Altars, Candles and Flowers for Nicaragua’s Dead Students

By Gabriela Selser (dpa)

Altar at the John Paul Genie roundabout for the victims of the massacre. Photo: Carlos Herrera /confidencial

HAVANA TIMES — Like a Mexican cemetery on November 2nd (The Day of the Dead), hundreds of candles flickered in the darkness among flowers, crosses, cards and pictures. Every now and again, some girls break the circle and carefully move forward to replace the candles that are dying out.

These are the altars that have been set up at Jean Paul Genie roundabout, to the south-east of Nicaragua’s capital and on the highway that leads to the neighboring city of Masaya. Hundreds of young people come together here everyday, in the afternoon, to honor their classmates who were killed in the protests which shook the country mid-April this year.

They stay and talk until midnight. Some pray silently and others make noise and wave Nicaraguan flags alongside the road to invite car drivers to join the vigil. They respond by beeping their horns and a few have stopped and got out to join them.

This place is full of symbols, just like the small pieces of cardboard where teenagers have put photos and written the names of the deceased: 10 according to the government, between 42 and 63 according to independent human rights organizations.

Here is 17-year-old Richard Pavon’s name, whose dying moments were captured in a video and passed around in whatsapp groups on April 19th. He was one of the first fatalities, along with 15-year-old Alvaro Conrado, the protests’ “child martyr” (as the press call him) who died from a bullet to his neck when he was providing water to some university students.

There is also the name of Michael Cruz, a postgraduate student, who received injuries to his chest and head. His mother, who had emigrated to California to work, returned for the burial after not having seen him for 18 years. And there’s also Alvin Molina, a 27-year-old basketball player, who was caught by a bullet when he was supporting a “cacerolazo” (popular protest involving banging pots and pans) near his home.

“I didn’t know them, but one of them was my elder brother’s best friend. That is to say, he was like a brother to me too,” Mario Castellon told dpa, his voice breaking up. He hopes to enter the university to study agronomy next year.

Slim aluminum crosses have now been raised in the middle of the roundabout, where two “trees of life” (huge iron structures with thousands of light bulbs which were installed on First Lady and Vice-President Rosario Murillo’s orders to put her own “kitsch” stamp on a city with very few green spaces) had stood until a few days ago.

At least a dozen of her 134 “arbolatas” (the general population’s name for them) have been knocked down by angry protestors. In their place, young people have planted palm trees and acacias, which they water everyday, and placed red and blue lights which decorate the paths to their virtual graveyard.

“We are going to stay here until we get justice. Until those responsible for the deaths of our classmates are sentenced,” Giancarlo, one of the spokespeople for the April 19th Movement (M19A), which was born in the middle of the protests, told dpa. He is studying Systems Engineering at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), which the Sandinista Youth had a firm grip of until recently.

The movement accepted to take part in an announced dialogue which Ortega had proposed in order to resolve this civic rebellion, the first he has faced in his 11 years in Government. Among other demands, the M19A is demanding that all of the National Police’s high officials be removed from their positions, who they blame “for the repression and massacre” of the students and other young people.”

Francisco Nava, a former Sandinista Army officer, who was the military commander of a mountain battalion back in the ‘80s, was one of the very few adults looking over the altars. “I feel like I’m stuck on top of a canopy of dead people. I can almost smell the blood again,” he said, saddened.

Tribute in Managua for those killed in the repression. Photo: Carlos Herrera /confidencial

“My father lived through the war and he’s only been able to talk about it recently,” says Camila, a second-year medicine student who found herself having to improvise bandages and tourniquets to heal her classmates who were falling injured in the corridors of Managua’s Polytechnic University during clashes with the National Police.

According to psychologist Martha Cabrera, a specialist in social mourning and trauma, the civic uprising brought old memories and injuries back from the wars in the ‘80s which devastated Nicaragua (especially the “contra” conflict against US-backed counter-revolutionaries), which left 30,000 dead.

“The revolution ended 28 years ago but, on an emotional level, it’s like it was yesterday, because there hasn’t been a debate, war victims were never given psychological treatment and their grief hasn’t been healed,” she explained.

Therefore, according to Cabrera, the tragic cycle of death and family breakdown as a result of the war continues to perpetuate itself on an individual level, but also as a collective, systemic process. “There are too many open wounds which need to be healed,” the therapist insisted.

Nothing is coincidence, like they say. And even though I’m sure only a handful of these teenagers know this history, they have set up their altars at the Jean Paul Genie roundabout precisely because it was in memory of a 16-year-old teenager who died at the end of the ‘90s.

Jean Paul Genie was driving his father’s car when he was riddled with bullets when he tried to overtake a long caravan of vehicles which were transporting General Humberto Ortega, the then Head of the Army and the brother of Daniel Ortega.

NOTE: The Altars were at the Jean Paul Genie roundabout until the afternoon on Monday April 30th.