*The following is a brief account of testimony given by the victims of the armed attack on the Mayangna community known as Sauna As, or Wilu, on March 11, 2023. The attack left dozens of homes burnt down, five indigenous men dead, and two others wounded. The account was written by Larry Salomon P, who also goes by Asangpas.
In the indigenous and local Christian communities, families traditionally organize on Saturdays to go out to the countryside and gather food, including fruit from the trees, plantains and bananas, roots, and tubers. This activity is complemented by fishing and hunting, in that way supplying the calories the families will need to conduct their Sunday activities. On that day, the majority attend their respective churches or religious groups. Others remain at home, resting or doing other domestic chores.
In the afternoon hours, during the dry season, the young people play baseball; during the rainy season, they play soccer. They also attend community meetings to discuss matters of collective interest. Still others visit relatives and friends.
These and other recreational, community, or subsistence activities comprise our weekend routines, especially on Sundays. However, on Saturday and Sunday, March 11 and March 12, the Sauni As territories’ traditional family routines ended up draped in mourning.
Testimony of a survivor:
“Four members of our family (two brothers, their brother-in-law, and myself, the father) all rose at 4 am on March 11, 2023, as was our custom. We got our canoe and headed upstream on the Waspuk River from Musawas towards Wilu, with the objective of cutting down some banana stalks. We were fishing as we went and had managed to hook some guapotes [common Central American freshwater fish]. It was 10 am when we arrived at the tributary we call Wilu, site of the community also called Wilu.
“We were hungry, so we got out and began to cook there, roasting the fish and eating it with some complementary starches. Then we set out walking. Our plot of land is located some two hours on foot from the river. When we’d gone only about 10 steps, we ran into some heavily armed men we didn’t know. They weren’t hooded, but were dressed in camouflage shirts, like they wear in the Army, with civilian pants. My son-in-law was in front of the rest of us, holding a hunting rifle. My two sons were in the middle, and I was the last one in line. My son-in-law took a stance, pointing his gun. At that moment, the mestizos yelled: “LOWER YOUR GUN!” Then they attacked. As soon as he had lowered the gun, they shot him in the forehead, and he died instantly. We managed to run, despite the gunfire from different caliber weapons, but we received gunshot wounds in different parts of our bodies. We got across the river, but all three of us were injured, one seriously. They also had wounded my dog. They stopped chasing us, crossed the river and entered the community of Wilu. I left my sons in a hidden spot and headed back in the direction of the Musawas community.
“Halfway there, I encountered a brigade of community members, who were heading to the site of events. I turned around again and headed back with them. We came and got my sons, but we also saw that the village of Wilu was completely in flames. One part of our group stayed to document the damage, while I returned with my sons and the others. We arrived at the Musawas primary care center at approximately six pm. That’s where my son died. They immediately dispatched myself and my other son to the Bonanza hospital in the pick-up belonging to Bonanza’s vice mayor, to receive the needed medical attention.”
Beginning at 11 am on that day, the social networks of activists and other organizations that defend human rights began circulating preliminary reports of the attack on the Wilu indigenous community. Many of us didn’t believe it, and the government authorities also didn’t confirm the news. Given the distance and lack of cellphone signals, there was no way to confirm what had happened. Around 6 pm, they finally confirmed that there’d been an attack, but without specifying the number of fatalities.
At that time, not even the Police had yet visited the site of the events. It wasn’t until the next day, Sunday, that police and military officials entered the village.
Testimony from one of the Wilu community members:
“I was in the community that day. At approximately 9 in the morning, I went to my uncle’s store to buy some things, since I didn’t feel like going out to the fields that day. Maybe if I’d gone, they would have killed me on the way. I went back home, then suddenly heard some shots, later a barrage of gunfire, so I went out onto my porch to see what was going on. As I did so, they shot at me. Since my house was right in front of the river, I went inside and out the back door, and thus managed to escape.
“I ran in the direction of Musawas, arriving there at 11 in the morning, and warned the people in the community there of the attack. I calculated around 18 homes had been burned down. The truth is, had it not been for the attack on the four men on the other side of the community, the tragedy would have been more disastrous. Apparently, the land colonizers were coming with a plan to kill anyone present in the community. However, when they crossed paths with the four men heading towards their fields, the people in the community heard the shots and we all managed to escape. There were some women and children bathing in the river, but we all managed to flee. Only the Church was left standing. They killed and butchered some cows, looted the shops that were there, and carried off things, some of which they threw away on the road.
The burial of the victims
At 8 am on Monday March 13th, the bells of the Moravian Church were tolling the mourning song.
When someone dies,the churches ring the bells with a very sorrowful melody. They do this at three separate moments: when someone has died; at the hour of the funeral mass; and for the last time, when it’s time to head for the burial ground. That day wasn’t a normal day. We were hearing this funeral song over and over. In a small community, burying five people on the same day involves a lot of work, especially in preparing the hole where the bodies will lie for eternity.
Two of the deceased were celebrated in a Mass held in Musawas; another two in a similar Mass in Anibusna; and the last Mass was held in Musawas at noon. Four of the bodies of those assassinated were laid to rest in the Musawas cemetery, and the last in the community of Anibusna.
Nicaraguan government authorities arrive
On Tuesday, March 14, the Nicaraguan government authorities arrived at the community of Musawas, capital of the territory belonging to the indigenous Mayangna people. Gathered in their territorial assembly, community members unanimously demanded an urgent clean-up of their territory, focused on conclusively dislodging the land colonists, and energetically disarticulating the heavily armed organized bands that circulate right in the heart of the Bosawas biological reserve.
The community members affirmed that the lack of implementation and conclusion of government actions had resulted in an unprecedented wave of violence that had been systematic since 2020. The authorities have manifested their expressed will to continue working for the consolidation of indigenous territorial rights, via legal prosecution of the traffickers and usurpers of the communal properties. For their part, the authorities of the Autonomous Territorial Government here, in representation of the indigenous Mayangna communities, have asked the Nicaraguan Army to install three posts for control and permanent surveillance of their Ecological Battalion, to support the reasons it was created.
Arrival of humanitarian aid
Following the attack, news of it went viral on social media, and in the community radios, churches, and other sources. As a first response, the Sauni Arungka Territorial Government carried out a campaign to collect humanitarian aid, including food supplies, provisions, cooking utensils and everything immediately needed.
Families from the Sauni Arungka communities responded positively, and in this way some aid was able to reach the affected families in Wilu. Similarly, some government institutions and other people in an individual capacity sent aid. The Churches joined the campaign and helped make it effective. Even though the aid received still isn’t enough, it’s been of great help to the families trying to reestablish themselves in their communities.
The Municipal Mayor’s office in Bonanza is organizing to send construction materials to the families that lost their homes. There’s been solidarity from the NGOs, and general support for the demands of the Sauni As.
Many international organizations and NGOs have issued statements condemning the attack and expressing solidarity with the victims of this detestable act. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, the World Organization against Torture and others strongly condemned the occurrence, and called on the Nicaraguan government to carry out coordinated, concrete actions to resolve the situation. They also called on them to hold a diligent investigation and sanction those responsible for the crime. Also, of course, they stressed the need to heed the clamor to effectively uphold the Constitutional guarantees of communal property rights, both individual and collective.
Other Mayangna Territorial Governments have issued similar statements repudiating the tragedy and calling emphatically on the Nicaraguan government to assure an effective territorial clean-up. Among the indigenous governments issuing declarations is that of Sauni Arungka, the indigenous Territorial Government of Sauni Bas, and that of Awaltara, who should all be applauded for their efforts.
However, the Government of the Mayangna Nation, as usual, has remained silent up until now, saying nothing. Similarly, to date, the Nicaraguan government hasn’t issued any report of this latest tragedy perpetrated against the Wilu indigenous community and its members. Such actions could be considered as genocidal, given that these attacks have been systematic and repeated, with hate, brutality, racism and the intent to inflict clear cultural destruction and undermine the social tissue of the indigenous communities.
Through extra-official reports, we learned that the Nicaraguan government is preparing to begin a clean-up operation in the 23 territorial blocs that have officially received land titles. This campaign is scheduled to begin in stages, with the territory of Twi Yahbra first. However, many of us believe that – given the magnitude of the violence in the Sauni As territory and the gravity of what has gone on there – it’s imperative that priority be given to this territory, in order to avoid more regrettable tragedies, and to defend the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve.