By BLAKE SCHMIDT, NYTimes.com, July 27, 2009
OCOTAL, Nicaragua — When Ángel Hsiky, a farm worker, heard his ousted president’s call for supporters to help him return to Honduras, he threw a change of clothes in a knapsack, kissed his wife and 9-month-old boy goodbye and headed to the Nicaraguan border.
Defying a military-enforced curfew, Mr. Hsiky and a caravan of about 200 supporters of the deposed Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, crossed precipitous hillsides covered with coffee plantations and dense cloud forest, skirting military roadblocks by taking dirt back roads. When that became impossible, the group abandoned cars and trucks and walked through mud and rain to the mountain-ringed outpost of Las Manos, Nicaragua.
“We’ve come to bring our president back home,” said Mr. Hsiky, 23, who is from Mr. Zelaya’s Olancho Province in central Honduras.
Since Mr. Zelaya arrived here on Friday to taunt the de facto government that exiled him a month ago, hundreds of Hondurans have answered his call to join him just across the border in Nicaragua.
Arriving here in mud-caked jeans and ripped shirts, after sleeping on soaked mountaintops and hiding among the coffee plants from patrolling helicopters, they have set up camps in the border towns of Las Manos and Ocotal.
They are teachers, students, the self-employed and laborers. Many said they came to support Mr. Zelaya because his policies benefit the poor.
At one of the main encampments in Ocotal, about 20 miles from the border, they eat chicken dinners supplied by a Nicaraguan aid group and listen to revolutionary folk songs on loudspeakers trucked in by the Nicaraguan government, a staunch ally of Mr. Zelaya’s. Rules have been posted to keep the place clean: no spitting on the floor.
This is the front line in what Mr. Zelaya calls his “rebellion.”
In the weeks after Mr. Zelaya was awakened by soldiers on June 28 and put on a plane to Costa Rica, he tried to regain his presidency through international diplomacy. He jetted around Central America and the United States, addressed the United Nations, attended regional summit meetings and was received with the pomp of a president.
But negotiations with the de facto government led by Roberto Micheletti have stalled, and the attention of the international community seems close to spent. Mr. Zelaya is here because he has little place else to go. Hard against the border, he can rally Hondurans here to try to keep some internal pressure on those who ousted him and stage political theater that, laced with an implicit threat of violence, helps keep the crisis from falling off Washington’s radar.
When he arrived Friday, after weeks of promising to return to Honduras, he dramatically stepped across the border, but just a few feet, not far enough to allow the government to make good on its pledge to arrest him. On Saturday he returned to the border, taking his supporters with him in three old school buses, followed by a motorcade of reporters and television cameras.
“You’ve each walked hours with soldiers tailing you and police harassing you, having left your families behind,” he told supporters in Ocotal on Sunday night. “You’ve left everything, and many of you have no money. You’ve felt all the repression.”
Carlos Eduardo Reina, Mr. Zelaya’s organizer here, said Mr. Zelaya would ask the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to grant refugee status for the Hondurans who have crossed to Nicaragua. Mr. Reina said that 1,000 protesters had crossed the border, a number that was difficult to verify because they are spread among several encampments.
The de facto government in Honduras responded to Mr. Zelaya’s presence by calling for a 24-hour curfew in the border departments that began Friday. At checkpoints on major roads to the border, soldiers stopped traffic to conduct searches while more soldiers and police officers in riot gear blockaded roads before the border.
The soldiers have turned back hundreds of protesters.
“We want to cross the border, but as you can see, we’re being oppressed,” said one protester, Mario Tercero, standing in front of a military blockade in El Paraíso, Honduras, this weekend wearing a cowboy hat that said, “Mel, the people support you.”
Hondurans arriving in Nicaragua said Monday that the military was tightening enforcement of the curfew, telling people to stay in their homes.
About 30 mayors and other political leaders have driven groups of supporters across the border. “We’re putting pressure on the acting government until it restores Zelaya,” said Marco Antonio Mendoza, the mayor of San Marcos de Colón. “The Micheletti government has no support. It can’t sustain itself. It will run out of aid and money to pay government workers.”
Tension mounted Saturday morning when the body of a protester from El Paraíso was found near the site of a protest. Mr. Zelaya’s supporters accused the authorities of being involved in the death of the man, who had been stabbed in the back and was last seen by friends at protests here in Ocotal on Friday.
The mayor of El Paraíso, Alan Funes, appeared with Mr. Zelaya on Sunday and offered fighting words.
“We will take back El Paraíso,” he said. “We won’t let the military install itself there. If it’s our turn to die, so be it, but the coup leaders will die first.”
One protester, Johnny Rodriguez, a teacher who followed a guide on a nine-hour hike across the border, said that, like many others, he would stay as long as he felt he was needed.
“It’s frightening to leave behind your family,” he said, “but when you’re scared, you have to remember what’s really best for them and understand that it requires an effort.”
A version of this article appeared in print on July 28, 2009, on page A4 of the New York edition.