Students & Civilians Trapped in Church Amid Gunfire by Militias in Nicaraguan Unrest

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 UNAN, 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 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 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 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 a series of 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 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.

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Source: LMT Online