“They’ve killed Ben” said Nancy Levidow as she opened the door for us, sobbing profusely with tears pouring down her face. It was April 28th 1987, Sean Minnock and I had just arrived in San Francisco en route for a peace tour of Central America. Nancy was on the phone talking with the distraught mother of Benjamin Linder, a 27 year old American engineer, who had been assassinated that morning by the Contras while working on a small hydroelectric dam in rural northern Nicaragua. Ben was short in stature, but strong in spirit. He’d gained considerable notoriety in U.S. juggling circles for riding his giraffe unicycle 1,255 miles from Seattle to San Diego and for campaigning on the campus of the university of Washington in opposition to Reagan’s illegal Contra War.
Shortly after the 1979 the Sandanista revolution toppled the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Ronald Reagan began a program of arming a rebel force led by former members of Somoza’s brutal National Guard. The funding and training was halted by an act of Congress, only to be restarted secretly by members of the Reagan administration in an elaborate scheme that eventually was exposed and led to the Iran-Contra hearings. Over 80,000 Nicaraguans were killed in the ten-year-long armed conflict. Ben’s mother said she didn’t raise him to be an activist. “We never told our children what to do. He graduated as an engineer and figured he could do something good.” He did a lot of good but he paid for it with his life.
Sean and I flew into Managua met up with Cort Peterson, Sarah Felder and Mark Deutchmann and started to plan our jugglers tour. My friend Jim Good, from Hawaii, who was volunteering in Nicaragua provided invaluable support with translating and transport. After a bit of rehearsal we visited a couple of Managua orphanages and a home for disabled soldiers doing our best to cheer them up. Getting to shows was not easy. The trade embargo imposed by the U.S. government meant taxis often broke down due to the scarcity of spare parts, public transport, electricity and water supply were similarly impacted and only available for parts of the day, if you were lucky.
Our next performance was at a demonstration outside the American Embassy protesting Reagan’s support for the contras. Many of the foreign aid workers in the country were there and also Ben’s parents and siblings. They planned a protest march to go to where Ben had been assassinated. It was organized by the religious and aid organizations whose workers were also being threatened by this Contra action. They wanted to honour Ben and his two Nicaraguan comrades, who died with him, and show the U.S. government that instead of leaving Nicaragua they were continuing their humanitarian work.
Much to our surprise our juggling troupe was invited along and our tour plans took a sharp turn. We overcame our fears, decided to accept the offer and headed to the war front. We traveled north from Managua on small buses to Matagalpa. There we rode on local buses to Jinotega before transferring to two all wheel drive trucks which took us deep into rural obscurity at El Cua. Thirty four of us then set off on a four day trip walking 45 kilometres with signs, banners, guitars, drums, flags and a circus singing songs like ‘We shall overcome.’ We did shows in towns then villages and closer to the Honduran border, where the contras were mostly active, small rural collectives and army bases . Everyone knew the contra forces were roaming the hills nearby, and making regular attacks on civilian targets. Fortunately, everything went well for us. Phew !
We were advised that contras planted U.S. made claymore mines in mud puddles in the roads and we must have driven through hundreds of these potential pyrotechnic bloodbaths. We passed the remnants of a local bus that had been blown up that week by a mine killing 28 people, 13 of them from the same family. As we walked into one village a funeral was in process for two young men killed by a roadside bomb the day before – on the same path we were traveling. It was a sad and solemn event attended by the whole village. The sounds of their “Presente, presente, presente!” as they cried their final farewells still rings in my mind.
It was in El Cedro that the beauty of the Nicaraguan people and countryside contrasted most starkly with the poverty and the hardships of war. We were greeted warmly by the cooperative leader who told us that they had been attacked by the contras on four occasions. I sat with an old compañero on guard duty that night sharing his grief over his two sons who’d been kidnapped by the contras who press ganged it’s members that way. So as attackers fired randomly towards the co-operative where we tried to sleep he never knew if it was his own sons he was shooting at. Following one show a sad weatherbeaten grandmother thanked us for making her laugh for the first time in a long while and we witnessed firsthand the anguish that war brings. I saw the power we had as performers to help heal the wounds of war and vowed to tell jugglers everywhere when I returned home. I knew we all could do much more than just make a few bucks in theatres, festivals and streets with our circus skills. Circus could help change the world, one clown at a time!
At every stop our Jugglers for Peace drew some big crowds with big smiles. Everyone turned out to see us. There were children, peasants, soldiers and social activists. We added anarchy and lots of fun to this very serious undertaking. I opened the show on stilts swinging fire torches. Sara juggled cigar boxes, a magic crystal ball and devil sticks that filled the children with wonder. Sean brought laughter and amazement with his balloon animals, clowning and magic tricks. An inventive three, four and five ball juggling routine by Mark kept audiences guessing where the balls would be caught and tossed back into the pattern. Fluent in Spanish he drew shy young kids onto the stage and made them the centrepiece of his act. Our finale was a four person passing routine, the first of its kind performed before Nicaraguan audiences. After the final catch Sara explained to the audience the purpose of the trip and dedicated the show to the memory of Ben Linder. Cortland expertly captured it all on video and in photo’s so that we could share our experience with everyone back home. He’d left a wife with young boys back home and she graciously accepted him risking his life with a bunch of crazy jugglers. Together we felt like we brought a token of light to the darkness of a war torn country as our clowns and colourful costumes brightened up their stressful lives for just a brief sweet moment.
Walking cautiously but determined our parade of American teachers, agricultural experts, doctors, nurses and church workers were greeted warmly all the way to San Jose De Bocay where Benjamin Linder lived his last days. We visited his local home and the electric plant he had worked to create and met his coworkers and the residents who all expressed their love for this humble man of service.
In Bocay, we were greeted by an assembly of more than 700 soldiers who were attempting to push back the Contras and protect the population from further attacks. We were just 15Km from the Honduras border and the base camps for the insurgents. We did our biggest show attended by the army and villagers, about 1,000 people. Later we were taken to a field hospital were we performed a more personal show for the 40 patients, doctors and nurses.
Video and Photo’s by Cortland Peterson.
At the time the Sandinista Government was extremely popular. They broke up the huge haciendas of the autocratic aristocrats and created land cooperatives which empowered the formerly land less peasant class. They initiated social developments that reached the normal people like the literacy and health programs. It was very inspiring but sadly these improvements became the targets for the contras.
Ben was super excited about the work he was doing as an engineer. He wrote in a letter to a friend: “It’s a wonderful feeling to work in a country where the governments first concern is for it’s people, for all it’s people.” He also loved riding his unicycle and entertaining kids and adults alike. He sometimes assisted local health-care workers in gathering children for vaccination programs as the newly developing country sought to eradicate many preventable diseases.
His vision in El Cuá was to bring hydroelectric power to the small northern village, completing a project that had been started earlier but was never finished. Another project in San Jose de Bocay grew out of that work, and it was while planning the location of a dam for this project that Linder and two Nicaraguan co-workers, Sergio Hernández, Pablo Rosales were ambushed and murdered by a group of contras.
Linder’s death sent shockwaves through the international community in Nicaragua and in the United States. Three hundred Americans working in Nicaragua signed a letter calling for an end to U.S. funding of the contras. Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega spoke at Linder’s funeral in Matagalpa saying: “He did not come on a flight carrying arms, nor with millions of dollars; he came carrying the dreams which were born of his conviction. He is the smile of the children who saw him in his clown costume, illuminating the future that we are making together in the new Nicaragua.”
Ben’s gravestone in Matagalpa reads: “The light he lit will shine forever.”
Ben Linder’s parents David and Elisabeth, along with his brother John and sister Miriam, travelled to Nicaragua for the funeral. On their return to the U.S.A. they were asked to testify before Congress about their son’s death.
President Reagan who famously called the contras “freedom fighters” and the moral equivalent of the founding fathers never spoke directly of Linder. But Vice President Bush said to Ben’s brother, “The policy of our government is to support the contras, your brother was supporting people . . . on the other side. . . . So he made his choice.” History has shown that that ‘other side’ was the righteous one to be on.
Today Ben Linder is remembered as a hero who gave his life to help the everyday people of Nicaragua rebuild. He is something like a patron saint for being an ‘Internacionalista’ and for brining rural electricity. The plant where he was killed bears his name and his small scale hydro project continues in other villages under the name of the Association of Rural Development Workers–Benjamin Linder.
The 1987 trip to Nicaragua was a milestone in my life and fortunately it inspired a network of jugglers across many continents to get involved in using their skills to support peace. The country described by our fellow marchers had little resemblance to the dark picture of Nicaragua painted by President Reagan. Sadly we discovered later that most people back home didn’t really want to hear about our trip in depth. People have their own worlds. It’s only the most compassionate that can take on Nicaragua’s heartache, too.
Most deservedly Ben Linder has been honored in ‘Fragile’ a song by Sting, a film, plays, novels and a story of his life in The Death of Ben Linder by journalist Joan Kruckewitt who knew him in Managua. He will not be forgotten. “Presente, Presente, Presente.”