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Miskito and Sumo Refugees: Caught in Conflict in Honduras


Since 1981, the conflicts between the Sandinista government and the indigenous peoples of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast have captured intentional attention. The indigenous peoples of Nicaragua (the Miskito, Sumo, and Rama) - and especially those who have fled as refugees into Honduras - are caught in the middle of complex national and international power struggles within which they struggle for their own cultural survival.

Historical Background

The landscape of the eastern region of Nicaragua and Honduras (collectively called the Mosquitia) consists of pine savannas interspersed with tropical forest. The Nicaraguan Mosquitia is inhabited by the Miskito, Sumo, and Rama and by immigrant populations, mestizos, and Creoles. In Honduras, the Mosquitia is occupied by native Miskito, a small group of native Sumos, mestizo immigrants from the Honduran interior, and, since 1981, Miskito and Sumo refugees from Nicaragua.

After the revolution of 1979, the Sandinista government began to incorporate Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast into the revolution. Under the Somoza regime, perhaps as the result of neglect rather than a strategized policy, residents of the Nicaraguan Mosquitia lived in relative autonomy from the government. The Sandinista resolve to incorporate the Atlantic Coast into the revolution created resentment on the part of many Atlantic Coast inhabitants who felt that the revolution was not their own, but was imposed upon them by revolutionaries from the country's interior. This resentment was further exacerbated by historical tensions between the Miskito populations that are Protestant and speak English (as a second language), and the majority of Nicaraguans who live in the interior, who are Catholic and speak Spanish.

During the first years after the revolution of 1979, the tensions between the Miskito and the Sandinistas escalated into violent confrontations. Originally, the organization Misurasata (MIskito, SUmo, RAma, SAndinista, Asla TAkanka [United]) grew out of an already existing indigenous organization, Alpromisu, as a way to link the Sandinista government and the indigenous populations of the Atlantic Coast. These relations rapidly deteriorated in February 1981, however, when Sandinista troops tried to arrest a Miskito Misurasata member in a Miskito church in Prinzapolka. The church people resisted the soldiers; in the ensuing scuffle and gunfight, four Miskitos and four Sandinista soldiers were killed. In 1982, the Sandinista army attempted to create a clear-fire zone (in which to battle the US-supported contras) by forcibly relocating some 10,000 Miskito living in scattered villages along the Rio Coco, the border with Honduras, into planned community camps further inland. Such Sandinista actions motivated Nicaragua's coastal peoples to organize, both politically and militarily; these actions also provoked many Miskito and Sumo villagers to flee as refugees into neighboring Honduras.

Indigenous Miskito activists, who had been students in Managua during the revolution, became concerned with the future of their peoples and the Nicaraguan Mosquitia. Brooklyn Rivera, perhaps the most internationally well known of these activists, has become a prominent spokesperson for the creation of an autonomous indigenous territory in Nicaragua.

Steadman Fagoth became leader of the Misura contra army (a reorganized version of Misurasata - without the Sandinistas), part of the FDN contra armies funded by the US government and aided by the Honduran military. The Misura army operated from bases in the Honduran Mosquitia, striking into the Nicaraguan Atlantic Coast areas. In 1984 Fagoth was deposed by the CIA because of his misuses of power against other Miskito. A new indigenous army, Kisan, then formed under new leadership to act as the indigenous contra army.

The Flow of Refugees to Honduras

In 1981, refugees - primarily Miskito - began to arrive in the Honduran Mosquitia. Many stayed near the border zone of the Rio Coco, but most walked the 40 km to the Honduran village of Mocorón, which served as a makeshift "camp" for 10,000 refugees. The village became the administrative center for the refugee relief effort in the Honduran Mosquitia, which was funded primarily by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and administrated by World Relief(1) with help from various other international agencies, such as Medicins Sans Frontiers, Tear Fund, Oxfam, International Rescue Committee, and the Peace Corps. In 1986, the Honduran Red Cross became the administrative agency for the refugee relief program.

In February 1983, with the aid of the UNHCR/World Relief program, the refugees in Mocorón resettled along three watersheds of the Honduran Mosquitia: the Rio Mocorón, the Rio Warunta, and the Rio Patuca. In 1984 and 1985, approximately 18,000 refugees received UNHCR/World Relief aid.(2) In 1986 a new wave of refugees arrived, numbering approximately 10,500; some went to the UNHCR refugee program, and others remained near the Rio Coco border zone.

The majority of refugees who fled to Honduras have been Miskito, although a sizable number of Sumos (approximately 3,000) have also registered in the UNHCR settlement programs. Usually, refugees arrived in groups from a particular village, and settled in Honduras as a group under the same village name.

The earliest groups of refugees (1981-1982) to arrive in Honduras were fleeing form the Sandinistas. Most of these early refugees left their homes in Nicaragua because they did not want to be forcibly relocated to planned Sandinista resettlement towns, such as Tasba Pri. Some refugees told me they left their villages after hearing rumors that Sandinista soldiers were digging mass graves in the event that villagers resisted relocation. Many refugees fled in order to follow family members who had already left for Honduras. Young men left to avoid being conscripted into the Sandinista army. Refugees who did leave their native villages often described being chased by Sandinista airplanes and shot at by soldiers at the border.

A second wave of refugees (1982-1983) arrived in Honduras as the result of "rescue" missions conducted by the Misura contra army. Apparently attempting to keep its cause alive to demonstrate to the US Congress the need for continued funding, the Misura army seized Miskito and Sumo villagers from Nicaragua and brought them into Honduras as "refugees" who were purportedly fleeing Sandinista persecution.(3) In one such incident, in the Nicaraguan Miskito village of Franciasirpe, two American priests, Father Salvador Schlaefer, Bishop of Bluefields, and Father Wendelin Schafer, observed the Misura forcibly removing villagers and escorting them - with the priests - into Honduras. Schlaefer later denied being forced to leave the Nicaraguan village, perhaps in response to political pressures. Such incidents often confuse outside observers; these events often involve more than the political and military motives of the contras. Many of those who have fled have family ties to the contras or to refugees already in Honduras.

A third wave of refugees arrived in 1986, apparently fleeing the Rio Coco areas in which the Sandinista and contra armies were battling.

Problems of Refugee Resettlement

Once they had arrived in the Honduran Mosquitia, refugees faced many difficulties. They had to walk long distances to register and receive UNHCR relief aid; they had to wait for an appropriate resettlement site with land for building houses and planting new fields; and they were caught amid the politics of various refugee factions.

The most immediate difficulties were logistical: the refugees had to find a new location to build a village. Although UNHCR and Honduran government agency officials helped to identify new resettlement sites, weeks or often months would pass between the time the refugees arrived and the time when they actually traveled to the site. Eventually, as refugees became more self-sufficient agriculturally, UNHCR decreased its food aid to avoid overdependence on relief. At first, the agronomy aid program overlooked some of the traditional Miskito subsistence crops, such as manioc, malanga, and plantains, instead emphasizing the traditional cash crops - rice and beans - as a way to promote self-sufficiency. After the first growing season in 1983, agronomists corrected this oversight and provided additional aid for subsistence crops. Many refugees, however, were reluctant to invest their labor in longer-term projects, such as planting tree crops, since they hoped to return to Nicaragua in the near future.

Later on in the refugee project, Cohdefor, the Honduran forestry agency, expressed concern at the amount of deforestation created by the refugees' slash-and-burn agriculture. At one point, Cohdefor officials severely limited the amount of land on which any one family could plant; later, they relaxed their position and gave refugees enough land on which to make a traditional living.

Equitable administration of aid to the resettled refugee villages presented another problem. Each village had a coordinator, who represented the village to the relief officials. Although in principal these coordinators were to be democratically elected by the resettled villagers, in reality they were often Misura sympathizers approved by Misura officials. This often created tensions between refugees, who wanted to build new lives, and Misura, which sought to maintain a population base for its contra activities.

One of the most grave refugee difficulties was Misura's forced recruitment of young men, a problem that became so serious that UNHCR added two officers to its staff to record such incidents. In May 1984, Misura recruited at the peak of rice-planting time on the Rio Patuca, leaving women to do the majority of agricultural work.

Repatriations from Honduras to Nicaragua

Refugees who wanted to repatriate to Nicaragua were initially discouraged and intimidated by Misura or by Misura sympathizers, such as some village coordinators. Misura needed new recruits, and also needed the existence of large refugee populations in Honduras to prove its point about the Sandinista government. UNHCR officers, as international representatives, recorded formal requests by those wanting to return to Nicaragua despite local Misura sympathizers' intimidation of refugees.

In one incident in 1984, Misura sympathizers followed a family that had decided to leave a refugee village on the Rio Patuca as the family fled to the UNHCR staff house in Wampusirpe. Armed with machetes, the sympathizers surrounded the house. The presence of UNHCR officers, at the time accompanied by an international film crew, served to defuse the situation; the refugee family eventually returned to Nicaragua through official channels.

Once several refugee families had repatriated, returning to Nicaragua became easier for the refugees. By the end of June 1987, UNHCR was routinely operating direct repatriation flights from the Honduran Mosquitia to the Nicaraguan Mosquitia, repatriating 520 refugees in 22 flights. Most recently, Brooklyn Rivera and Steadman Fagoth, as representatives of the new organization Yatama(4), have lobbied for financial aid from the US Congress to encourage repatriation of the estimated 35,000 refugees now in Honduras.

Since the revolution, Brooklyn Rivera has been a primary force in negotiations with the Sandinista government for the creation of an autonomous indigenous territory in the Nicaraguan Mosquitia. Such a territory would solve much of the refugee problem. He has briefly described his proposal as follows:

We have proposed a detailed treaty of peace between Nicaragua and the Indian nations of Yapti Tasba, our aboriginal territory. The treaty would guarantee the right of Indians to exercise self-government over local matters, including hunting and fishing, agriculture, the exploitation of natural resources, social services and education. The Managua Government would continue to be responsible for military defense against external aggression, foreign relations, immigration matters, currency and postal services, and administering justice over the national laws applicable in the autonomous territory.

Ultimately, the plight of Miskito and Sumo refugees in Honduras is directly tied to the future of their peoples in Nicaragua and their negotiations with the Sandinista government. At present, the autonomy plan proposed by Yatama, if approved and carried out by the Sandinistas, provides a hopeful solution; it would not only benefit the peoples of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, but would encourage further repatriation of refugees from Honduras.(5)

As in many refugee situations, the complexities of the current state of affairs in the Nicaraguan and Honduran Mosquitia are highly politicized. Facts are often selectively reported or distorted to fit various political ends. For instance, a publication of CIDCA (Centro para la Investigación de la Costa Atlántica), a semi-independent research center established by the Nicaraguan government, mentions earlier "mistaken" policies of the Nicaraguan government toward the Miskito (such as forced resettlement into planned camps) but focuses primarily on the human rights abuses of the contras. US State Department (1986) publications, on the other hand, document Sandinista military activity against Miskito villages and Miskito contra armies (Misura, then Kisan) without mentioning the active role of US funding and support for these armies, leading readers to believe that the Miskito are rebels fighting independently against domination by the Sandinista government. The refugees themselves can tell both sides of the story.

The Miskito and Sumo refugees have been caught between the national interests of Nicaragua and the United States. Ultimately, what most Miskito and Sumo refugees in Honduras desire is the opportunity to return to Nicaragua and to live self-directed lives, free of military aggression or political repression from any government.


(1) World Relief de Honduras worked as the Honduran arm of World Relief Corporation, which is based in Wheaton, Illinois.

(2) This figure does not reflect the large numbers of refugees who relocated immediately along the Rio Coco in Honduras: since the UNHCR policy is not to work within an active "zone of conflict" such as the Honduran-Nicaraguan border, only those refugees who came to Mocorón to be registered as refugees are counted here.

(3) Brody (1985) has extensively documented several of these incidents, based on firsthand interviews with refugees.

(4) Yatama was created in 1987 as a new organization to represent the indigenous peoples, as well a the Creoles, of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.