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Book Excerpt



On April 30, 1987, under a fierce afternoon sun, a funeral procession wound its way through the cobbled streets of Matagalpa, a small city in Nicaragua. Daniel Ortega, the country's president, and his wife, Rosario Murillo, followed the casket, slowly walking arm in arm with two Americans, David and Elisabeth Linder from Portland, Oregon. The Linders' son and daughter, John and Miriam, walked beside them. Oscar Blandón, a hydroplant operator and electrician from the remote village of El Cuá, walked alone, head hidden underneath a baseball cap, a sentinel that never strayed from the casket. Clowns from the Nicaraguan National Circus followed behind, their painted mouths turned downwards. Behind them walked thousands of Nicaraguans and foreigners. The funeral procession stretched for more than seven blocks.

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In the coffin lay Benjamin Ernest Linder, a twenty-seven-year-old American engineer. While working on a small hydroelectric dam that eventually brought electricity and running water to a village in the middle of Nicaragua's war zone, he was ambushed by a group of Contras, anti-Sandinista rebels financed by the U.S. government. Ben Linder's death made front-page headlines around the world. His life and death were bitterly debated in the United States, on radio and television, in newspapers, and in Congress. Opponents of Washington's policy in Nicaragua called him a "national hero" and a martyr of the left, while supporters of Washington's policy justified him as a "legitimate target" and asked, "was he a Communist?" President Ronald Reagan, who had earlier proclaimed "I'm a Contra too," made no comment, but Vice President George Bush stated that Linder was on "the other side."

CBS News correspondent Dan Rather had a very different take on the first murder of an American by the Contras: "Benjamin Linder was no revolutionary firebrand, spewing rhetoric and itching to carry a rifle through the jungles of Central America. He was a slight, soft-spoken, thoughtful young man. When, at 23, he left the comfort and security of the United States for Nicaragua, he wasn't exactly sure what he would find. . . . But he wanted to see Nicaragua first-hand, and so he headed off, armed with a new degree in engineering, and the energy and ideals of youth. " . . . This wasn't just another death in a war that has claimed thousands of Nicaraguans. This was an American who was killed with weapons paid for with American tax dollars. The bitter irony of Benjamin Linder's death is that he went to Nicaragua to build-up what his own country's dollars paid to destroy -- and ended up a victim of the destruction. . .The loss of Benjamin Linder is more than fodder in an angry political debate. It is the loss of something that seems rare these days: a man with the courage to put his back behind his beliefs. It would have been very easy for this bright, young man to follow the path to a good job and a comfortable salary. Instead, he chose to follow the lead of his conscience."

Ben followed his conscience when he moved to El Cuá, a small village in the Nicaraguan war zone, where he, as part of a team of Americans and Nicaraguans, brought electricity to the town. Ben also delighted farmers' children by clowning and unicycling down the village's one dirt road. Ben knew that the area was dangerous, but, for him, the risks were worthwhile. He wrote, "I see the kids and I feel like taking them all away to a safe place to hide until the war stops and the hunger stops and El Cuá becomes strong enough to give them the care they deserve. The pied piper of El Cuá. But I can't do that, and even if I could it wouldn't help the neighboring towns. So instead, I try to put in light, and hope for the best."

This is the story of what drove Ben to take the risks he did...

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