting for Sandinista authorities to say the word.
As a result of a compromise that Obando struck with Ortega, each commission consists of about five local citizens, including representatives of the Catholic and Protestant churches, the Nicaraguan Red Cross and the opposition parties, as well as the government.
The commissions that converged this week on Quilali, on the edge of one cease-fire zone, added their influential backing to the government's cease-fire call. Many repre"The fact that a contra field commander seeks to make contact with us doesn't mean he wants to surrender."
-- Commission member Ivan Kauffmann
sentatives said they hope the cease-fire zone north of here will be the place to start an open-ended dialogue with contra field commanders.
"The fact that a contra field commander seeks to make contact with us doesn't mean he wants to surrender. If he comes to me with a list of political demands for the government, I will pass it on to the appropriate authorities," said Ivan Kauffmann, a civil engineer on a commission that supervises one extensive northern region.
The Sandinista government rejects any direct negotiations with the contras' top leaders, demanding instead bilateral talks with the Reagan administration. The government, sticking close to the terms of the Guatemala plan, says the cease-fire zones were opened only to allow families there to contact relatives in contra ranks and to ask the fighters to put aside their rifles and come home.
The contra leadership continues to dismiss the peace commissions as a Sandinista propaganda effort.
"They mirror the Sandinista Front and parrot the line of Ortega," said a contra spokesman, Bosco Matamoros, in a telephone interview from Washington.
The Army withdrew its regular troops from the zones this week, clustering them at the perimeters, but said it was leaving armed peasant militias inside. Peasants from the zone north of Quilali said, however, that Sandinista attempts to organize militias in the area have failed.
Carlos Manuel Morales, the Sandinista governor for this region, warned that the troops "won't be sitting on their feet. Whatever operations they don't carry out inside the zone they will carry out all around it."
Inside the zones, the Sandinistas are hoping to harness the sentiments of mothers and siblings of the contras to draw fighters back home.
"We must make peace push back the war. We must show that only the United States doesn't want peace in Nicaragua," Morales said. The Reagan administration plans to request $270 million new contra aid this fall.
But Sandinista leaders know their cease-fire effort is a gamble. From Aug. 7 until now, there has not been any surge in the number of contras embracing the amnesty. In Quilali, a hotly contested area, only three contras have come forward to accept the Sandinista offer.
In fact, the number of contra deserters has been dwindling since the U.S. Congress approved $100 million in contra aid in late 1986. Before the aid was approved, 1,633 contras took advantage of a government amnesty in 1986, according to a list of names published recently by the Interior Ministry. In the first eight months of 1987, only 301 contras accepted the amnesty.
A total of 3,494 contras have accepted the amnesty since it was declared in December 1983, the list shows. The contras today number about 9,000. Meanwhile, contra spokesmen said that 20 Sandinista Army soldiers had switched sides to join contra ranks since Aug. 7.
Of about 600 contras who, according to government estimates, were operating inside the three cease-fire zones, none broke the rare calm with fighting in the first four days.
This week, however, many peace commissions remained hesitant to travel down muddy back roads into the cease-fire zones to look for contras. In Quilali, many families, excited by the prospect of reuniting with relatives, volunteered to go first into the zones.
"A lot of townspeople are scared to death of the contras. They've seen too many people die under their fire," said Sister Kathy Maire, a Fransiscan nun working in Quilali for the U.S. religious group Witness for Peace.