Peter Torbiornsson: My guilt over La Penca bombing
- 25 July 2012
- From the section Magazine
More than 30 years after surviving a bomb attack at a press conference during Nicaragua's civil war, in which three fellow reporters died, Peter Torbiornsson is still wracked with guilt - not at having escaped death that day, but for his part in inadvertently aiding the bomber.
"It took me a long time to understand that it was my friends who put the bomb," says Torbiornsson, now 70. "It has been like a wound in my soul… I cannot emphasise how sorry I am."
Torbiornsson, a Swedish journalist who began working in Latin America in the 1960s, said that getting old had made him realise that he had to speak out.
"I think the one person who has been most severe in judging me has been myself. Now it is for others to judge," he says.
Last year he released a documentary film called Last Chapter, Goodbye Nicaragua, in which he openly admitted - for the first time - that he had kept quiet for decades about the exact circumstances leading up to the explosion.
It is an intriguing story that links the now grey-haired Swede to some of the darkest episodes of violence in Central America and raises important questions about the divide between reporting on wars and taking sides in them. It has earned Torbiornsson fierce criticism from other journalists as well as from other survivors of the blast.
In May 1984, Torbiornsson was part of a small group of journalists who travelled along the jungle river between Nicaragua and Costa Rica to La Penca, the remote hide-out of the leader of the Nicaraguan "contra" rebels, Eden Pastora.
A colourful figure who enjoyed the attention of the media, Pastora had been a commander in the left-wing Sandinista guerrilla army that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in July 1979. Soon after the Sandinistas took power, Pastora split with his former comrades and joined the anti-Sandinista "contra" rebels funded by the US.
Though it was almost dark when the party of journalists reached La Penca, Torbiornsson said, Pastora was there to meet them. The reporters crowded around him, cameras and microphones were switched on. Film footage caught on one camera - which miraculously survived intact - shows the rebel leader in mid-sentence, answering questions. Then the screen is suddenly filled with white noise.
Pastora, the bomber's intended target, was seriously injured, but survived. Torbiornsson was hit by flying shrapnel. He was shielded from the full force of the explosion by an English journalist, Susan Morgan, who was standing in front of him. Morgan had serious injuries in one arm, her legs and face. Both were thrown several metres into air.
"The first thing I saw when I came around was a man in front of me with his leg cut off. He was bleeding so much," he says. The wound was so high up it was impossible to stop the bleeding. "He was dying in front of our eyes."
Another reporter, 38-year-old Linda Frasier, an American who worked for a Costa Rican newspaper, lost both her legs and bled to death while waiting to be evacuated.
"We were in the middle of the jungle, just sitting waiting on the muddy ground, trying to help the wounded, trying to understand the situation," Torbiornsson says.
No one claimed responsibility for the blast, which killed seven people in all and injured another 22. Pastora, who had many enemies, immediately blamed the Sandinistas. Others pointed the finger at rival contra leaders. But, unlike Torbiornsson, no one had any proof.
For several months prior to the journey to La Penca, the Swede had been accompanied on his reporting trips across Central America by a bearded cameraman whom he knew as Per Anker Hansen, supposedly from Denmark.
The two men had been introduced one night in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, by senior officers in the Sandinista intelligence services, who had approached Torbiornsson to ask if he would "show Hansen around". Sympathetic to the left-wing cause, the Swede was flattered.
"I knew he (Hansen) was a spy for the government, but thought little of it - and I didn't fear for my safety. Maybe I should have thought more about it," he said, almost casually.
Speaking slowly in fluent English with a thick Nordic accent, Torbiornsson said that in those first few confusing hours after the bomb ripped through the party of journalists crowding around Eden Pastora, he immediately suspected Hansen, who had insisted on coming with him to La Penca.
Hansen had been standing at the back of the crowd when the bomb went off - he said - and had escaped uninjured. The next day he confronted him.
"'Did you have anything to do with this?' I said and he replied, indignantly: 'Do you really think I could do something like this?'" The two men never saw each other again.
In the years that followed, while others wrote about the La Penca bombing, the Swede said nothing of his suspicions, or his links to the suspected bomber. The British journalist who had survived, Susan Morgan, made a documentary about her experience in 1988, and wrote a book three years later.
Torbiornsson helped in the project, but never once told Morgan that he knew more than she did. An investigation by reporters on the Miami Herald in 1993 concluded that Hansen was the bomber, and identified him as a veteran left-wing Argentine called Vital Roberto Gaguine who had worked for the Sandinista spy services, and had later died in Argentina.
The Swede said that he had kept silent for so long out of fear that no one would believe him.
Maybe he had crossed the line between reporting on and participating in a conflict, he said - and in doing so, betrayed his fellow journalists. But he, in turn, felt betrayed by the Sandinistas whom he had trusted.
"But I now feel that I have done as much as I can in telling the truth of the story of La Penca," he says.