So there we were, scrambling across a rusty corrugated tin roof atop the Museo de Revolucion in Leon, Nicaragua, trying desperately to keep up with a former Sandinista freedom fighter who was showing us around.
Miguel beckoned us onto the roof from the top of a set of stairs on the museum’s second floor. He reached to help Gabi across a wooden barrier that served little purpose other than to pose a minor obstacle for him and his somewhat concerned guests. We avoided rusty gaps in the roof, fearful of falling through, catching up with Miguel to gaze across the plaza and listen to his tales of conflicts that many years ago had been relegated to a few column inches in US newspapers.
This is why we travel, I thought. This is what we get.
This opportunity opened for us while we were walking on a steamy Thursday night through the center of Leon, a popular stop on the Nicaraguan tourist route. I stopped to take a photo of the museum exterior, where some graffiti artist had painted a sign in Spanish that appealed to my sense of historical accuracy: “Bush genocide enemy of humanity”.
A band of men sitting on the museum steps beckoned us to visit, waving to us to cross the muddy street. So we did, and after paying the 50 Cordoba entry fee (a little less than $2) we were joined by Miguel. A diminutive man in his late 40s sporting a cap that Che Guevara would have been proud to wear, Miguel was 16 when he joined the fight for freedom.
Now he leads tours of the museum, explaining in Spanish, pidgin English and pantomime how the rugged fighters of northern Nicaragua tackled oppression again and again. First at the hands of the US Marines, then the notorious Somoza family, then once again against the US-backed contras. He would pause, raise his arms to his chest as though embracing an automatic weapon and mimic the sound of gunfire has he described the dozens of men and women who were gunned down by their oppressors.
We made our way through the first two floors of the museum, a sprawling, decaying complex at the end of an enormous plaza that faces the famous Leon Cathedral. The rooms were empty, save for rows of photos, old shell casings and a bazooka.
Miguel shouldered the bazooka and in Spanish and pantomime, recreated the assassination of Anastasio Somoza DeBayle in Paraguay. On Sept. 17. 1980, a seven-member team of Sandinistas – one armed with a rocket launcher similar to the one Miguel now held – ended the life of Nicaragua’s long-standing dictator in an assassination plot named “Operation Reptile.”
Miguel’s steely stare reflected the significance of the event: death of the Sandinistas’ principle target and most despised oppressor. He rose from his knees and slowly came back to the present. A personal history like Miguel’s cannot help but forever define a human being.
Throughout the museum, pockmarked walls, peeling paint and soaring ceilings reflected earlier days of glory in the splendid colonial building now slowly decaying in Leon’s sultry heat. The building, now designated for use at a museum, once housed the department of telecommunication, government offices, and a prison.
Miguel showed us photos and biographical information about Augusto Cesar Sandino, father of the Sandinistas, a Nicaraguan revolutionary who led a rebellion against US military in the 1920s and 1930s. His eyes blazed with passion as he shared details, mostly in simple Spanish, but at times in halting English. He paused to emphasize important events, dates and conflicts.
He unfolded a tattered piece of paper to check dates, then pointed to another bank of photos showing faces of those who died. On the second floor, a discarded steel bed spring was the only piece of furniture in sight. We recoiled, remembering a similar display in the Toul Sleung S-21 genocide museum in Phnom Penh, where prisoners were tortured before being taken to the killing fields for execution.
Leon has a proud history as the center of revolution, and Miguel’s dark eyes shone with pride as he described his role in the fights. He paid a stiff price for his commitment: both his parents and much of his family were killed in the conflict.
We paused on the rooftop as we looked across the plaza and into the range of volcanoes that stretches across the horizon outside of town. The sun slowly set, casting a red glow across the fractured remains of a building where history resides in a far off land that now seems much closer to home.