“If the Police enter, or I die, ring the bells”. The order of Fr. Edwin Román during the abduction of the Church of San Miguel

This article interviews the participants in the recent eight-day hunger strike for the release of political prisoners in the San Miguel Church in Masaya. In response to the strike, the Police cut off access to the Church, and cut off the electricity and water. In the end the International Red Cross were permitted to evacuate the participants. 16 young people who tried to pass water to the women were promptly arrested and the government has charged them with illegal possession of weapons.

“If the Police enter, or I die, ring the bells”. The order of Fr. Edwin Román during the abduction of the Church of San Miguel

By Abixael Mogollón in La Prensa, Sunday Nov 30, 2019

[see original Spanish]

In this way the mothers of political prisoners survived the police siege in the St. Michael the Archangel Church in Masaya. Those abducted tell the details of those days of “hell.”

In the kitchen of the priest´s house in the San Miguel Arcángel Church in Masaya, the lawyer Yonarqui Martínez, looked at a bag of dog food, and thought about what she could do to cook it with a little rice and some spices. It is the last thing left in the small cupboard of Fr. Edwin Román. Hunger and above all dehydration had the 14 people who had spent more than a week under siege inside the Church on the verge of collapse.

In the end, Martínez abandoned her attempt to mix the little rice she had with the food of Patches, the dog who accompanied them in the closure. She left the bag of concentrate stored as a final alternative.

“Fr. Román was very weak and in the desperation we were at the point of eating dog food”, the human rights defender now recounts, who a few days ago was released from the hospital, but who still has serious impacts on her physical and psychological health after suffering the siege of the combined forces of the police and Orteguista mobs and paramilitaries.

“I was not going to participate in the strike”

In the morning of November 14th, they called Yonarqui Martínez to tell her that a group of mothers of political prisoners had started a hunger strike in the San Miguel church. The human rights defender was in Tipitapa , doing some errands. In the afternoon she went to Masaya as a show of solidarity with the women who were protesting.

From the first moment she noticed that across from the church there was a large deployment of police. Thanks to the fact that she could communicate with Fr. Román, he let her into the priest´s residence of the church.

At 3:00pm the priest celebrated mass nearly in the atrium, because several faithful tried to enter the church to participate in the Eucharist, but the police blocked them. After the celebration Martínez said good-by to the women who had started their strike. She tried to leave through the same back door of the priest´s house, but there were now police stationed outside there.

It was 5:00pm in the afternoon when the lawyer received a call from a local journalist who told her that she was not going to be able to leave the church because of the large deployment of police. The lawyer tried through the front door, and she faced the police.

“If you leave, you are going directly to jail or we are going to shoot you in the head”, one of the officers told her. So it was that she realized that there was no turning back, and that she had just been abducted by the Orteguita Police. Since October 20 Martínez had been receiving medical treatment for several illnesses. It did not matter.

Around 6:30pm they cut off the electric to the San Miguel Church. Out of instinct, the mothers ran to gather water as soon as the crew showed up. That same afternoon they also cut off the water service.

“It was the moment they cut the light. We ran to fill a barrel, buckets, pots and jugs of water. We were able to collect a little, which is what kept us alive for the first days”, recalled Diana Lacayo, one of the mothers who participated in the protest.

The First Night

No one slept inside the San Miguel Church November 14th. Once night fell, the police began to beat and scratch on the doors, insulting the people who were inside and threatening them with death.

“When you smell the stench, it is because all these whores have died”, shouted the police. Left abducted inside the Church were Fr. Edwin Román, the lawyer Yonarqui Martínez, the former prisoner Marlon Powell, Flor Ramírez, Martha Alvarado, Wilber Calero, Cinthya López, Flor Rivera, Hazel Palacios, Karen Lacayo, Suleyka Sánchez, Diana Lacayo, María Gómez and Luisa Guevara.

Powell was the first one who heard when a group of members of the White and Blue National Unity arrived, along with several human rights activists, to try to leave them water. It was nearly impossible.

There were only a few bottles and they were able to pass them through the windows of the church. The mothers and Fr. Román himself insisted that the youth should leave the surrounding area of the Church, due to the fact that they ran the risk of being detained by the paramilitaries or the police.

At last the youth left the recipients of water outside the church, water that later was dumped out by the Police in front of the church, as a sign of derision. That night 16 of those young people were arrested, those who now are accused of illegal possession of weapons, among other supposed crimes.

The siege continued the entire night. Within the church, Fr. Román told the mothers that the only thing left was to hope and pray.

Rationing

By dawn on November 15th, San Miguel was surrounded by police who had cordoned off the surrounding blocks. The mothers now had spent 12 hours fasting. But Fr. Román, his sacristan, the lawyer Martínez and Marlon Powell were not part of the hunger strike. Which is why they decided to see what food was available.

From the beginning the priest clarified for them that he did not have a large amount of provisions in his cupboard, but that the little he had, he was going to share with them. A couple bags of rice, some spaghetti, a pineapple, some cans of sardines, oil, spices, an egg, some flour and sugar. The essentials for a single man to survive for several days.

After counting up what they had, the lawyer Martínez offered to ration the food. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the food of Patches, the dog who accompanied Fr. Román in the priest´s house.

The diet of those days consisted in those few foods. Yonarqui managed to make a fruit drink with the only pineapple that the priest had; she made a pineapple chicha by soaking the rind, and with the leftover, she made rice with pineapple.

“I do not know how I did it, but one day with half a pound of flour and one egg I made manuelitas[1] for the priest and the boys”, commented the lawyer. When there was only some rice left, she decided to join the hunger strike so that Fr. Román might have something to eat.

With the water it was worse. The three men used one of the bathrooms of the priest´s house, while the women used another one close to the church. The bathrooms were used all day and night. Not until the following morning would they dump some water in them to partially flush them.

The afternoon went fast that second day in San Miguel. The siege was less in the hours when the sun was the hottest, but by nightfall they knew the worst was coming.

By order of the priest they placed the benches against the principal door of the church, and they blocked the entrance to the priest´s house with the little car of the priest. The same car where they were able to partly charge the cell phones, to try to maintain contact with the outside world.

The sacristan climbed up the bell tower and tied a rope that he dropped to the area close to the tabernacle, where the mothers slept on the floor. “If the Police enter, or I die, ring the bells”, Fr. Román told them.

The Police took over the homes around the church and from there began to try to enter San Miguel. The owner of the house that is up against the back wall of the church, an 80 year old woman, began screaming in terror when uniformed police entered by force. They assigned an officer to follow her everywhere. They put up a ladder next to the church and from there spied on the mothers.

“Patches alerted us each time the masked men peeked in, the poor thing would bark and get desperate”, said Martha Alvarado, the mother of a political prisoner. She ran to put up curtains in that area of the patio of the priest´s house, so that the uniformed police were not able to see inside the church.

“They sent drones in on us at night, we would see and hear them”, stated Diana Lacayo.

The shouts in the middle of the night

It was a hard weekend for Fr. Edwin Román and the mothers, but they were on the verge of experiencing something even worse. In the morning of Monday, November 18th they opened the windows for a moment to see how things were in the street. The panorama was desolate. Only police and some people who dared to pass by the police line on foot. Masayans tried to get food, water, oral rehydration fluids to them, but it was impossible.

“A woman tried to bring ice with the priest´s insulin, but they took it away from her. Other young people shouted at us to continue resisting, that they would bring food, but they were not able to. Others brought drums and encouraged us from afar”, recounted Marlon Powell about that day that hours later would leave him profoundly affected.

The afternoon came. The inside of the San Miguel church seemed like a monastery. Those who were not on the hunger strike were fasting, when they ate, it was the minimum necessary, and they prayed the entire day.

On the advice of the priest they did the canonical hours or prayers. Laudes at dawn, Nones or holy hour at 3pm, Vespers at sundown and Complin before the evening harassment.

At midnight exactly loud shouting could be heard at the entrance to San Miguel. There were several people there.

“I am your wife! Leave the church. They are not going to do nothing to you. Let´s go home”, was heard. And the same pleading shout was repeated, but on the part of a mother to her son. The Orteguista Police had taken by force several family members of the people in the San Miguel church to try to get them to open the doors of the church. One of those people was the wife of Powell.

Inside, Fr. Román calmed the relatives. “Do not answer them, it is a trap”, he told them while the crying relatives hugged one another. They spent their time like this until the early morning when finally the police, that had deployed and were awaiting to arrest them, went back to their siege.

“The priest is going to die”

By November 20th there was no longer anything to eat, and almost no water. Some nights before a heavy rain had fallen that served to gather some water and also to partially bathe.

“That was a gift from heaven. All of us ran to gather water and bathe”, said Martha Alvarado, smiling. After the downpour the priest opened up some boxes of donated clothing that he had received, and told them to take what they want, in addition in order to encourage them, he opened another box where days before he had received toys for the children of his parish, and he told the women to take something to their grandchildren and their small children.

“Fr. Edwin Román is a good man. It was not possible that he would die on us in those circumstances. He fed us, he clothed us, he opened the doors of the church and he took care of us”, said Yonarqui Martínez nearly murmuring, with her voice breaking.

November 21st and 22nd no one ate no drank in San Miguel Church. The day before was when Yonarqui Martínez thought about cooking the last handful of rice that was left, combined with the food of the watchdog. The priest spent those two days in bed; which is why the mothers, on seeing him so weak, decided to talk to him and suspend the protest. Even though in the beginning he resisted, they finally ended up convincing him.

After a couple of calls to several priests, among them Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, two ambulances and two pickup trucks were sent to San Miguel to remove the mothers of the political prisoners and the priest.

Tears took over all the people inside the church when they saw the ambulances arrive. The Police withdrew, the mobs quit the siege, and even the very commissioner himself, Ramón Avellán, who was in charge of the operation  the entire time, left the surroundings of the church.

“Are we going to do this again? Of course, and we are going to continue holding protests until we see our children in freedom”, stated firmly Martha Alvarado.

Hunger strike in La Modelo

This past November 14th in the morning, after the group of mothers began their hunger strike demanding the freedom of their children, they transferred the political prisoner Melkissedex López to isolation in the La Modelo jail. Inside the San Miguel Church were his spouse Luisa Guevara and his mother Martha Alvarado.

“The guards told me that they were going to move me from the cell in case there was an uprising”, Melkissedex told his mother, referring to the more than one hundred political prisoners who are still in La Modelo.

The issue of experiencing hunger is not new for Martha. She is about to have spent a year feeling every day that heavy sensation of emptiness in her stomach that is produced by lack of food.

“I was accustomed to it. Since they kidnapped my son in December of last year, I walk around in the street broke, in meetings, picketing, protests and at times I did not even have bus fare”, she confessed one day after leaving the Vivian Pellas Hospital.

She realized that her son was in isolation when she left San Miguel and went to visit him in La Modelo. She found him emaciated and more concerned than ever.

When Melkissedex became aware that his mother and wife were surrounded by riot police in a church in Masaya on a hunger strike, he decided that he too would quit eating. It was the way in which he could feel closer to them while being cut off from communication with the outside world.

Melkissedex asked his mother to quit protesting and to work on taking care of her health. “Don´t ask that of me”, she responded.

In La Modelo she had time to tell him about some of the details of her ordeal in the church, which was the focus of the world for several days, and how prepared psychologically these women were for what would become eight nights of terror.

[1] Nicaraguan dish similar to pancake, sprinkled with cinnamon and cheese, then rolled up and served.

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