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‘They are shooting at a church’: Inside the 15-hour siege by Nicaraguan paramilitaries on university students

A medical student was shot during a standoff between pro-government militias and university students in Managua, Nicaragua, on July 13. (Video: Joshua Partlow/The Washington Post)

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The first student I met outside the Church of the Divine Mercy had a fresh bullet hole in his lower back.

“It’s ugly in there,” he said.

“In there” was the vast, jungly campus of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), which by Friday afternoon had become a battleground. Far from the initial fighting was the Catholic church, a supposedly safe place for triage, and beleaguered and wounded students were arriving from the front lines by pickup truck, by motorbike and on foot.

“We had to evacuate,” Jonas Cruz, 18, said. “They are invading the barricades. They are already inside.”

These students, and much of Nicaragua, have been in revolt against President Daniel Ortega’s government for the past three months, enraged by how he has consolidated near total power over his four terms as president, undermined democratic institutions and allowed his security apparatus to employ deadly force against protesters. More than 300 people have been killed since the conflict began in April, the vast majority civilians.

Starting Friday afternoon, a new crisis emerged. Pro-government militias set out to crush the student rebellion at the university, one of the last strongholds of open resistance in the capital. During a 15-hour siege, some 200 university students and others were pinned down by gunfire inside this small Catholic church compound. Two students were killed and at least 10 were injured before top Catholic clergy were able to negotiate their release on Saturday morning and escort the surviving students across police lines.

Ortega’s government has ultimately wrested back control of this campus — as well as other rebellious cities across Nicaragua — but the cost to his government could be steep. There is a growing international condemnation of Ortega’s heavy-handed tactics to break the protests. Business leaders and other former allies have called for early elections or for him to step down.

“They are shooting at a church,” said the Rev. Erick Alvarado Cole, one of the priests inside Divine Mercy, as the gun battle raged outside. “The government says it respects human rights. Is this respecting human rights?”

Ortega has not spoken about the siege, but an official government news site, El 19, described the students as “terrorists and criminals” who had attacked a caravan of Sandinistas earlier in the day and then burned buildings on campus as they fled. It published pictures of the weapons found at the church after the students were taken away.

Over the past week, convoys of plainclothes gunmen, who are known here as paramilitaries and appear to coordinate with police, have swept through several cities, breaking down barricades in bloody battles as they try to reassert government control. Last weekend, these militiamen crushed the protests in Jinotepe and Diriamba, two cities south of the capital, ransacking churches and leaving more than 30 dead in the area, according to human rights groups. On Friday morning, masked gunmen stood ominously in these two town squares, overseeing the frightened few who dared to go about their daily business.

The UNAN was one of the last protest holdouts in the capital. On Friday, the paramilitaries set out to change that.

The students had fortified their campus with brick and barbed-wire barriers. A few carried firearms, but most had rudimentary weapons such as rocks, spikes or homemade mortars. When the shooting started, they were quickly overrun, and many retreated to the church for refuge and treatment.

The compound had two main buildings — the church and the priest’s quarters — separated by a courtyard. A metal gate blocked the roadside entrance, but the backyard was open to the campus. Inside, there was the hectic, confused energy of a field hospital run mostly by non-doctors. Patients squirmed on desks and on the floor as volunteers inserted IVs and bandaged wounds. Teens smoked cigarettes through ski masks and balaclavas.

Not long after 6 p.m., with several high-pitched cracks, the mood took a dark turn. The faraway shooting was suddenly nearby. The paramilitaries had appeared, cutting off the only exit from Divine Mercy and firing at the remaining barricade just outside the church.

It became clear that everyone inside — dozens of students, at least two priests and two doctors, neighbors, volunteers and journalists, including me — would not be going anywhere.

Most of the students accepted this realization with stoicism and remarkable calm. Many had been taking sporadic fire on and off for the past two months, and they seemed accustomed to it. They carried the wounded into the Rev. Raul Zamora’s rectory and put them on chairs or on the blood-spattered tile floor. Outside, at the barricade, other students shouted and fired their mortars against the unseen ­assailants.

Over the next hours, the fighting ebbed and flowed. A flurry of gunfire would force everyone indoors, then people would drift into the courtyard. At times, they chanted “Viva, Nicaragua,” shot their mortars in the air and vowed to never leave their posts. Around sunset, dozens of them knelt in a circle, held each other and prayed.

“Thank you, God, for saving us from death,” the prayer leader said. “You are always above us.”

This moment was interrupted by a pickup truck swerving into the courtyard carrying a young man who had part of his right foot shot off. A woman, an 18-year-old medical student, had been shot in the right leg, and the bullet broke her femur. The police and paramilitaries outside had sealed off the neighborhood, keeping ambulances away.

“The ambulance is outside, and the paramilitaries have blocked it,” said Carlos Duarte, a cardiologist and volunteer who was treating students and on the phone with his colleagues at the Vivian Pellas Hospital. “They have threatened to kill the drivers.”

The medical student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, spent hours on the floor with her bloody leg set in a splint made of sticks and cardboard.

“The pain is unbearable,” she said.

It was impossible to determine the course of the battle from inside the church — who was shooting or from where — but it was unmistakable when it got closer.

“Everyone on the ground! Everyone on the ground!” Zamora shouted at one point to the few dozen people huddled tightly in the dark on his living room floor.

“Those are windows,” he said, looking across the room. “Whatever bullet goes through there will kill you.”

By then, the shooting was on the street and aimed at the house. Some bullets sounded like they broke through. It was dark then, and the students were hushing each other and trying to cover the lights of their cellphones. From the injured, there were muffled moans of pain. One young man started angrily swearing, and others scolded him to behave.

Through all this, Zamora, the priest, and his subordinate, Cole, were on their cellphones calling Nicaragua’s Catholic clergy, asking for help and negotiating a peaceful resolution with the government. As bullets cracked, he called in to a live radio broadcast and appealed for help. The students had left the university barricades, he said, so there was no reason for the government to keep shooting.

“It’s like they want to assassinate all the students,” he said.

“Please,” he went on. “I call on the conscience of the authorities. If they have already left UNAN, why are they attacking the church?

“They can’t be attacking a sacred place,” he said.

The shooting kept coming closer; you could hear the voices. A half-dozen people, including the priest, crowded into a backroom and hugged the ground. Zamora said a quiet prayer.

“Lord, we ask you to protect us in this moment,” he said.

“We believe in you, Lord, those of us who have no strength against this great army,” he murmured. “Help us, Lord.”

By 10:30 p.m., the Catholic Church and the U.S. State Department had prevailed upon the Nicaraguan government to allow a convoy of ambulances and negotiators to cross police lines and ferry three wounded students and me out of the church. After they left, gunfire quickly resumed, according to those who remained, all through the night and after dawn.

The standoff ended on Saturday morning when the two most important Catholic Church leaders in Nicaragua, Monsignor Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag and Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, arrived at the church and negotiated the students’ release.

Just after 9 a.m., roughly 200 students and others who were pinned down all night, along with two dead and three injured students, were driven across town under a muggy sky to Managua Metropolitan Cathedral in five ambulances and two white school buses.

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Ismael Lopez Ocampo contributed to this report.