Ken Loach's new film `Carla's Song' is about a woman traumatised by her involvement in the Nicaraguan revolution. But for many women, the struggle was their moment of awakening. By Chris Holt
Like the heroine of Ken Loach's new film Carla's Song, Nora Lavadie had only a simple grasp of the politics of the conflict in Nicaragua. But like Carla, she was determined to take part in the armed struggle. "I didn't understand very much," says Nora. "I just wanted to get rid of Somoza. I learnt that the struggle would be very long and hard, but it appealed to me because I was poor."

Nora, a peasant farmer's wife and a mother of four children, ran a safe house and laundered money from bank robberies for the Sandinista guerrillas in the months running up to the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. "I used to take the truck up into the mountains to bring the guerrillas down. We usually brought them at night. We had one in the house at a time," she recalls. "I would take the money from the bank robberies to change in another area where the banknote numbers would not be recognised. It was very hard to carry that amount of money. I was in very great danger. I knew that I risked my life and my whole family's lives."

In the 1970s, women made up nearly a third of the guerrilla forces in Nicaragua. After the Sandinista victory, they continued to serve in the army as it fought the 10-year war against the US-backed Contras. Ken Loach's film is set in 1987, at which point his character Carla, having served in a brigade fighting the Contras, has fled the country, traumatised after being shot and witnessing her lover being tortured. In love with a Glaswegian bus driver, she goes back to Nicaragua with him to confront her fears and meet her old comrades.

Nora Lavadie also fled Nicaragua. Her husband, a known Sandinista, was picked up several times by the National Guard before fleeing to Honduras. "When they started killing whole families I also got out," she says. "I took the children and went over the border hiding in the bottom of a truck."

Her neighbour, Irma Ruiz, smuggled documents and food to Sandinista guerrillas, painted revolutionary slogans and hid guns in her house, burying them in the earth floor. At first, women seemed beyond suspicion, she says, speaking quietly, nervous even today of being overheard. "When I was picked up by the National Guard I didn't show my feelings at all. That's what I had been trained to do. I was just laughing and joking as if I had nothing to worry about. I said I was taking food to someone who was working up on the hillside and they let me go.

"We had to be very careful because the National Guard had `ears' - people in the community acting as spies. If one of us was captured we hoped we would be killed and not taken prisoner and forced to give the names of others."

By 1987, when Carla's Song is set, women were well versed in war, thousands were dead and Nicaragua was being starved by a US blockade of its ports. Loach's fictional Carla is clearly a victim of the war. As a refugee in Glasgow she can barely speak the name of her country. Her nightmares drive her to make two suicide attempts. It is only when she returns to Nicaragua that she speaks of her feelings for her cause, and even then in tragic terms. "Nicaragua, land of freedom or death," she says, tears rolling down her cheeks.

At a preview of the film in London, Loach explained: "The core of the story is about what happened in the 1980s; how a people pulled themselves up out of a dictatorship, taught people to read and write, built schools, health centres and co-operatives and how the most powerful nation on earth committed a war crime against them. I came away from Nicaragua with an overwhelming sense of sadness at what had been destroyed and that feeling infused the film."

But the story of Nicaragua's women revolutionaries has moved on since then. While the real Carlas do talk of their suffering during the Contra war, many also look back on the revolution as the start of an awakening. "From that date there was a change in the lives of many women," says Nora. "Women were no longer just seen in the kitchen but were there in combat. There was an opening up of opportunities for us."

Nora completed her schooling when she returned from the refugee camp in Honduras in 1979. She immediately joined the Sandinistas' literacy campaign, which drafted thousands of volunteers to bring basic education to the countryside. In Loach's film, Carla's friend Rafael is teaching old people in her village as part of the campaign.

"Everyone could study," says Nora, who went on to train as a teacher and is now a local councillor. "There were classes even for the most poor." After the campaign had officially finished, many women carried on meeting and training informally. In her district, San Juan de Limay, a rugged area in the north of the country, women set up a network of self-help groups, which Nora co-ordinates.

Irma Ruiz is finance officer of her group. "Previously, women never had such important roles," she says. "We wouldn't even speak in a meeting if men were there. The revolution taught us we had a right to speak."

Many women, who first found new roles during the revolution, have continued to work in the popular sector that grew from the literacy campaign. Elba Ubeda, who at 13 carried messages for the Sandinistas in the turn-ups of her trousers, now runs a natural health clinic in a very poor suburb of the capital, Managua. Since the defeat of the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections and the return to a market economy, fees have been introduced for health care. Many of Elba's patients come to her because they cannot afford conventional medicine.

"Economically, it's very difficult now," says Elba, a 38-year-old indigenous woman and staunch Sandinista. "The whole country is poor. Health is not free any more, schooling is not free, so we continue to struggle, but from a different trench."

The revolutionary spirit is perhaps most alive in the flourishing women's movement. One of its most visible branches is the Network of Women Against Violence, whose coordinator, Violeta Delgado, was only 10 when the Sandinistas came to power, a date referred to by supporters as "the triumph of the revolution".

"I am from a generation of people who were children at the time of the triumph, but I was involved with the revolution since I was a little girl," says Violeta, who is now 28.

She remembers her mother hiding guns for the guerrillas in the roof of their house. At the age of 11 she joined the literacy campaign and later she volunteered for the army. "I got basic military training, how to use guns, survival skills, how to move around, move refugees, deal with wounded people at the front. I did my military training with my mother. She gave me all her support," she recalls. She says violence against women was not an issue during the days of the revolution; it was accepted as part of Nicaragua's macho culture.

"I'm sure many Sandinistas hit their wives, but nobody complained about it," she says. Now there are national advertising campaigns against domestic violence, safe houses for women and the Network of Women Against Violence claims 60,000 supporters in its campaign to have the penal code amended to include domestic abuse.

"I still believe in the principles of the revolution," says Violeta. "I left home at 15 to join a work brigade cutting coffee. I felt privileged to live here in Nicaragua. I felt we were making our own history, building a better life for everybody.

"Some have said we are the lost generation because we lost our dreams when the Sandinistas lost the elections in 1990. I think they may be right, but for us women it's different. I feel that through the women's movement I gained new dreams to live for"n

`Carla's Song' opens this Friday and will be reviewed in The Tabloid tomorrow

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