Freedom, fighting and the other Ernesto

I’m standing on a corrugated iron roof in the baking midday sun, looking out over Leon, when my new friend Ernesto begins taking his shirt off. He wants to show me something. He turns to show me his back, but more to the point, the pink welts that dot its lower half. Shrapnel scars.

Ernesto was a member of the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) the revolutionaries who fought to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. He was 15 years old when he took to the streets of Leon with a gun.

Ernesto is my guide at Leon’s Museo de la Revolucion, and despite my lack of Spanish and his lack of English, this tour is exceptional. And it is Ernesto who makes it so. With simple Spanish, charades and a lot of patience, he walks me through the story of the revolution.

He talks of the half-century struggle against the dictatorship and the suppression and persecution the people who lived with during that time. He tells the story of Sandinista, who was kidnapped and executed by the National Guard during peace negotiations, of Rigoberto Lopez Perez, the poet who died while assassinating one dictator and of the scores of revolutionaries who simply disappeared during the Somoza regime.

The weapons room is also quite interesting. Here the weapons the FSLN had to fight with are lined up side by side with those that the National Guard was fighting with. While the FSLN had grenade launchers made from poly-pipe and duct tape, the National Guard had weapons that wouldn’t have looked out of place in, say, the US military…

Then its up to the roof, and I creep along the creaking sheets of corrugated iron taking care not to place foot wrong. Ernesto leaps lightly across the roof like a cat and starts pointing out tactical positions taken up by both the FSLN and the National Guard in the fight for control of Leon. Evidence of the battle for Leon is still very much visible in the central square; bullet holes still riddle the walls of most of the buildings in these streets.

“Where were you?” I ask. With general charades and much pointing, I soon work out where he fought. Then Ernesto begins to tell me his story. He was born and raised not far from Leon, and was named after that other famous revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Gueverra. He was 14 when the FSLN began gaining serious momentum, and 15 when the revolution came to Leon. He – and many of his friend and family – took up arms and took to the streets.

“Were you scared?” I ask. “Terrified,” he said. “But what else could I do?”

He hadn’t been fighting long when there he was thrown off his feet. He tried to get up, but found he couldn’t used his legs. Lying in the street he reached to feel his back and when his hand came away covered in blood, he was convinced he had been shot in the back. “I thought I would never walk again, and I cried,” he told me.

But 15-year-old Ernesto made it to safety, and later it was found that it hadn’t been a bullet, only shrapnel that had torn across his back and injured his spine. He did walk again too, and there is a great deal of pride in his step.

I’ve thought a lot about freedom and liberty since leaving that museum. About how at home, in Australia, we have had our freedom handed to us on a silver platter. From the time our country was created, freedom was birthright. Yes, we have fought wars, but on the home front we have never had any genuine threat to our freedom. Our right to vote, our right to speak up, our right to live – mostly – as we please. We’ve never known persecution, never known real fear, people have never “disappeared” at the hands of our government. And I dare say that – thankfully – we never will know it.

But I do wonder, if we haven’t known – or will never know – any of this, do we really, truly know the value of our freedom? Ernesto knows it and it was my privilege to spend the afternoon with this man, and to be given a hint of just how much we take for granted back home.

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