They Took Their Dead

19 JULY 1979 — As is so often the case in the period between the violent overthrow of one government and the assumption of power of its successor, chaos reigned in much of Managua after Somoza’s departure prior to the Sandinistas’ taking control. (Remember Baghdad after the March 2003 U.S. invasion?) In the photograph above, street kids rummaged through the National Guard bunker from where Somoza once ruled the country as if it were his private estate.

It was a sketchy time for journalists covering the conflict. The National Guard, defeated and humiliated, was disbanding and running for cover just ahead of Sandinista fighters making their way to the capital. We journalists were concerned the guardsmen would lash out at us, as they saw journalists reporting on human rights abuses as one reason that much of the Western world had turned against their boss. So on the morning that I entered Somoza’s bunker to make this picture, I was concerned when two guardsmen — now in civilian clothes — called out at me to approach them. They were nervous. Shirts wet with perspiration. I knew this could be very, very bad.

So I walked with caution up to the car that they stood beside. And then they asked me to help push it. The battery was dead and they were trying to jump-start it. So one of the guardsmen pushed from the open driver’s side door, while I and the second pushed the vehicle from behind. That’s when I saw what was inside. And three decades later it still gives me a chill. The bloodied feet of one of their fellow soldiers sticking up from the floor in the back of the car. They were taking their dead with them.

The image making and storytelling skills I acquired during this conflict are the foundation of my role today as backpack journalist. As we mark the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution, I’m posting scans of some of the original images I made for UPI during that war, and explaining their significance. I do this in recognition and gratitude to the country and people who have given me so much. Thank you.