That time I witnessed the Contra War

Thirty years I ago, while I was an undergraduate at Boston University, the USA was engaged in an illicit war in Nicaragua, an effort headed by a man who was recently ousted as head of the NRA (Oliver North).

Working as a paralegal at Equal Justice Institute, a pro-bono political asylum firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was desperate to do something. So I signed up with Witness for Peace and joined an all-Mennonite delegation to witness the Contra War.

“Knowledge of Evil, 1.0: reading about atrocities in a newspaper or magazine.

Knowledge of Evil, 2.0: seeing the abandoned fields, the simple gravesites, the bloodstains on schoolhouse walls.

Knowledge of Evil, 3.0: listening to details in person, haltingly spoken by those left behind.

Post-Nicaragua, I became a modern-day Eve, having eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil, the bitter seeds caught between my teeth. Evil was no longer a debatable concept. Now I knew Evil: the choices of Evil, the stink of Evil, the mind-blowing realities of Evil.


At some point during our trip, I became a Tourist of Evil. After witnessing precisely what Witness for Peace intended for us to witness, I was soul-weary, processing the geopolitical realities that produced war zones with permeable borders. That I – or anyone, for god’s sake – could travel into the middle of a war and then travel out of it, while other fine, decent people stayed and risked death: that was crazy-making.”

My recent essay “Fill in the Blanks” published this month in Collateral, tells the story of weeks spent as a citizen-translator-horrified traveler in the middle of a war zone.

The effort it took to write this recounting helped me understand why so many veterans and refugees have a hard time talking about their experiences. The act of repeatedly reliving the horror while crafting sentences and paragraphs that tell the story in a way that others can hear and understand is frickin’ exhausting.

The fact that this issue of Collateral went live just before Memorial Day Weekend gives us another opportunity to reflect on how orchestrated violence resounds across countless decades and numberless lives. How trauma can echo and refract and impact, far beyond the initial incidence.

I will never stop praying for more good people to choose to stand up instead of standing by.

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