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Building towards reconciliation.

Under the philosophy that "a man with a roof over his head is a reconciled man," ex-members of the Nicaraguan Resistence (NR) are working with the Organization of American Studies (OAS) to build their own homes in former zones of conflict.

The self-help housing program is an innovation of the Managua-based OAS International Commission of Support and Verification (CIAV-OAS). This Commission was created in 1989 to oversee the disarmament and social reintegration of the ex-NR.

CIAV-OAS launched the program in April 1991 with two goals: to meet the housing crisis confronting post-war Nicaragua, and to generate employment in the production of building materials. The program targeted groups of potential beneficiaries who were highly motivated and showed organizational initiative.

"The government promised houses and land to all demobilized," said Pedro Gutierrez, former NR member. "But we were sleeping under trees, on kitchen floors and patios. The situation was critical." Gutierrez and others in his hometown of Ciudad Dario formed a group and petitioned the CIAV-OAS "to help us get what was fair."

Since the government had set aside funds to enable mayors to purchase and donate land to groups of demobilized citizens, the CIAV-OAS worked with mayors and 1,200 beneficiaries to designate 40 building sites nationwide.

Nelson Brown, a Nicaraguan architect at the National University of Engineering in Managua, brought his team of architects to the sites to custom design several basic plans, taking into consideration the regional architectural traditions and local materials available.

Project beneficiaries were involved from the start. On one preliminary field trip, former NR commander "Rabbit" came up with a solution for University engineers who wanted to teach homebuilders how to mark a site without the aid of levels and squares. The "Rabbit scissors" principle was to pin together two pieces of lumber that were each the length of the diagonals of the square house, and use them to mark what would be the corners of the house. This principle was later used in CIAV-OAS sites nationwide and incorporated in the University handbook on homebuilding.

In consultation with project participants, CIAV-OAS decided to build with bricks in areas where they were common; with stone or blocks above a wooden "miniskirt" half-wall in other areas; and to construct all-wood structures on stilts on the Caribbean coast. To reduce costs per house as well as provide skins and jobs to additional beneficiaries, the CIAV-OAS staff established stone quarries, brick and blockmaking centers, portable sawmills, and carpentry shops to train workers and produce materials for the housing projects.

The project beneficiaries were generally farmers by tradition and unskilled in carpentry and masonry. "So we gave them the puzzle pieces," Brown says. Skeptical at the start, the homebuilders worked with instructors to build each house in three days. They were quickly convinced of the project's success.

The basic structures were implemented as a low-cost emergency solution, with the capacity to grow over time. Beneficiaries have already started to expand and personalize their homes with additions, kitchen extensions, and gardens. Each project has land set aside for a playground, a health center, a school, or recreational hall, as the community decides. With donations from the Nicaraguan Institute of Natural Resources, a dozen sites have planted ornamental trees such as lime, mango and orange, which will bring shade and health benefits.

There is still a major housing deficit in Nicaragua. Brown estimates that residents need 400,000 new houses, and that 60 percent of these people are poor or low-income and do not have the means to build. Of the former NR, CIAV-OAS calculates that close to 4,000 need basic housing, primarily in the countryside. Managua is overcrowded, Brown says, so it is crucial to encourage people to live outside of the capital, as CIAV-OAS has done.

Of the home building experience, Gutierrez admits, "Construction is not my thing, but I was happy making my own place, working all together." He lives in the house he built with his girlfriend, two children, mother, and four siblings, supported by his sister's $50 monthly teacher's salary.

Donald Aguirre, employed as a farmer near the home he built with CIAV-OAS in Sebaco, says those in his group are settled and content, but others in Nicaragua who do not have roots in a house have taken up arms again. "Many still don't have houses and are in the mountains," agrees Lauriano Rodriguez, a disabled veteran from Solingalpa who works in an automechanics shop CIAV-OAS helped found.

The self-help component of the housing project means all beneficiaries make a hands-on contribution, and the ten percent who are disabled participate in the projects to the extent that they are able. Rodriguez and other disabled veterans joined a 70-house building project in Solingalpa, after they spent several months constructing their mechanics shop and living in tents he described as "roomy, big enough for four people."

Now settled with a roof over his head, Rodriguez is a reconciled man. Fixing an engine at the shop, he says most of his group's business is with the Sandinista mayor whose office borders the shop. Draped over spare car parts in the garage are dozens of black and red plastic Sandinista flags. "The mayor donated them," Rodriguez explains, "it's to keep the rain off, it rains really hard, but the flags do the job."

Santiago Murray,a native of Argentina, is chief of the CIAV-OAS project in Nicaragua.
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Title Annotation:housing programs for former Nicaraguan guerrillas
Author:Murray, Santiago
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1992
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